Retro City Rampage is…a game that makes itself hard to define, and even harder to explain. It is, most obviously, a demake of Grand Theft Auto 3. With its vast open-world map, multitude of story missions and side challenges to undertake, the core of the game is reminiscent of all the things that made the franchise popular. Saying that the game is an outright clone of GTA 3, however – which is what its creator: Brian Provinciano, originally set out to do – does a vast disservice to the almost decade-long production time behind it. The game is a labor of love, and like most things that someone has slaved over to make absolutely perfect (in their minds) this is both the game’s greatest strength and its most glaring flaw. Where some gamers may greatly enjoy the thousand-upon-thousands of in-jokes, the self-referencing gamer humor, and generally hit-you-over-the-head-until-you-laugh style comedy, I feel like Retro City Rampage plays strictly for a certain niche of gamer and gives a big middle finger to anyone else.
This isn’t to say that the game is bad or anything, but it certainly doesn’t mask its humor as anything but being “by gamers, for gamers, to be laughed at by gamers.” It feels, almost, like one of those conversations you’d have with a group of friends about how hilarious your 40th Epic level Bard/Wu-Jen/Wizard managing to cast Otiluke’s Irresistible Dance on the DM’s Tarrasque-riding Sorcerer/Psion Gestalt Mind-Flayer BBGE was – anyone unfamiliar with what you were talking about would just sit there and stare, wondering at what point the lot of you had gone insane. That’s what the humor amounts to, in the end: a million references and tongue-in-cheek jokes about everything that made the 80s and the 90s the “Golden Era” of video games. If you get it; awesome. And if you don’t, well…
The story is a hodgepodge of every gamer and nerd cliché you can think of. Player – the main character, and your avatar in the game – is essentially a rough-and-tumble action hero who professes to be good as taking things from one point to the other. He’s got no qualms about doing what needs to be done to earn him a quick buck, and in Theftropolis, the city where the game takes place, that makes him a valued commodity. Whether it’s working for the Jester to take down Biffman, running from the likes of the T-Squad or helping out a zany old doctor fix his Delorean, Player has his hands full with a gamut of missions that will take him from the sewers of the city all the way into the dastardly secret base of Dr. Von Buttnick. (Those are Batman, A-Team, Back to the Future, Mario, and Sonic references for those of you who didn’t know.) It’s simple, irreverent, and once you make a drinking game out of spotting all of the in-jokes, also a pretty fun way to get wasted on a Friday night. (Just don’t expect to get all of them, because there are billions. And not all of them are video-game references – I caught quite a few television shows, memes, and general “nerd culture” in-jokes within the game, as well.)
Strip that away, however, and you essentially have an ironically retro action-adventure game with a few modern conventions. There are 50 storyline missions and 30 challenge missions for you to undertake, along with various mini-games (one based on Super Meat Boy I cannot recommend enough) and secrets to uncover. The gameplay restricts itself to a top-down, isometric view point (think Zelda: A Link to The Past), and both looks and feels like a long-lost addition to the SNES-era of videogames. What stands out, however, are the modern accouterments – you can take cover behind objects during fights, lock-on to pesky enemies, and the game itself plays much more smooth than any of the games it’s so obviously trying to riff off of. There are a variety of missions and weapons to blaze through, and though the game tries to be Nintendo Hard in some instances, its nothing so frustrating that you’d want to stop playing – despite how much I rag on the style of the game, it’s actually quite fun. My only problems, gameplay-wise, would be the movements of the main character on the PC version of the game, as it seemed that Retro was really designed for the console player at heart. That, and the difficulty doesn’t actually come from the enemies themselves — while bosses are difficult, its the platforming sections and side missions that give the game tiny hiccups of difficulty. Without them, the game would really only be difficult because of how many enemies can swarm you at once — sometimes it was hard to keep track of what going on, for me, but, again: that may be my problem moreso than the game’s!
Visually, if you’ve ever played a game on the SNES you know what to expect when playing Retro City Rampage. The colors pop and excellently portray the area you’re in, with palettes changing from area to area accordingly. Everything contrasts vibrantly, so the cartoony visuals work to give the world flavor rather than act detrimental to any realism inherent within the title. (The backgrounds also serve as vehicles for in-jokes, making almost every building and level a reference to something else.) And, though character models themselves are quite tiny, static in-game “cut-scenes” and character portraits detail faces in all of their SNES-era glory, which pretty much counterbalanced my only complaint about the graphics of the game. Sound-wise, the game is also leaves me with nothing to complain about, simply because it’s so damn catchy. With over two-hours of chiptune-style music composed by the likes of Leonard “FreakyDNA” Paul, Jake “Virt” Kaufman and Matt “Norrin Radd” Creame – names to look out for if the soundtrack does anything for you, basically – you’re definitely in for something good whether you’re just walking around town or trying to beat one of the game’s bosses.
Though the game has no multiplayer mode – yet? – it does offer a variety of modes for its single-player campaign, such as a Challenge Mode, a Free Roam Mode, and a variety of achievements to unlock. You could spend weeks of time hunting for every secret within the game as well, and the campaign is decently long in and of itself that it’s hard to imagine anyone beating the game overnight.
This all contributes to very solidly – if niche – game that gamers will get a kick out of, but which might also alienate some who have no idea what a floppy disk is. (I’m still not sure if that’s detrimental to the game or not, because while I rolled my eyes at some of the dumber “funny” moments of the game, I did genuinely enjoy playing it.)