Discussion Review: Retro City Rampage

Review written by Matt Litten & Stephen Byers.

RetroCityRampage

Stephen: Reduction is the process of reducing something. The word can be applied in chemical and cooking contexts of reducing a mixture to purer components. By boiling away excess water in a broth, it is possible to increase the intensity of the flavor. But, this can lose the nature of the essence of what the cook is trying to isolate and enhance. A broth, for instance, might be more flavorful if most of the water is boiled off, but if done too much it will be gravy, something altogether different where the qualities of a broth are lost. Too much reduction can result in burnt sludge that bypasses whatever core the chef is seeking and goes right to unpalatable trash that goes out of the pot altogether and into the sink, down the drain.

When trying to describe anything, it is natural to do some mental reduction. How can one describe anything unless the speaker and the listener begin from a common starting point? The problem is that like with cooking, it is entirely possible to go too far and completely mischaracterize something by reducing it to its base, understood elements. If someone wanted to play it but wanted to know about it beforehand, I could in shorthand describe the dud that is Halo Wars as Halo meets Command and Conquer, but that really misses the mark and does a bit of a disservice to all of those games. It is lazy practice to merely hearken back to older games you hope the audience has played them and somehow will know what you are talking about. Critics of all mediums and genres do this all the time, and most people describe things reductively in real life because it is easy and usually works out.

Sadly, these kinds of descriptions get people most of the way to understanding a thing, yet fail to fully describe what makes the new thing unique. Nothing is really conveyed, the broth is often burnt.

That being said, sloth is sin and man is a sinful beast, so I am going to write the following: Retro City Rampage is an 8-bit Grand Theft Auto. Or at least it wants to be.

Brian Provinciano has constructed a game where players will control a man named Player who by default looks a lot like Claude, the silent protagonist of Grand Theft Auto 3, or Danny Zuko. Player will join the criminal the Jester and something will go wrong and then Player has to help a lookalike of Christopher Lloyd’s character in Back to the Future reassemble a car-based time machine. And then something happens, then there is a running Sonic the Hedgehog reference and then something and another thing. Maybe Matt can help on this because when I look back on the game, I do not remember exactly what the story is. That’s a problem. I do not think it is a medical condition on my part, it is probably largely due to the fact that what plot there is, is in service of presenting the next mission activity or throw in a gag or reference to a bit of late 80s early 90s culture. But then, to be fair, it is not like games of that era had gripping narratives.

In a bit of a nod toward modern game design, many of the early missions are dedicated to the use of a specific object or making sure players find some weird quirk in the game. I remember one in particular that makes Player (both The Player and Player himself) visit each one of the shops available to customize Player’s portrait image and perhaps alter his very small in-world representation. Which is fine, some people might not wander into the building with an open door and a massive, humorous, flashing sign on top of it, but it all feels a little tedious. Particularly if one has already discovered said shops. Or worse, already discovered and used every – single – one.

Easily the best thing about the setting and adventures within Thefttropolis is the look and sound. From the colors to the seemingly motionless cars that float through the streets to the highly caricaturized representations of people, everything looks like a late-in-the-system’s-life NES game. It is a very nostalgic experience for older people who played those games when they were young to see pixelated cars and little white squares for bullets offset against bold, solid color backgrounds. Oftentimes the buildings will feature a surprising amount of detail, but nothing horribly more advanced looking than perhaps a TG-16 game. A simplified color palette helps to drive home the classic style. If anything, the only real advance in the presentation is the number of moving objects on the screen. Some of the old pixel pushers could throw a few objects around, but here the game can show dozens of cars and pedestrians on screen at once. Many of the objects and names of businesses are references to games of that era, with a healthy slip into the 16-bit era and popular movies that came out around 1990.

It is my understanding that the chips and chirps and bleeps and blorps that come out of a Nintendo Entertainment System’s sound hardware are uncopyrightable, and it’s a good thing for the makers of this game. I don’t know if they were reverse engineered or just ripped out of an emulator, but every noise would sound right at home in any classic NES tape made by Konami or Capcom. I swear that the “Hey” noise that some guards will exclaim upon seeing Player is a toned down version of the “Hey” from the whip-toting dominatrix gals in Streets of Rage 2, but maybe there is only so many ways for the human ear to hear certain things. The tunes are simple, chippy, and in some cases pretty catchy. There are a good range from tunes evoking peaceful JRPG towns yet to be savaged by evil warlords to fast paced energy inducing songs that let Player know that the business is about to be happening.

When the business does happen, it is going to largely be of a murder variety. Shotguns and pistols and baseball bats are all available as are rocket launchers and dynamite sticks. Pretty standard fare for the most part. Some surprising and amusing weapons do become available. My favorite is the golf club which lets Players send a sweet drive down the fairway. And by that I mean knock a civilian fifty feet into a street to maybe get run over by a car. The violence is of a playful variety, so there is not a massive splotch of red that would usually go along with this in a more mature game. Just sounds of shock, a few old school simulations of car horns, all of the other little civilian sprites running away and little blue guys with what sort of look like batons running towards Player. In addition to the regular methods of simulating felony murder, the game also features a limited number of power-ups that are inspired from classic games. Part of the thrill of this game, some might say all of it, is in seeing the next reference or gag, so I will just say that they are amusing but not always useful.

The driving and Player movement is imprecise and difficult to get a handle on. Player has a weird momentum that makes it very hard to jump precisely. Great platforming heroes of yore, your Mega Mans and Super Marios, could precisely jump from a standstill making those games a dream to play. Player on the other hand takes a few beats to get going up to full speed to do any kind of jump, and when he does jump he does not come down in an easily controlled manner. Normally this would not matter, but there are some times that call for very precise jumping which is far more difficult than it should be because of Player’s movement. Similarly, the driving is like an old game where there was no analogue support and the car can only move in a limited number of directions. As long as the car is going fast it is easy to control, but fine maneuvering can be difficult. A fun racing mission can turn into an exercise in patience and dexterity liken to threading a needle while wearing oven mitts.

With that, I’ll tag out. Maybe Matt’s blood runs hotter for retro-themed crime sprees.

Matt: Don’t worry, Stephen, you haven’t gone crazy or lost your ability to consume and memorize information. Retro City Rampage really has no main storyline of importance to follow. As you say, there are things happening, but the paper-thin plot serves as nothing more than a vessel the developer used to stuff as many video game and pop culture references into as humanly possible. And that’s perfectly fine if you ask me. This is not the type of game that should even think about trying to tell some elaborate story. In fact, I’d say it’s better for not having one as a game like this needs only to give the player a reason to cause mayhem and laugh at some jokes, and that’s what it does so well.

As a parody homage to retro gaming, RCR is an absolute triumph. Any one who grew up playing games and watching movies/TV in the 80s and 90s will feel a rush of nostalgia nearly every second they spend cruising and crime-spreeing around the mean pixelated streets of Theftropolis. Within the first five minutes, my personal reference sensor was pinging nonstop, detecting mission storylines, mini-games and characters blatantly aping classic games like Frogger, Metal Gear, Duck Hunt, Sonic the Hedgehog, Legend of Zelda, Bionic Commando and Root Beer Tapper. Even modern indie darlings like Super Meat Boy and Bit.Trip Runner appear in arcade mini-games and as secret playable characters.

Games aren’t the only source of retro inspiration. Before the Back to the Future story arc kicks in, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure serves as the initial time-travel plot starter. As the game progresses, mission sub-plots incorporate references to Ghost Busters and Saved by the Bell, in addition to a recreation of the opening bank heist scene from The Dark Knight. Small gags and references are littered every where throughout the game, from store signs to the simple layout of certain stages or sections of the city replicating familiar levels from video games past. If you have a keen eye and a deep knowledge of games and pop culture from decades past, you’ll be mesmerized by the barrage of references.

RCR clearly derives its top-down sandbox setup from the old 2D Grand Theft Autos, but Theftropolis really is nothing more than a hub for various activities that have few if any similarities in play style. As Player, you will deliver smut magazines like Paper Boy, sneak into bases and ride elevators like Snake did before Metal Gear turned Solid, enter warp pipes like Mario, compete in televised death arenas akin to Smash TV, and use bursts of corrosive sweat to explode through platforming challenges a la ‘Splosion Man.

If you get these references, the game will seem more fun than it actually is. Once the nostalgia overload wears off a bit, your ability to forgive the imprecise jumping and the general tedium of driving around the city to reach new missions will begin to wane. Getting from point A to point B is particularly annoying. As you say, Stephen, while driving the non-analog steering makes it very difficult to move the car any where without running over a civilian, slamming into other vehicles or doing anything else that accidentally causes the boys in blue to sound their sirens in pursuit. Causing mass damage, as is made clear by the game’s title, is encouraged by a running multiplier, and reaching the next mission objective does deactivate the police chase so making a ruckus isn’t penalizing like it can be in modern open-world crime games. Still, having to play bumper cars any time you want to go somewhere just isn’t very fun.

In an attempt to lighten the mood, the game jabs at itself with gags that rip on dated gameplay mechanics, but it usually does so immediately before or after committing said game design crimes. This only made me pay more attention to the flaw than I otherwise probably would have. A character making fun of monotonous backtracking may stir up a giggle, but it doesn’t excuse the game from then repeating the problem.

I agree wholeheartedly with your take on the look and sound of the game, and I will also contribute my appreciation for the many different presentation variables that are available to play around with. By default the game is displayed within a border simulating the look of a screen within a coin-op arcade cabinet, but other options allow the game to be played as if it were being run on an old-timey TV set or a GameBoy. Beyond that, there are options to adjust the zoom level, add scanlines, and apply filters that change the pixel color scheme. You can go as simple as black and white or switch on the Blurst Processor for super saturation. There’s even a ‘Virtual Burn’ option that brings back uncomfortable memories of having your head strapped into a Virtual Boy, eyes burning out of their sockets by the harsh neon-red lighting.

So, so far it seems we’re in agreement here: the constant gags and references are a hoot and the retro-flavored presentation is on point, but the actual gameplay falls a bit flat by comparison. Any other topics you would like to hit on? Were you able to try the cross-play/cross-save functionality built into the PSN version?

Stephen: I did sample the cross-play and for the rare few players who have both a Vita and a PS3, it is pretty neat. There must be some people out there that just can’t get enough of their PSN games and have to have access to them 24/7. The Station of Play is firing on all cylinders the moment they get home and even if it’s in the middle of their son’s bar mitzvah, the Vita is firmly in both hands. Coming into manhood truly is nothing when compared to the joy of portable gaming in public – with the bonus simultaneously declaring to the crowd of loved ones that your heir has achieved something you have not. As I understand it, buying this game on a Sony platform will net a copy on the other Sony platform for free. It is hard to argue that something for nothing is not a good value.

As to the utility of the Cross Save feature, even for the manboy described above, it is not implemented very well in Retro City Rampage. The Cross Save option allows players, even non PlayStation Plus members, to create a new save, or overwrite an existing one, in the digital cloud associated with your account. Save on that one device, load it up on another, and you’re playing with poor controls on the subway. Then, if someone doesn’t mug you and take your expensive non-calling or texting smart phone, when it’s time to stop you save it back to the cloud to enjoy – to the degree possible – at home.

The problem is that all of these steps are controlled manually and have to be done every time. Nothing is seamless; it is very clear how the sausage is made. The problem is likely attributed to a need to make sure that an autosave is not stuck in the cloud where it is impossible to play if the subway goes out of Wifi range or if PSN gets shut down for months for no good reason. However, if it was possible to just have the game update that autosave independently of the locally stored save and the cloud-save at the same time, there would be the security of having the offline save with the seamlessly preserved, if all the tech is working, save for when it is Vita-time. Like the rest of the software package, the Cross Save functionality is a good idea behind a fence of poor interface.

Cloud saves aside (sorry Xbox and Steam users, less clunk), the biggest problem with this game is that it does not maintain the momentum of the first half an hour. When it first starts up it is impossible not to be impressed by the great retro feel and sounds followed by hit after hit of references to some fun moments in old games. It gives the promise of being a Seth MacFarlian gravy, full on non sequiturs and knowing winks and nods to the player. After the first few hits, the gags drag out to be fewer and farther between and all that is left is a fairly simple and empty open world crime simulator.

Beyond the core missions there are a score of activities which are mostly, if not exclusively, of the kill-a-lot-of-stuff-with-this-weapon-or-car variety. These are hard to fail, but I found them to be difficult to master with the controls. If this game had been released on a Famicom cart when those were still a thing, it would be remembered as one of the most ambitious titles on the system. But decades after they ceased being a thing, Retro City Rampage comes off as a poor controlling diversion with some topnotch art design. Requisitely old fans of grampa games can see new yet familiar sights if they still are able to put up with the level of frustration that existed in interactive software before people knew any better.

(You’re probably that old if you can remember when most brick and mortar stores explicitly called and listed games only as “software”. Or, alternatively, a time when people would have no idea what “brick and mortar store” was because all businesses were tied to physical locations.)

Stephen-TryIt

Pros:
+ Looks and sounds like the late 80s
+ Many, many pokes and hints for fans of pop culture to spot

Cons:
- Controls are clunky
- Jokes very hit or miss
- If you are twenty years of age or younger, those jokes probably are all misses

Matt: Picking up from your point about the game being an empty open world crime simulator, RCR is a surprisingly small-scale game. Reading descriptions from the website and PlayStation Store and seeing big numbers like over 60 story missions and more than 40 arcade challenges and over 50 different vehicles gives the impression that the game world is huge. It really isn’t. For me the game whizzed by, taking no more than three to four hours to complete the main missions, all but two side missions, and a good percentage of the arcade challenges and slaughter sprees.

Initially I was excited to see a Free Roam option available in the main menu, until I realized after having played through the game that there isn’t much to do in Theftropolis. Recklessly rampaging across the city, stomping on the heads of civilians, ramming cars off the road and searching for the more well-hidden references has its appeal, but the thrill wears thin quickly without the steady supply of missions, plot gags and nostalgia the story mode uses to hold your attention.

I hate that our tone has largely been so negative, because the thought behind the game is brilliant and it’s obvious that the developers put a lot of effort and passion into crafting a living, breathing open world of pixels and parodies. I think they got most of the way there, but just fell short of the mark. Retro City Rampage mostly is a fun and funny game, taking players on an enjoyable journey back to a simpler time when games weren’t taken so seriously while also paying tribute to legends of gaming past in flattering fashion. However, the retro-feel controls do make certain missions more frustrating than they ought to be and once the gag-filled story has run its course within a few hours there’s little reason to pay Theftropolis a return visit.

Matt-TryIt

Pros:
+ References galore pack a mighty one-two combo of humor and nostalgia
+ Nails the look, sound and feel of gaming in the 80s
+ PS3/Vita Cross-Buy offers nice value for PlayStation gamers

Cons:
- Theftropolis feels pretty empty after a few hours
- Traveling back and forth across the city grows dull quickly
- Controls lack precision

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PSN for Vita and PS3, also available for PC and XBLA and coming soon to WiiWare
Publisher: Vblank Entertainment
Developer: Vblank Entertainment
Release Date: PC/PSN – 10/9/2012, XBLA – 1/2/2013, WiiWare – 2/28/2013
Genre: Action
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review codes provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is a 28 year old from-the-womb gamer turned video game reviewer/blogger and current editor/owner/operator of VGBlogger.com. Matt got his first taste of gaming as a youngster on the NES and Atari, and the rest is history from there. In 2004, three years removed from high school and still looking for a career direction in life, Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com, and after a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez Matt turned his attention to VGBlogger, and to this day is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary.