Retro City Rampage Review

By Adam Rosenberg - Posted Oct 16, 2012

Retro City Rampage gets very far on charm alone, but the finished game too often ends up feeling too clever for its own good.

The Pros
  • Steeped in geek culture references
  • Undeniable retro charm
  • Great variety of gameplay
The Cons
  • Attempts to parody lousy gameplay mechanics are often just as lousy
  • Poorly paced tutorials
  • Lots and lots (and lots) of filler

Retro City Rampage Review:

Vblank Entertainment's Retro City Rampage is a game that is divided against itself. On the one hand, you've got a retro, NES-style open world action game built within a surprisingly large and detailed city. It's not so much a living world as it is a living parody, with block after 8-bit block blanketed in geek and gamer culture references. On the other hand, you've got a game that is very much the product of the time it's nodding back to, a lumbering, awkward beast of clunky game mechanics and questionable design choices.

It's easy to love the concept of Retro City Rampage, but it's much more of a challenge to love the actual fact of it. It's hard to say if this years-in-the-making mash-up is overcooked or just plain flawed by design, but in any case, it's a hard game to recommend without a lot of "but" caveats thrown in.

Retro City Rampage

Grand Theft Geek Culture

Retro City Rampage should need little introduction at this point. Primarily the work of its creator, Brian Provinciano, the game is designed as an 8-bit homage to everything that gamer's love to gab about from the 8-bit generation forward. You've got Metal Gear references sliding in alongside Back to the Future. One minute you're playing Paperboy, the next you're riding around the open city on the back of a barrel-tossing gorilla.

There's a little bit of sensory overload going on in the way the game presents itself. Just trying to follow the story can be dizzying. You take the role of Player, a leather jacket-wearing tough guy and top henchman for a local super-villain, the Jester. What starts out as a relatively straightforward heist goes awry quickly, and it's not long before you find yourself stuck in the past thanks to a broken telephone booth time machine and working to help repair a mad scientist's car-based time machine.

It goes on like that. The references fly fast and without warning, to the point that it's often a struggle to keep up. The story matters about as much as any 1980s-era video game's story did, except it's so steeped in its zany brand of self-referential humor that you end up playing a game-within-the-game of "spot the reference." There are plenty of "oh, I see what you did there" moments in the early hours of Retro City Rampage, but the almost schizophrenic pace can eventually feel more than a little overwhelming.

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Grand Theft WarioWare

The overload of geek references would probably be a lot easier to swallow if the gameplay delivered a more entertaining experience. Unfortunately, Retro City Rampage ranges from "all right" to "just plain frustrating" most of the time. You'll laugh the first time you come to a Paperboy send-up or a mission that pokes fun at suspect-tailing objectives by forcing you to drink coffee to stay awake, but the underlying mechanics are so clunky that the parody skews too close to the real thing.

The basic structure in Retro City Rampage is similar to that of the earliest Grand Theft Auto titles. You're presented with a top-down view of the open city and the story progresses as you visit each mission-triggering checkpoint. There are side missions and discrete challenges as well, such as a high score-driven coin-op video arcade or rampage-style "kill everything with [insert killing tool here]" tasks.

Retro City Rampage

The GTA-like structure disappears once you drop into any given mission, whether or not it's story-related. Some are straightforward enough, tasking you will stealing cars or shooting up the bad guys. For every one of those, however, there's a half dozen more in which you're sneaking along inside a cardboard box or taking on waves of enemies using dual-stick move/shoot controls.

It's here, too, that the inconsistency of Retro City Rampage's design becomes apparent. The missions themselves amount to a crapshoot. You might breeze through one, cackling at the retro charm all the way through, and then spend an hour or more playing and replaying the next one because it works better as an idea than it does in the execution.

Retro City Rampage

The city itself isn't particularly user-friendly either. A surprising number of basic game elements aren't introduced via tutorial-style missions until you're halfway through the game, long after you likely discovered these on your own (pickups that get the cops off your tail specifically come to mind). There's also no clear way to find your way to very basic tools, like restoring your health to full after a mission. In the absence of any built-in GPS or clearly marked map (mini or otherwise), you quickly fall into a pattern of failing a mission on your first attempt simply to get your health back.

It's worth mentioning that the story mode is joined on the main menu by a free-roaming mode and a sub-menu that allows you to cherry-pick any unlocked activity as an arcade challenge. These are welcome additions to some extent, though there's nothing about them that defuses the mechanical flaws inherent to the story-driven portion of the game.

Retro City Rampage

Grand Theft Your Time

It's the clunky design that, in my book, fuels Retro City Rampage's undoing. This is a game that plays better on a design document than it does in reality. It is pretty much exactly what the trailers and previews have sold it as, for better and for worse. Props to Vblank for building exactly what it set out to from the beginning, but don't be fooled into thinking that hitting the target translates into a quality experience.

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Editor's Note: Retro City Rampage was reviewed using a PlayStation Vita copy of the game; however, we also played the other versions, and found no differences. If further investigation reveals any differences between the Vita edition and the other editions of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.