Review

Retro City Rampage

If I Could Turn Back Time

The 8-bit nostalgia of Retro City Rampage offers more charm than depth.

By Dan Whitehead • October 17, 2012

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.

Retro City Rampage

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.

Retro City Rampage

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.

Retro City Rampage

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.

Retro City Rampage
Developer: Vblank Entertainment
Publisher: D3Publisher
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita
Reviewed on: PlayStation 3
Price: $15
Rating: T

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  • George_Liquor

    Hey, speaking of old tube TVs: The ‘vblank’ in Vblank Entertainment no doubt refers to the vertical blanking interval, or the split second gap between the end of one video frame and the beginning of the next in NTSC television signaling. Most old-school video game consoles could only reprogram their video hardware, and thus update the image they displayed, during this magical little gap in time.

    I’m bored, drunk and nerdy.

    • Sarkazein70

      Actually, to be more bored and nerdy (but not drunk), you’re thinking of “chasing the beam”, which is a phrase that grew out of the Atari 2600 days.  That hardware was originally designed to handle multiple variations of Pong.  One of the programmable sprites was actually called the “ball”, and you could update it on a scan line by scan line basis.  The best example of it was the “rope” in Pitfall.  The rope was actually the “ball” being redrawn in a slightly different position on each line.

      You are correct that there is a v-blank, but that was the time when between after the last (bottom) scan line was drawn and before the first (top) was drawn.  It was in that period that user input was read or reacted to (a joystick move, a button press) and, if necessary, the sprite graphics were changed.  The graphics themselves, though, were updated in the even tighter window of the scan lines, thereby making the coders “chase the beam” or “race the beam”.

      (Steps off dork pedestal)

      • George_Liquor

        Uh oh, nerd fight!

        You’re definitely right about the Atari 2600 being a glorified Pong console. However, the term ‘racing the beam’ refers specifically to the process of programming the 2600′s TIA chip. This prehistoric graphics chip had no memory for a frame buffer at all, just a set of registers that needed to be reprogrammed on each new horizontal scan line. Atari 2600 games had to be carefully timed so that they changed the TIA’s video registers at the moment the electron beam shut off & swept back horizontally, (HBLANK, not VBLANK) or crazy graphical glitches would result. Game consoles equipped with discrete video memory largely did away with this problem.

        As an example of my original point, the NES has enough video memory to create a frame buffer, but it’s not dual-ported memory, meaning only one device on the system bus can access it at a time. When the NES’ CPU updates the frame buffer, it effectively disables the Picture Processing Unit. If this were to happen while the PPU was still drawing the visible part of the frame, graphical glitches would result. To prevent glitches from showing up on screen due to this limitation, the contents of the frame buffer were typically only updated by the CPU during VBLANK. However, there are a few NES games that violate this rule, like Super Mario 3: It extends the window the CPU has to write to the frame buffer slightly past VBLANK, effectively increasing video memory bandwidth. This comes at a cost of a slightly-reduced vertical resolution, though, because at the moment the TV screen should be drawing the first or last few scan lines of the frame, the PPU’s video memory is still being written. The overscan in old tube TVs mostly hid this glitch, but it’s clearly visible on a modern LCD or plasma which doesn’t overscan.

        I yield the nerd floor.

        • NarcolepticPanda

          *drops mic*

  • Luc Tremblay

    That TeeFury comment is fucking spot on. I despise that kind of “humor,” and it’s why I don’t like Robot Chicken, Family Guy, or Dorkly.com. Fuck, do I ever hate Dorkly.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      It’s not just the references, but the ease of the references.  (I will not go on my, “Almost no television gets video games right,” rant here.)

      I don’t mind nerd humor, even if it’s not clever, if they’re grand or if they’re deep cuts.  If you want to do it, DO IT.  http://hardcoregaming101.net/pole/pole.htm  If you’re going to make a stupid joke, make it the biggest or best stupid joke that you can.

  • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

    you got to admit that’s pretty damn cool how you can play the game on a TV within a TV 

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    Dang.  That’s a shame.  I think I was straining myself to be interested in this, since it’s PS3/Vita cross-buy and the graphics look lovingly well-done.  But even the best made games remain plenty ripe for ironic observation, so I don’t really need one that trades craftsmanship in exchange for providing the irony for me.
       ”Convenient Barrel Factory” is funny, though.  

    • http://twitter.com/knarfblack Knarf Black

      It’s still pretty good, and you will probably get a few laughs out of it (if you’re in the target market). All of the above criticism is valid, though. It is pretty shallow and occasionally infuriating, but I think it would have been much more warmly received if it had arrived out of nowhere instead of being endlessly hyped and delayed.

      Basically, if you think (or thought) that you’d like it, you’ll like it.

    • GaryX

      Wait for it to go on sale on Steam or something.

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

    This sounds a bit like Abobo’s Big Adventure in that it almost transcends its vulgar, elementary pop-culture-reference humor through the sheer byzantine complexity and devoted attention to detail with which it employs its references. It’s obviously a labor of love rather than one of cynicism (like Family Guy, or the occasional lazy Adult Swim cartoon).

    But it only almost transcends, and forgets to complement the references with something to sink your teeth into beyond them (whether that’s compelling gameplay, or some kind of Scott Pilgrim narrative/emotional investment). I imagine for some the variety and complexity of the gameplay, and the detail of the world to explore, could offer the meatiness for which the humor and tone just serves as a garnish.

  • http://twitter.com/tapirman Kyle O’Reilly

    That’s a positive from Ben Kuchera and a sorta-negative from Dan Whitehead. Hmmmm…

    I’m still gonna play the f*** out of this game. I’m currently aiming to get a gaming pc and this is the game I’m most excited about for it. When i saw they had their own version of the TMNT water level* I literally had a nostalgia-seizure and $15 just flew outta my wallet.

    * http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_CGdbWRAh_KI/TOK_N_z_PtI/AAAAAAAABjo/ZtfWiBd8Dck/s400/TMNT_Water–article_image.jpg

    • Aurora Boreanaz

      I wanted so badly to like the TMNT Nintendo game, but it was so effing brutal!  That water level was CRAP!  I assume this game makes fun of that as well?  It looks entertaining.

      • http://twitter.com/tapirman Kyle O’Reilly

        The TMNT water level is the ultimate test in 8-bit brutality right up there with Ghosts n’ Goblins and the jet-bike level in Battletoads.  

        I understand the reviewers frustrations with the game’s lack of depth beyond “look at all this nostalgia!” but hey, look at all that nostalgia!

  • Kevin_The_Beast_King

    Anyone interested in an old school beat ‘em up should check out Scott Pilgrim: The Videogame. Mechanically the same thing as RCR, but with a few neat updates thrown in.

  • http://twitter.com/knarfblack Knarf Black

    My least favorite part of the game is figuring out what does negligible damage and what kills you instantly. ProTip: Gears are always the latter.

  • one2ohmygod

    HEY DO YOU GUYS REMEMBER NINTENDO