Retro City Rampage is a lot of things, but mostly it's a parody of everything prevalent in pop culture in the late 80s and early 90s, packaged up in an 8-bit Grand Theft Auto styled sandbox; not only is it an open world experience made to look like it was to be released on the NES, but it also encompasses so many different gameplay types and pop culture references that it's hard to keep track. The problem with reviewing a game like Retro City Rampage is that since it's a parody, it's hard to differentiate between those aspects which are deliberately cheesy as a homage and those that should be criticized for poor design. Compounding the issue is that Retro City Rampage is so densely packed with pop culture references that by the end it's easy to assume that every issue that one may have with the game has been implemented on purpose, and that it could therefore be argued that it is immune to criticism, which can be a problem for a reviewer.
Every minute of Retro City Rampage will tickle your nostalgia nerves, and no part of the entire experience is more densely reference-rich than the opening cutscene. In a matter of minutes you're bombarded with so many references, in-jokes, and parodies that it is hard to keep up. There are references on top of references about other references for a solid 10 minutes straight, until you're finally granted the ability to play. From here, you're given complete access to the town of Thetropolis, where you can steal cars, do odd jobs, and work on getting all the parts needed to go back home. Vblank has done a fantastic job giving the player a truly retro Grand Theft Auto feel, right down to the cheeky innuendo; at one point your avatar, known as 'Player', hooks up with a lady for some 'iced tea' (as opposed to hot coffee) and engage in some black-bar censored action. Honestly, how they managed to get this game rated T for Teen is a mystery given the sex and violence that is constantly referenced with a wink to the camera.
Due to Retro City Rampage being a decidedly retro parody, the game's graphics and animations are modelled directly after existing franchises. Part of Thetropolis looks like it was lifted straight out of Green Hill zone in Sonic, some of the opening cinematic looks like the building scaling opening scene from Megaman 2, and pretty much every billboard, sign, or building in the game is a reference to some game, movie, or other piece of pop-culture from the 80s. Absolutely nothing is sacred, and anything at all that was an important part of nerd culture between 1985 and 1992 is featured heavily in Retro City Rampage. Even the soundtrack and sound effects are authentic 8-bit chiptunes that sound vaguely similar to existing tracks from your childhood. Most of the soundtrack is actually pretty good, but some tracks are droning and repetitive, not to mention the whining of the police sirens will get on your nerves quite quickly due to how often you're wanted.
The gameplay is primarily based on Grand Theft Auto, but there are plenty of other gameplay mechanics that are introduced throughout. As 'Player', you have to perform various missions for people around town to get money, fame, and the parts needed to repair the time machine so you can get back home, but many of the missions will have you trying out other gameplay styles that emulate famous games. You can jump on enemies, shoot people, hide behind cover, steal cars, and in some specialized levels swim like a sidescrolling platformer. You'll also race in third person view, throw papers into mailboxes from a bike, and take up a sword and shield to go questing. Hell, there's even a level modelled after 'Splosion Man, which incidentally was the cause of more deaths than any other part of the game save the final dungeon. There's no shortage of different things to do, and it seems like every new mission offers Player a new gameplay mechanic or option to play with, which can get confusing. There are even five power-ups that you get throughout the game that greatly enhance your abilities, like the running shoes that let you dash all over the place or the hover pack that lets you float above the city at will.
The problem with a game that spans so many genres and gameplay mechanics is that it can all get pretty jumbled, and many of the missions basically tell you how to use a new feature, then expect you do know how to do it flawlessly within minutes, and that can be a real pain when some of the controls are sluggish. The driving is especially sluggish, where X is the accelerator and O is the brake/reverse, and flicking the thumb stick turns you left and right regardless of what direction you're currently facing. There is an option to turn on a form of autopilot, but where's the fun in that? The driving is still sluggish, and this is another case where I'm not sure if that was done deliberately in the spirit of being retro or if it was a legitimate oversight that can and should have been refined, but it was often quite hard to keep vehicles under control and often led to the expansive and frequent chases that the game seems designed to force you to endure as often as you can. The later levels of the game can also be incredibly frustrating, as the final dungeon area ramps up the difficulty tenfold by throwing dozens – no, hundreds – of enemies at you, some of which have rocket launchers and shotguns that are very hard to avoid. Perhaps this is just 'Nintendo hard', but at least there's a fairly lenient checkpoint system that keeps the overall game from being on the same level of frustration of, say, Battletoads.
There is a plot, but I really don't want to explain it too much for fear of ruining the plethora of references and in-jokes the game has to offer, many of which revolve around mashing the various games and movies from the time period it takes place in into one surprisingly coherent story. What really sets Retro City Rampage apart are the parts that lampoon greedy game publishers and developers by criticizing and straight up demonizing some of the gaming industry's less desirable tendencies. Given the fact that an overwhelming majority of the game was designed and programmed by one man, that makes the criticisms seem far more prescient than if it was a major publisher or developer trying a little too hard to beg for the respect of gamers.
My last two review games were both easter-egg filled games, but ironically neither felt as fresh as Retro City Rampage. While Hell Yeah! and Borderlands 2 were games that referenced other games heavily, Retro City Rampage's entire gimmick is that it's an amalgam of pretty much everything you loved (or hated) about nerd pop culture in the NES era. With a running time of about 6 hours for the story mode as well as a series of side missions, sprees, and arcade challenges, it's a little light on content considering it's 15 dollar price tag, but the game is genuinely fun from beginning to end, and if you have any respect for the time period it models itself after (I wouldn't blame you if you don't), then you owe it to yourself to get Retro City Rampage.
This review is based on a digital copy of Retro City Rampage for the PlayStation Vita.