Retro gaming has gone from niche concern to mainstream affectation in the last few years, but while many games have fallen back on pixel art and chiptunes to remind us of a more innocent time, few have dug as deep into the nostalgic soil as Retro City Rampage. Developed over a period of 10 years by solo coder Brian Provinciano, the pitch is simple: What if Grand Theft Auto were an NES game? By way of an answer, Provinciano leaves no ’80s reference unused, his compact and bustling city crammed with pop-culture gags and allusions that fly past with such frequency that it’s almost impossible to keep track.
In the first few hours alone, there are throwaway nods to Mario Bros., Mega Man, Metal Gear, Bionic Commando, and Paperboy. There are visual gags based around RoboCop and Toxic Avenger, and power-ups taken from The Rocketeer and Ghostbusters. There’s a gym run by a guy who looks a lot like trainer Doc Louis from Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!. The story stacks pop-culture riffs on top of one another: The player’s imaginatively named character, Player, steals a time-traveling phone booth from a pair of metal-loving dudes and gets blasted to the year “20XX,” where he bumps into a shock-haired doctor and his time-traveling sports car.
The retro DNA runs deepest in the visuals, which have the attention to detail of classic geek obsession. Dig into the options menu and you can not only tweak the screen border to make it look like you’re playing on an old tube television set, but you can also alter the pixels and palette to match the old console or computer of your choice. Few would be able to even tell the difference between an NES and a Commodore 64 screen, so the fact that the game captured the minor graphical distinctions between multiple obsolete formats is impressive.
For anyone who came of age in the era of cartridges and coin-ops, the nostalgia is charming. It’s also dumb, aiming more for broad spoof than satire. One of the boss enemies is Doctor Von Buttnik, for example, and the city of Theftropolis has its very own masked, pointy-eared superhero, Biffman. His nemesis? The Jester. His sidekick? Sparrow. It’s hard to tell if the game aims so low because that’s the level of humor found in most 8-bit games, or if that’s genuinely supposed to be a joke. With so many layers of pop to dig through, it becomes hard to tell where the irony ends and sincerity begins.
Such questions became moot as I romped around this dinky digital sandbox. Control is crisp, particularly once you hop into one of the dozens of vehicles trundling around. With two steering options to choose from, sharp turns and fast getaways are devilishly simple to pull off. It’s not a huge environment, but it is tightly packed with quirky touches, such as little breakdancers and miniature 8-bit arcade games that are based on modern indie darlings like Bit.Trip Runner and Super Meat Boy.
It’s a canny combination of free-roaming tropes both new and old. Rampage has all the costume changes, hat stores, and haircut options you’d expect from a modern day open-world adventure, along with the primal death sprees that made the original Grand Theft Auto so transgressive. Indeed, the biggest pleasures in Retro City Rampage come from the way the chirpy motifs of a quarter-century ago contrast with the more nihilistic impulses that drive today’s blockbuster games. If the game comes close to any deeper commentary on its medium, it’s in those moments where, after machine-gunning scores of civilians, a tinkling line of innocent Nintendo-esque coins appears, pitting your inner child against your adult cynicism.
The story mode is a clumsy beast, containing many of the best jokes and references but also blighted by the game’s worst design decisions. Missions hop restlessly from genre to genre, often more concerned with gags than coherence. These lame excursions are presented, and excused, as a pastiche of bad mission design. “You’ve reached the THRILLING car tailing stage!” goes one briefing. “Get ready for EXCITEMENT!” Of course, the ensuing mission is so boring that you must continually buy coffee to stop from falling asleep as you follow a car around the map. If there’s a joke, it’s at the player’s expense, and as irritating boss battles lead into teeth-grinding attempts at stealth, the game’s ironic tone isn’t enough to compensate.
As The Simpsons Game proved, simply acknowledging gameplay clichés and poor design doesn’t count as satire if you’re using those same elements without improving them. For a game that’s uniquely positioned to say something interesting about its medium, Retro City Rampage is disappointingly quick to choose mimicry over commentary, ultimately no more insightful than a TeeFury shirt with Sonic The Hedgehog as one of the Thundercats.