Back in 1987, when the NES was at the peak of its reign, the video game world was not yet ready for the open-world urban crime adventure. But today, a quarter century later, Retro City Rampage lets you experience what the genre might have been like if it had been introduced on that now-primitive platform. In terms of its gameplay, it’s often not quite faithful enough to the games of the era that inspired it, and in terms of its difficulty, it’s sometimes too faithful. But all in all, Retro City Rampage is an enjoyable experience in which old meets new to create something both fresh and familiar.
In Retro City Rampage’s Story mode, you play as Player, a low-ranking henchman in a supercriminal’s army. Following an introductory series of stages that references The Dark Knight, Mario Bros., Mega Man 2, Frogger, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Super Mario Bros. 2, Back to the Future, and much more, you’re set free in the city of Theftropolis to spend your time as you see fit. You can complete story missions or ignore them, and spend your time causing chaos and competing in the score-based challenges scattered all over town.
Every mission in Retro City Rampage’s Story mode skewers video games, movies, or TV shows of the 80s. If you have any reverence for icons of 80s pop culture, don’t be surprised if versions of those icons show up in RCR and are made to suffer some indignities. (The Ghostbusters, for instance, are spoofed here as the Go-Go Busters. Their job is even messier and nastier than catching and occasionally getting slimed by ghosts.) Too often, the game is raunchy just for the sake of being raunchy, without any cleverness to actually make its off-color gags funny. But the game throws so much at the wall that, while most of it doesn’t stick, enough does to make for a good number of laughs, and there’s some particularly scathing humor about indie game development and major publishers.
What with the danger of being run over as you stroll down the sidewalk or being stomped on by criminals flying around in hover suits, Theftropolis doesn’t seem like a nice place to live. It is, however, a pleasure to look at, particularly if you have a soft spot in your heart for 8-bit worlds. The pixelated residents of Theftropolis are a wonderfully diverse bunch. Despite being quite tiny, they have a good deal of personality, thanks to their vibrant colors, their big hair, and jaunty hats–not to mention their expressive animations as they strut down the street, breakdance or otherwise pass the time.
The city has at least as much personality as its residents. Everywhere you look, there are references on shop signs and billboards to 80s video games and other pop culture artifacts. For that extra dose of nostalgia, an impressive assortment of color modes lets you make the game look as if it’s running on a wide range of 80s gaming and computer hardware; a CGA mode, for example, severely limits the game’s color palette and dominates it with blue and purple, recalling the visuals on early Apple computers. There’s also a fine selection of borders that can make the game look like it’s being played on an old TV, an arcade cabinet, or other setups, with optional scanlines to help sell the illusion. Regardless of your visual preference, the catchy 8-bit music is sure to please, and would have been right at home in an NES game.
Unfortunately, as alluring as the city is, getting around Theftropolis isn’t always enjoyable. Player moves sluggishly until he gets a bit of momentum going, and although all the vehicles around you are yours for the taking, many of them are too slow to be much fun to drive. Still, there are some speedy little numbers to cruise around in. The two driving control schemes let you select between an option in which you use a button to accelerate and in which pushing left or right turns your vehicle to its left or right regardless of which way you’re driving onscreen, and an option in which you push the thumbstick up to move up, down to move down, and so on. This second, far less realistic option allows for more responsive, turn-on-a-dime controls and more enjoyable vehicular shenanigans as a result. (On PC, you also have the option of playing with a keyboard, which works just fine.)