Video games have come a long way as a medium in the 20+ years that I have been playing, and today’s deep games, with high definition graphics and immersive stories, are a far cry from the ones of my youth. Even still, those older games still have a special place in my memory, and I still get the moon level music from Duck Tales on the NES stuck in my head periodically. Retro City Rampage is aimed directly at gamers like me, and blends modern play styles, a classic look and tons of nostalgia to make something new, but very familiar. It’s a cool concept, but the execution prevents it from being more than a mediocre game, by either classic or modern standards.
Retro City Rampage is an isometric game that plays like an 8-bit version of a modern Grand Theft Auto or Saint’s Row game, with story missions and side missions spread throughout the city of Theftropolis. As the main character, Player, you can use a variety of weapons and stolen cars to complete those missions and enhance your criminal standing, or just create havoc around the city.
Retro City Rampage blends its classic look with modern systems, like autosaves after levels and a compass directing you to available missions. When firing weapons you can hold down the button and you will lock on to the target, allowing you to move around and avoid attacks as you shoot. Alternately, you can control your aim with the right analog stick, making the game play like a dual joystick shooter. Both ways work, and shooting feels easy and natural. There’s also a cover mechanic, which allows for some stealth, in addition to being a handy way to avoid enemy fire.
Theftropolis is very large, and in addition to missions there are plenty of diversions sprinkled around. You can hit the casino, get tattoos or a haircut, and even spend time in the arcade playing miniature versions of Bit.Trip and Super Meat Boy. Unfortunately, only missions are marked on the map, so finding that extra stuff (and then finding it again later), often requires some aimless wandering. In addition to the story mode there is a free roaming option, and also arcade challenges, where you set out to create as much chaos as possible in a limited time.
Retro City Rampage never takes itself too seriously, and consistently makes self-aware references to common video game elements. The game is built for nostalgia, and it’s loaded with references to classic and modern games, TV and movies. They’re generally well done, but they’re very poorly paced. The beginning of the game is so crammed full of jokes that it creates a sense of overload, and by about ten minutes in I was already starting to tune them out. It’s too bad, because there’s some really fun stuff there, but the game’s intense attempt to convince me that it was a great nostalgia trip at the beginning wound up burning me out, and making me kind of numb to otherwise good references later on.
The game looks and sounds like it belongs on an NES or Sega Master System, and evoked a lot of memories for me. You can choose to play in widescreen or 4:3, with several options for borders. There are also optional scan lines and lots of graphics filters, including the eye-searing Virtual Boy filter. The game looks nice but feels like it’s zoomed out too far – everything is a little too small, and especially in close quarters with multiple enemies it becomes impossible to tell what’s going on. There are also no visual cues when you are near a collectible like a cop coin (which will reduce police pursuit), so it’s really easy to drive right past things like that when you could really use one.
The gameplay of Retro City Rampage never really seems to find a groove, and a lot of the time feels like it’s doing the opposite of what you want. Sometimes it feels like you’re moving really slowly, while other times you’re moving so fast because of powerups that you’re basically running out of control. My time with the game was mostly smooth from a technical persepctive, but there were a few instances of freezing or NPCs getting stuck. To fix them, I had to reload and restart whatever I was doing, which interrupted the flow.
There are some design elements in the game that really fall flat. In one section you walk into a room full of guards and the door locks behind you. You’ll have to kill the guards to get the key, but if you don’t pick it up fast enough it disappears, leaving you stuck in the room with the only option to quit and reload your save. There are codes hidden around the world, and entering them will unlock a cheat that prevents you from being able to save, but that isn’t explained until after you’ve entered the code. In order to be able to save again, you need to exit the game – not just reload from the menu, but actually quit to the XMB and reload the game. That isn’t very clear either, and cost me several missions of progress at one point.
Retro City Rampage is frustrating because it feels like the development focus was on cramming in as much nostalgia as possible, rather than making a great game. The game is so intent on getting in as many references as possible that they stop being compelling, and without that hook, it’s just a generally competent game, but nothing special. It’s the friend who tries too hard – with some restraint and better balance it could have been really enjoyable, but instead it’s a throwback, modern, nostalgic game that doesn’t do any of those elements particularly well. Those who love nostalgia will find plenty of it, but others may want to stay away.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.