References are always nice when they pop up in any form of entertainment. They are a cheap gag designed to provide an easy laugh, a quick break from the story you are invested in, as you remember a happy moment from your past. Who doesn’t like a good reference every now and then?
Obviously, Brian Provinciano of VBlank Entertainment enjoys them just a bit too much. Retro City Rampage is a homage to the days of the NES. The 1980’s, bad one liners, 8-bit graphics, plenty of forgotten actors and even movie references to classics like Back to the Future and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
On paper, it’s enough to make any sentimental gamer shriek with glee. The 1980s were a popular and more simple time for video gamers who didn’t have to worry about their credit cards being hacked, didn’t have to worry about being banned from a server and didn’t have to worry about their favorite publishers going under because one game under-performed. Most of our classic franchises come from this age, and the games are timeless to the point of being even more playable than the titles that come out today.
Us old people sometimes crave for the simplicity of 8-bit action again, and Retro City Rampage looked like a title that could deliver.
So how could such a winning formula go wrong?
Believe it or not, references get old really quickly. Ever get into a decent movie conversation that slowly devolves into the lowest-of-brow Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Austin Powers imitations. That’s Retro City Rampage. Cramming reference after reference into this game for the sake of simply having them kills their context, kills their impact, and worst of all, kills their humor.
For example, the hero bumps into his future self early in the game, and rather than have a simple conversation about what would be an awkward moment in anyone’s life, the best the writers come up with is the exact exchange used in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. “69 dude!” I might have actually not given the reference a second thought had I not just witnessed a Bionic Commando and Back to the Future reference several seconds before.
With an entire story made up of cheap gags, it’s hard to keep track of which ones mean something and which ones can be tossed aside as just filler, and it got to the point where I was just going through the missions barely registering story or punchlines because there was no context or real purpose for these jokes.
And ultimately the game fails because the jokes are supposed to be the reward. VBlank did an honest attempt to create an 8-bit Grand Theft Auto III around these laughs, and for the most part they succeed. There are a few fun kill spree challenges, and going on murderous rampages of your own design can provide a lot of cheap thrills, but ultimately, like any sandbox, the thrills eventually dry up.
Fun little action set pieces pop up every once in a while only to never be seen again. Arcade and Free Roaming mode both help extend the shelf life, but with almost every weapon available from the get go, there is not much to work towards. Some power-ups slowly become available, but they are more situational and not as fun as you would hope, especially the jet pack.
There are two kind of retro games out there: ones that can grasp the secret formula that made these old games great and seek only to improve on that, and there are games that focus more on the irony of being a throwback rather than a full fledged product.
Retro City Rampage leans towards the latter, but it isn’t a total waste. It has bursts of brilliance with a few cleverly designed missions and jokes. A highlight is having to run over 88 people to travel through time in the time machine, but that’s practically approaching spoiler territory based on how important the jokes are to this game’s plot.
The music is awesome, and any fan of 8-bit chiptunes will feel right at home with these tracks. Good stuff.
In the end though, your enjoyment with Retro City Rampage will have a lot to do with your age and how well you can grasp the constant wave of references. Younger gamers might have trouble cracking this nut because the plot is too weak and revolves around jokes many might not get, and the gameplay comes up short in providing a real 8-bit sandbox. Those who do understand the idea driving this game will find an experience that is far more cute than clever.
We purchased Retro City Rampage for the PlayStation 3 with company funds. We completed the game before starting this review.