Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. It’s a substance gamers are constantly exposed to. If it was radiation we’d all have horrible balls of cancer bopping through our bodies. You can’t turn on a Nintendo console without a wave of nostalgia crashing against your skin, and the PS3 and 360 have their fair share of downloadable classics and throwbacks to the “good ol’ days of gaming.” Retro City Rampage throws caution to the wind and pumps as much nostalgia into a 40mb download as possible. Once it’s topped off, the creator pumps some more.
There’s no shortage of homages here. If you’re capable of remembering anything from the past thirty years there’s a chance it’s in this game. There are nods to your favorite Saturday morning cartoons, nods to the movies you snuck into the theatre to see, nods to the games you begged your parents to buy for you, nods to the game you’ve purchased in The Humble Indie Bundle, and nods to the games you “invested” your allowance into at arcades. You’ll be nodding at all these nods that after a while you’ll feel your neck begin to strain. Maybe that’s the point you’ll have realized that too much nostalgia is a bad thing.
Retro City Rampage is a mosaic of ideas, jokes, and objectives. The moment you linger too long in one spot the illusion begins to dissolve. Retro City Rampage takes the most inspiration from Grand Theft Auto. There’s a large pixelated city where most of the action takes place. Yes, you can steal cars, mow down pedestrians, and go on wild sprees of destruction. The cars have radio stations to scroll through, each with a different chip-tune song. There’s a few shops to stop in, and there’s a variety of items to purchase. New hair, clothing, hats, weapons, skateboards, and more.
Using gaming history as a foundation for a video game is dangerous because there’s so much garbage from the NES days. The industry has embraced friendly checkpoint systems, cover systems, and streamlined mechanics, but there’s enough of the bad habits in Retro City Rampage to make you wonder why they chose that. For instance, there’s a mission early on that requires you to tail a car. It’s tedious, boring, and a jarring change of pace from the rest of the game. Retro City Rampage recognizes this and instead of putting a fun twist on the mission you’re required to follow the car, slowly, on foot while stopping at coffee shops along the way to stay awake. Get it? Because it’s boring? Ha…ha…
The “follow the car” mission gets worse when you mess up and are forced to start the five-minute segment over again. Retro City Rampage prides itself on its references and gaming history, it’s baffling that it doesn’t go above and beyond to recognize what works and what doesn’t.
But when Retro City Rampage gets it right, boy does it do video games justice. For one, there’s the arcade with custom and fully-fleshed out games starring Super Meat Boy, the Epic Meal Time crew, and Commander Video from the Bit.Trip series. I was able to spend an hour playing these mini-games without regret. The Epic Meal Time game is a knock-off of the Mortal Kombat “Test Your Might” scenario, which is a pairing as appetizing as some of the meals they eat. Super Meat Boy looks like a Virtual Boy game and tests your skill to navigate Meat Boy through a path of spinning saws and bandages. Commander Video stars in a lo-fi, but charming, Bit.Trip Runner variant. These three games could easily stand alone and are a welcome surprise in Retro City Rampage.
There’s a storyline to the game that involves helping “Doc Choc” rebuild a time machine from parts scattered across the city to get Player (you) back to their original time. You’ll encounter enemies inspired by the past, like a genie that uses a Game Genie for its power, objectives that have you hiding in a truck with dialogue ripped from Metal Gear, and a mission that puts you in the role of the most famous Paper Boy to grace a cartridge. These missions are hit or miss. Some missions are definitely more enjoyable than others, especially if the mechanics allow for it. The Metal Gear inspired mission works thanks to the ability to hide behind cover and aim a gun with the right control stick. The Paper Boy mission falls flat on its face because there’s no good way to toss newspapers into a mailbox and steer a bike around obstacles. Retro City Rampage tries to be all things to all genres, but the engine occasionally stretches itself too thin.
If you’re looking for a downloadable game that doubles as a history lesson on video games, you could do much much worse. The open world nature if full of content to explore, and there are a ton of “arcade challenges” that test your ability to set a certain amount of people on fire in a time period or blow up a number of cars, etc. There’s no shortage of tasks, even if that content can be a bit banal at times. But the pace is fast and most of the time you’re never caught in the a mission for too long. In a way it’s like an open-world WarioWare game; you’re surrounded by objectives and missions that have their own flavor. Unfortunately, there’s not enough flavor to surprise your palate at every turn.
To be fair, I’m not sure this is the type of game that reviews well. I was playing in long sittings and was exposed to maybe too much of the game at once. If you’ll be playing this game in short bursts (which I recommend) feel free to add another star to this review.