Retro City Rampage is the gaming version of a mixtape: fun, personal, messy and unique
Retro City Rampage
Retro City Rampage may have started with the basic concept of a Grand Theft Auto title re-created with an 8-bit aesthetic, but the game has morphed and shifted during its years of development. Playing the game feels like rooting around the brain of a person who has been completely shaped by the games and counter-culture of the past 20 to 25 years. See if you can count the number of references, puns, and jokes that pile up in the game’s opening sequences; there has never been a game so densely packed with nostalgia. This story could easily become a giant list of funny jokes or sly references, but it’s more fun to find everything on your own.
Painting with the past
The game was created by Brian Provinciano, and never has a designer seemed to free to steal, re-appropriate, and remix gaming pop culture. The water hole goes incredibly deep: In one arcade you can play a free-running version of Super Meat Boy with the bright red coloring and faux-3D effect of the Virtual Boy. You can frame the game with a variety of televisions and styles, and even adjust the graphics themselves to appear in the classic green of the original Game Boy or to emulate the feel of different classic gaming systems.
There is a fine balance here between constantly reminding players of games and movies they’ve seen while offering a game that’s fun to play on its own merits. “I feel like it’s its own game, and the character has his own story, although rooted in 80s/90s cliches, but it’s just all pieced together with references and jokes like they’re the building blocks,” Provinciano explained. “It’s like, okay, I’ve got to build a house, but the bricks must be references and jokes!” Some references may seem simple, but many go one or two steps deeper than you’d expect. It’s one thing to reference The Rocketeer, but it’s something else entirely to feature a cameo by Billy Campbell, the actor who played the Rocketeer in the Disney film. You’ll even run into members of the gaming press, and the game isn’t above mocking itself and its reliance on pop culture.
The game plays like the original Grand Theft Auto games, the ones released before the game went 3D. You run around the world, meet characters, accept missions, steal cars, and kill civilians without many cares in the world. You have to contend with your wanted level as well, but on the whole the game seems much more willing to let you explore and do whatever you’d like than the games that inspired it. The game also introduces some surprises in the mission structure, some more welcome than others. A section where you have to tail a Batman-clone while chugging coffee (don’t ask) was particularly painful. Luckily, the design mistakes are usually followed by something enjoyable and different. This is one of those rare games where you rarely know what you’ll see next.
That variety in the missions wasn’t an accident, and in fact the balance between the “standard’ missions and the more unique sections of the game required some tweaking. “One of my goals for the game was to avoid being entirely driving from A to B and shooting stuff like GTA is,” Provinciano told the Penny Arcade Report.
“I wanted all of the missions to have variety and depth. However, after putting the whole game as it was together with nothing but these intricate story driven missions, it just didn’t feel right. Weaving in arcade style missions with next to no story and just fast paced simple action between them pulled it all together. It was fantastic, one of those a-ha! moments. But for the longest time I avoided doing missions like those because they felt ‘too lazy’ from my game designer vision, when in fact, they turned out to be among the most fun, and added the much needed peaks and valleys.”
The game plays well on the PC, although you’ll want a console-style controller. So far the Vita offers what may be the best version of the game, as the missions lend themselves well to shorter playing sessions, and the system’s screen and physical buttons allow the different game modes and graphics options to really pop. One purchase also gets you the game on both the Vita and the PS3 as well, and you can keep your save in the cloud to move your game between both devices.
While the jokes, references, and game play inspirations may be piled on a bit thick, the single-minded design through nostalgia philosophy makes Retro City Rampage look and feel, strangely enough, unique. You never know who you’ll see, you’ll never know what will happen next, and the game will create a strong sense of kinship with anyone in their late 20s or early 30s who grew up playing games and watching taped-over VHS collections.
This is the gaming version of a mixtape
“The thing is, this game IS me. It’s an expression of what’s going through my mind,” Provinciano told the Penny Arcade Report. There was little editing, for better or worse. The jokes are often hyper-specific to certain places and times.
“Anything and everything that popped into my head to add, I did. It contains not just TONS of jokes and references, even cameos, that only Canadians will get, it even contains tons which only people living in Vancouver will get. That to me was really important,” Provinciano explained. “Many people along the way told me that I should focus all of my energy and resources on the big, mainstream references that everyone will get, but then I wouldn’t be making a game from the heart. I didn’t want it to come across as pandering. I’m absolutely loving the posts people are making pointing out the obscure references.”
The game may be fun on its own, but the jokes and rapid-fire attack of pop culture references are certainly a major selling point. A game without solid mechanics would just be cloying, but Retro City Rampage nails the game’s controls and mechanics. The few issues with pacing and over-indulgence are troubling, but this is one of the best examples of remix culture in gaming, and the fact it’s being released on so many platforms is in itself an accomplishment. The game is out for PC, Vita, and PS3 now, with Xbox Live and WiiWare versions coming in the future.