I couldn't believe my eyes. In one minute an eighteen seconds Retro City Rampage's 2010 debut trailer had sold me on its premise. Not only was it an attractive Grand Theft Auto 8-bit demake, but it also encapsulated countless tropes and references deemed special or significant by children of the 80's. Super Mario Crossover and Abobo's Big Adventure declared a similar mission in a more literal fashion, but Retro City Rampage seemed more ambitious, like it had a higher calling than being a functional nostalgia induction apparatus. Retro City Rampage looked like a competent game on its own merits, leaving its myriad of references as an ancillary indulgence.
In reality Retro City Rampage trades on references first and gameplay second. The argument is whether or not that leaves it any more or less enjoyable than it would have been the other way around.
You're Player (literally, your name is Player), a hired goon of sorts Theftropolis City. A time travel incident leaves you running errands in traditional open-world fashion and despite having completed the game I haven't a clue of the rest of the plot. Like a lot of Nintendo Entertainment System games, it doesn't matter. In place of a tangible narrative, Retro City Rampage deploys a Murderer's Row of beloved characters whom require your services. Player doesn't actually encounter Solid Snake or an anthropomorphic Game Genie, as that would be impossible in a commercial product, but the approximations are so on the nose one would be hard pressed not to instantly recognize them.
This is kind of awesome. You get to accept a task from the (not) Shredder to arm the underwater bombs that drove a generation of gamers insane in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Likewise, dropping the Ghostbusters off at a brothel and the subsequent dilemma regarding mysterious goo is hilarious. Be it building names, obscure weapons, gameplay devices, or clever dialogue, Retro City Rampage is jam packed with references to practically everything we loved and ceremoniously hated about 8-bit games. For good measure, there's even quite a bit of inside baseball regarding the difficulties of independent game development and other fondly remembered pop culture references.
Referential humor is Retro City Rampage's main trade and most prized asset. Comparisons to Family Guy's specific brand of non-sequiturs have been filling up my Twitter feed, but I don't see that as a proper analogy. Retro City Rampage has a narrow focus on videogames, a medium of entertainment that has basically dominated my free time for most of the last twenty five years. These references feel special, almost intimate, as if they were created just for me without regard to anyone under the age of eighteen. Having some measure of control over my actions and the embedded references is unique to this medium. This is a completely subjective point of view, of course, but my point is that Retro City Rampage's writing and humor will mean a lot more to a cultured demographic.
Retro City Rampage works because it’s a videogame. Ironically, it doesn't feel like that great of a videogame. An 8-bit GTA is admittedly something I have never played before. Likewise, a control scheme that utilizes both analog sticks for weapon fire, essentially rendering it a twin stick shooter, is also fairly unique in the realm of 8-bit games. If the animation weren't so slick Retro City Rampage, sort of like the Genesis with Pier Solar, might pass as an authentic NES experience with a better controller. On paper, running around Theftropolis, jacking cars, running from the cops, and shooting a bunch of bad guys seems like a sound design document.
What drove me crazy (and actually made me sad) was how often Retro City Rampage devolved into the same old mission. You kill a lot of people, and it seemed like every other mission would corner me in a room and toss out waves of bad guys. Weapons changed, but my actions rarely did; I was always circle strafing around the room, unloading on everyone, and barely making it by every time. Included is a cover system that I could never get to work properly and a mostly functional lock-on, but by the time Retro City Rampage was ready for its proper Smash TV tribute, I was sick of it.
Other missions don't fare very well either. Retro City Rampage actually makes fun of how terrible "follow this car" missions are and then tasks you with a "follow this car" mission. The kink of having to stop for coffee (you know, because it's so boring) does nothing but add another layer of frustration. In fact, I was surprised by how often I wanted to snap my Vita in half after yet another incredulous death. The stages composing the final boss battle were something of an enigma, given how often they shifted gameplay and challenge, but a majority of Retro City Rampage was solved by conquering frustration with persistence.
I'm not adverse to hard games, my Super Meat Boy completion is a badge of honor, but more often than not Retro City Rampage felt overly cheap rather than substantially challenging. One could make the argument that most NES games operated under this philosophy and, yeah, I'd accept that as rational for Retro City Rampages design choices. It's authentic, if nothing else, but that leaves it willfully out of step with modern design sensibilities.
It's even more frustrating when you consider how far Retro City Rampage went to sell its open world. You can drink "milk" and get sick, causing some snazzy screen effects that are the 8-bit equivalent of getting drunk in GTA IV. Likewise, there's an insane amount of character customization available for Player. There are forty marked challenges all over the city (and also available in a separate mode) that task Player to go on killing sprees with various weapons all in the name of getting a high score. And, like all open-world games, there are a good chunk of minigames, only in Retro City Rampage they parody other popular independent games I’d prefer not to spoil. Theftropolis is a great world, and the context behind each mission is always funny, but that doesn't excuse a frequent similarity.
I haven't touched on it directly, but Retro City Rampage gets a gold star for its presentation options. Do you want to make the visual pallet go green and grey like a Game Boy? Done. Want to restrict it to the Genesis' color pallet? It's available. What about a blue hyper color DOS screen? Check. From visual filters to scan lines to letterboxing, Retro City Rampage has your preferred shade of rosey glasses covered (at one point I even dug up a pair of red/blue 3D glasses in real life). The chiptune sound track from virt, Freaky DNA, and Norrin Radd also does well to sample the best and brightest from the 8-bit generation. Mega Man is my personal gold standard in authentic 8-bit music and I could have heard a couple of Retro City Rampage’s tracks backing the blue bomber.
It's also worth mentioning that Retro City Rampage takes advantage of Sony's cross-buy initiative. Not only does one price allow a download for both Vita and your PlayStation 3, but there's also seamless cross save option in the pause menu. Playing it on my PS3, saving, and taking it on the go made me feel like I was in the future. In the end I played most of Retro City Rampage on my Vita because a) I need something to justify my Vita and b) the screen is gorgeous, but either option seemed appropriate.