Developer: VBlank Entertainment
Publisher: VBlank Entertainment
Release Date: October 9, 2012
My generation seems especially infatuated with their nostalgic childhood. The 80s had an explosion of cartoons, kid-centered commercials and advertisements, action figures, brands, and movies. And of course, the birth of the modern video game industry.
Retro City Rampage squeezes every last drop of 80s pop culture into an 8-bit, top-down Grand Theft Auto-style city. The player character, named “Player,” looks exactly like the coiffed, leather jacket-clad silent protagonist from Grand Theft Auto III. After a fun and zany bank robbery tutorial, you happen upon the phone booth time machine from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, then meet up with Doc Choc driving the DeLorean while fleeing from the T-Team and a familiar group of green-skinned turtles emerging from the sewers wielding ninja weapons.
Retro City Rampage is brazenly unafraid of assaulting you with every reference you can imagine from that era. You do a chain of missions for the Go-Go Busters, a clean-up crew that deals in slime and goo from…er…human bodies. Shops are called “Pizza Gaiden,” “Skate ‘N Buy,” and “Toadstool Tatoo.” The local anchorwoman looks like Chun-Li. There’s a series of missions involving Bayshore High, working for Principal Balding and dealing with a familiar group of high school students. It’s a rapid fire assault with a razor sharp focus on wink wink, nudge nudge style comedy, and it permeates everything from the dialogue and situations to the gameplay and background artwork. Your love and familiarity with the 80s will directly affect your appreciation of the entire game.
The actual gameplay is very reminiscent of the old Grand Theft Auto games (that would be the first two, before they evolved 3D open world gameplay forever with Grand Theft Auto III). The city is alive with cars and pedestrians, and you’re free to assault random people, jack their cars, and run them over. Police response is fast and quite deadly if you’re on foot (they always go for the roadkill) but a handy mechanic that results in them dropping cloaking coins upon death gives a huge incentive to fight back, then run away – a concept that I would love to see in every actual GTA game.
Driving takes a bit to get used to, as all top down driving games have that same awkward driving scheme that orients your directional control to your car, regardless of which way your car is facing. I rarely had any problems driving and the camera thankfully shifts in whichever way you’re going, giving you plenty of room to adjust on all but the fastest vehicles. Standard cars like taxis and muscle cars are plentiful alongside a couple fun joke cars like the Yoshi-inspired Bikosaurus and covered wagon Dysentruck.
On foot the 8-bit game is given a nice modern day upgrade with lock-on capabilities and a cover system, neither of which I used much due to the fast-paced zaniness of most combat encounters. Dodging the little white bullets when there’s more than a few foes on screen becomes almost impossible, and often the best course of action is to simply dive into a horde of enemies using your Mario-inspired stomp attack. I suspect the developer realized how useful this simple ability was, as during the finale you get a super-powered upgrade that allows you to stomp down with explosive force.
There are a bunch of collectibles to grab: hidden packages, phone booths, and the rather funny discovery of all the invisible walls used throughout the adventure. Many of the shops can actually be entered and used to customize your little 8-bit avatar with different amazing 80s-inspired hair styles, hats, sunglasses, and tattoos. I rocked the sombrero for awhile before settling on the Last Action Hero mullet and bandanna look.
The biggest activity are the rampages. These should be recognizable for any GTA fans and operate in exactly that style: you’re given unlimited bullets to a certain gun and told to do as much damage as you can in a limited time. Some tasks get a bit inventive – there’s a rocket launcher challenge that only rewards air time from the blasts and a hover suit challenge (which looks exactly like the raccoon tail from Super Mario Bros. 3) that tracks all your stomp attacks. They’re a fun and slightly structured diversion from just free roaming chaos or completing the story missions.
Like GTA there is a main set of missions that take you through the story in addition to wrecking havoc around the city. Unfortunately any hope of getting a clever plot is wasted on a story that simply involves collecting all the various parts to the broken time machine. The missions themselves range from fun to frustrating and often open up additional side missions that can be completed, like working for the aforementioned Go-Go Busters (who’s electron proton pack gun is fan-freaking-tastic).
The final mission started out great – getting attacked by a horde of police forces with tanks and helicopters, then having to fight your way out of a sadistic murder-happy reality show. Its scope and grandeur is frustratingly misplaced once you reach the final castle area. The combat quickly gets repetitive and more difficult than fun. At one point an entire dungeon is reset with enemies armed with rocket launchers and I easily died a dozen times just trying to walk around. I did appreciate that VBlank shoved as many NES levels as they could into this lengthy finale – an underwater Super Mario Bros. section, a side scrolling Battletoads venture, a 3rd person driving finale a la Pole Position.
That driving bit at the end was just awful by the way. I never enjoyed those old racing games much as they come down to having to repeat and memorize sections, and Retro City Rampage combines that with a frustrating boss battle that fires missiles while you drive. It took me at least half an hour on this last section alone, and I was so over it by the time I was done that it really soured my entire experience.
Despite a lot of frustrations with the difficulty and combat, the open-world city and 80s theming were pure joy to explore. An open world game that doesn’t take itself seriously is nothing new to Saints Row fans, but embracing the spirit and attitude of the 80s so completely is an impressive feat nonetheless. It’s fun to grin and laugh over the classic Metal Gear translation errors. I loved hopping on a bike and playing through a Paperboy level. These nostalgic trickles work well because they’re short and sweet and hit all the right notes without being long enough to be frustrating.
- 8-bit style looks and feels great
- Brimming with 80s pop culture references and classic NES gameplay
- Lots of collectibles and fun rampage-style challenges
- Top down driving is fun and intuitive
- Humorous writing that works more than it doesn’t
- Main story is funny but forgettable
- Combat with many enemies on screen becomes a chaotic mess
- Too many story missions involve waves of foes, making combat repetitive and frustrating
- One of the worst final boss fights I’ve ever experienced