We were beginning to think that Retro City Rampage might never come out. Brian Provinciano’s epic tribute to the Eighties and Nineties first appeared in 2002, when he intended to create an homage to Grand Theft Auto III on Nintendo’s NES. As it was announced for more and more systems, we had fears that the game may have broken its talented developer, who, delightful chip tunes aside, was in charge of every aspect of Rampage’s development, from design to PR. Retro City Rampage is finally here, however, and we needn’t have worried.
From the moment you lay eyes on its meticulously detailed graphics, you know that Retro City Rampage is a labour of love that never compromises – sometimes to the detriment of the game – its original vision. The pulsating 8-bit heart of Theftropolis takes inspiration from Grand Theft Auto’s Liberty City. Sure, the layout is completely different, but there’s no mistaking the fact that Provinciano’s game is deeply grounded in DMA’s world-changing game. Dig deeper, however, and you soon realise that Grand Theft Auto is the tip of an eclectic iceberg of gaming styles that parodies everything from Midway’s Tapper to Konami’s Metal Gear.
While the core gameplay of Retro City Rampage revolves around a number of typical GTA missions that range from trailing cars to boosting vehicles and going on rampages, Provinciano has also woven in other gameplay styles. One mission sees you delivering newspapers, Paperboy-style, while another requires you to sneak past guards in a tribute to Metal Gear. Certain stages take on the guise of Smash TV, complete with authentic twin-stick controls, and others re-create the sewer section of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or have you trying to overload a system by chucking batteries at it, Tapper-style. They don’t always work as well as they could, due to them all using Rampage’s core control system, which can be a little too stiff, but whenever they do crop up they make a welcome change from the GTA mechanics that start to drag Rampage down in its latter half.
While the varied gameplay is highly entertaining and goes a long way towards keeping Retro City Rampage fresh and exciting as you work through its 60-plus missions, it’s the mind-boggling number of nods to the Eighties and Nineties that will first grab your attention. Within the first 30 minutes you’ll receive a speedy power-up from the Green Hill Zone, beat up the Teenage Mutant Turtles and the A-Team, nick Bill and Ted’s time machine, jump down a Mario-styled pipe, hop across Pitfall! crocodiles, battle Bionic Commando and nearly get run over by Doc Brown’s DeLorean. The sight gags come fast and furious, and cover everything from Frogger and Mega Man 2 to Elevator Action and Duck Hunt. In fact, they hit so fast that it’s nearly impossible to get all the references on your first play.
The upside to the scattershot approach is that you’ll often find yourself grinning from ear to ear when you have to pick up a bike and realise that you’re purchasing it from Punch-Out!!’s Doc Louis, or work out that the Snake-inspired Major Lee is a reference to The Fall Guy. The downside is that it’s going to be absolutely pointless to anyone not versed in Eighties lore.
Even if your knowledge of the period is slim, though, it should be enough to follow Rampage’s story, which riffs rather heavily on Back To The Future. After trashing Doc Choc’s car in 2012, Player, as your character is known, must find a way to get back to his own time. It’s an admittedly slight conceit that’s fuelled by its funny central plot, which cheekily takes swipes at the big publishers who steal ideas from indie developers. It’s told with tongue firmly in cheek, as after all, this very game gleefully steals from all manner of classic games, so it’s highly unlikely that Rampage’s lightweight story has any dark hidden message in it.
What it does have, though, is an amazing awareness of pop culture and the ability to graft modern game mechanics to tried-and-tested 8-bit templates. Elements like cover-based shooting adapt perfectly to more traditional gameplay mechanics and make us wonder why no one ever thought of using them back in the day. Rampage is also an insane amount of fun, with bite-sized missions, lovely little touches like the distance of new objectives being judged in pixels, and a smattering of mini-games in Nolan’s Arcade, which feature characters from other hit indie games.
And yet, while Retro City Rampage starts off incredibly strong, a number of things do stop this from being the terrific tribute it first appears to be. By far the most annoying aspect is the insane difficulty spikes that routinely crop up, which can make progress frustrating. The over-reliance on the same ‘Go from A to B’ mission structure also begins to grate, particularly when Player himself gleefully points them out for being boring and unnecessary in other games. Then there’s the baffling map, which doesn’t point out key places like shops and ammo dumps, making them a real chore to find.
And yet, while Retro City Rampage does make several missteps, it manages to get so many things right. The end result is a fitting tribute to the halcyon days of gaming and an entertaining game in its own right.