Wot I Think: Retro City Rampage

By Alec Meer on October 19th, 2012 at 10:00 pm.

Ow. My brain.

Retro City Rampage is a parody game. A parody of what, exactly, is perhaps the question that underlies it and the lack of a clear answer is why I bounce off it despite best efforts not to. The amorality and unchecked carnage of GTA? The cheesy absurdity of the dozens of 80s and 90s arcade and console games and hardware it scattergun-blasts references to/steals openly from? The 80s movies it similarly borrows from and twists to its own Sunny D-deranged purposes? Or a parody of itself? My vote is for the latter, but I remain at a loss as to the purpose of such a decision.

I think it’s enjoyable? But I don’t know. I think it does whatever the hell it is it’s trying to do well? But I don’t know. I think people will love it? But I don’t know.

This I do know:

Retro City Ramage a pseudo-8-bit, pseudo-open world game which uses the original Grand Theft Auto (and thus pedestrian-killing, cop-fighting and carjacking) as its bedrock, and then layers missions, settings and abilities based on other, earlier games on top of that.

You can play it open world, killing people, doing a few side missions and buying stuff like new haircuts, but this gets hollow fast – you’re really there to see what its main missions are going to reference next. Sonic, Frogger, Back to the Future, Paper Boy, Bill & Ted, Mega Man – I noticed loads, but I suspect I missed even more. The parade of nods is endless, and I suspect the ‘parody’ designation may be all that stands between RCR and a few scary letters from scary lawyers. I do not begrudge it this – that so many of 20th century pop-cultural touchstones are ring-fenced from usage outside officially licensed products has always been a great sadness, in terms of what we can and can’t celebrate.

It’s just whether there’s a point to it. It’s Robot Chicken: the game, in a sense, but the popcorn-quick stream of references in RCR can come off grating, as many aren’t hinged around careful gags or smart twists on mechanics, but more popped-up cue cards screaming HEY REMEMBER THIS in neon capitals then AND THIS then WHAT ABOUT THIS or HAHA AND THIS then oh look there’s a bee I’m going over here now but now I’m hungry and hey did you see that film and woah hey bang whee what the hahaha I’m sleepy now.

I get it. I get that our rich, shared history of gaming across many decades is something we want to celebrate and that there is cosy soul-warmth to be had from seeing these familiar scenes again. But perhaps there’s more to be done with it than just pointing at it, as though we’re in some hyperactive museum where all the exhibits are on motorised wheels whizzing around the hall at speed while the tour guide screams a disassociated pepper spray of facts and lies about them.

Moreover, I’m not sure that the game in which all these things are indelicately placed is all that much of a good time, or at least not on a par with the joy it clearly feels in its nostalgia. It is a minor technical marvel for sure, cramming in a slick, busy open world rendered in 8-bit 2D as well as rapidly-changing scenes based upon games of yesteryear. There is a large space to run around in, wielding many weapons and driving many cars, maybe suddenly hopping into a side-quest in a near-indestructible tank with infinite ammo, maybe running into a laundry and smashing all its washing machines to steal the change inside ‘em.

Meanwhile, an easy lock-on system makes mowing down dozens and dozens and dozens of people a cinch, while even a quick drive down the street will involve uncountable casualties. It all works, it’s all tight, and the density of its contents is remarkable, from the variety of building exteriors and oddly-hatted NPCs to the blink-and-miss cameos from Ninja Turtles and a thousand others to special abilities like Sonic shoes. It’s done the work, it’s more than generous with its contents and even if the overall picture is wearying, there are many delights to be had from the smaller details. It looks lovely, too, and the choice of different pseudo-arcade cabinets and consoles as screen decorations, and olden hardware video modes to play in, offers plenty of ‘wheee!’ moments, and there are approximately twenty-eight billion different unlockable character skins and suchlike to unlock.

The problem, for me, was caring. Once again, that parody status seems to be a bit of a get out of jail free card, so there is no apparent desire for resonance in anything the player does. The player is The Player, given gabbled sociopathic tasks by cartoon criminals which they can choose to do or delay doing, but if you aren’t delighted by the steady stream of references there’s no real point of attachment to the game’s manic events. Plus, even from this eight-bit, drilled down perspective, and even despite the hurricane of sudden diversions into retro oddness, there’s a lingering familiarity to it – there’s a reason I bounce right off the GTA mobile games, and that’s because I’m just doing the same thing as I’ve done many times before, but with different dialogue. This has more mania, but it’s still Tales From Liberty City rather than Saint’s Row or Just Cause.

There are two games that spring to mind when I play it. One is Hotline Miami, which also does the GTA retro-remix thing but ties it to singular purpose and extreme focus, as well as being a highly tactical game (not to mention amping up the psychological discombobulation resulting from all that brutality, rather than shrugging it all off as a meaningless cartoon). The other is Postal 3, which this is nowhere near as obnoxious as, but does share in a twitchy, all over the place distractedness layered with pop-cultural references. I didn’t feel like a shmuck for playing it like I did Postal 3, but I did feel about as exhausted by it.

The focus on olden things seems to make this a game for older players, but the unhinged, ADHD pace seems to make it one for younger folks, or at least those who crave only ACTIONACTIONACTION. There surely is a middleground and many of the people who may read this, questioning my apparent joylessness, may live within it, but I certainly can’t claim that I do. It’s not as though I’m far removed from ADHD proclivities myself – even a game I give myself too utterly, such as XCOM or Dishonored, has me frantically alt-tabbing out to check the Twitters every few minutes (I am not at all proud of this), but RCR had me alt-tabbing every five minutes just so I could chill the hell out. Breathe, unclench my jaw, blink, go back in.

Am I just too old? Almost certainly – but I’ve always been too old for this.

I’m going to sleep now.

Retro City Rampage is out now.

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52 Comments »

  1. The Tupper says:

    My eyes! My beautiful, beautiful eyes!

  2. hypercrisis says:

    Final image says it all; 4chan jokes.

    • Phantoon says:

      Reddit jokes, you mean.

      • StranaMente says:

        Did you say internet jokes?

        • RvLeshrac says:

          Was The Internet really big in the 80s? I don’t recall that.

          • LionsPhil says:

            The web didn’t exist, even as a research project, until the early ’90s. (Things like it had for a long time, but not the world of HTTP+HTML that took off.)

            The Internet’s been around since the ’60s, but until the web most home users didn’t have much to do with it.

            RPS’ comment system is on the bloody fritz again.

          • PleasingFungus says:

            He was joking, Phil.

      • Sayori says:

        No, you mean 9gag.

      • LionsPhil says:

        A website the RPS spamfilter apparently despises about knowing memes reckons it was indeed 4chan.

        And we’ve all read all of The Perry Bible Fellowship, right?

  3. ResonanceCascade says:

    This is the only game that’s been able to tear me away from Dishonored over the last week. There’s tons of gameplay variety, and most of it improves upon the games that it’s referencing.

  4. googoogjoob says:

    I found RCR pretty jumbled and unfun. It feels like the dev put a hundred times as much effort into shoving in as many contextless references in the name of “parody” as he put into making an actually fun game. The basic GTA stuff is fun- stealing cars, listening to different radio stations, running down pedestrians- but that can only go so far, and the missions are all very arbitrary and awkward and essentially fetch quests for mcguffins. Also the combat, especially melee, is atrocious.

    It’s sad because I wanted this game to be fun. There’s no reason an indie game GTA clone shouldn’t be fun, but this is just overweighted with meaningless, unfunny references and awkward gameplay.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      I thought the gameplay was absolutely a blast. But yes, the writing is bad. I honestly don’t know why it’s been praised so much. It’s the most ham-fisted parody you can imagine.

      • googoogjoob says:

        I actually liked the driving and the basic GTA gameplay, like I said. What got to me were the mandatory minigame sections, which are mostly kind of half-assed- the “sweat bomb” platforming sequence especially was very awkward.

      • PatrickSwayze says:

        I don’t think the writing was meant to be good…

      • Drake Sigar says:

        I’ve seen actual fists made of ham that were less ham-fisted.

    • hemmingjay says:

      I agree. I certainly don’t care for it, especially at this price point. It’s fun if it had cost $5, but at triple that price I feel a bit chuffed off.

    • bad guy says:

      This game has no GTA1.
      This game has no GTA2.
      The core element of GTA1+2 is insane police cars.

    • bad guy says:

      Waiter, I would like to have your best vintage wines, all mixed together in a big bucket. :-) jk

  5. DickSocrates says:

    I was interested in picking it up, but as release rolled around I was struck with a bad feeling about it. I then watched some videos and the feeling deepened. While I haven’t played it, this article sums up my reservations about it. Simply referencing something else doesn’t mean anything to me. And if I see another ‘parody’ of the beginning of Mega Man 2 I’ll scream. Parody meaning ‘direct recreation while winking at the audience’, apparently.

    • jayc4life says:

      I was pretty close to pre-ordering it over the summer, pretty much as soon as they opened up shop for taking them, but then Hotline Miami showed up and that put an end to that. After reading this, I’m quite thankful for it. This seems more like a nostalgia vehicle than a game, and while a fair amount of people seem to be swooning over it now, it’ll be quickly forgotten about as soon as the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty come out, never to be heard of again until it gets Humble Bundled or something.

  6. Premium User Badge

    ffordesoon says:

    This is sort of how I feel about it too. It’s simultaneously great fun and utterly exhausting, and very, very, very messy. I want to love it, but I just can’t seem to quite figure out what it is I’m attempting to love. I don’t think it’s necessarily trying to be funny when it references stuff, but it bills itself as a parody, which would seem to indicate that it’s trying to be funny. There’s an anarchic, punk-rock joy to it, but I don’t know if I’m necessarily supposed to share in that joy, or if the game is simply reveling in its own existence.

    There is one thing I can say for certain, though; whatever else you want to say about the thing, it’s definitely a game that was made by one guy. Even a two-man team couldn’t have come up with something this singular. For better or worse, this is absolutely a look inside Brian Provinciano’s brain. I just don’t know if I want to spend my time in his brain.

    Everything works, and it’s fun, but I feel like Brian Provinciano likes his game a lot more than I do, and I don’t quite know how to feel about that.

  7. wodin says:

    I liked the idea of it..but it was a very hollow\shallow experience allround..all the mini games where exactly the same as the main open world part..I’d rather play the first GTA to be honest.. that had abit more coherence than this,. Shame really.

    Not sure why someone above posted it had variety…if only.

    • Kefren says:

      I’d dispute that after completing it. It had side-scrolling jumping stages, Smash TV arenas, into-the-screen driving, boss battles, and a few others. I was just surprised it didn’t have a Robocop shooting gallery or identikit stage from the Spectrum version. (Or maybe it did – there’s loads of side missions I have yet to do).

  8. DonDrapersAcidTrip says:

    “HEY THIS GAME IS SO WACKY ISN’T IT?” Nonstop, over and over. I can only imagine how annoying the guy who programmed this must be in real life. Or he’s a robot devoid of any personality and this was his attempt to replicate human “humor.”

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Or he’s a robot devoid of any personality and this was his attempt to replicate human “humor.”

      You’ve just described a large fraction of internet nerds who can only communicate in memes. This should be a huge success on Reddit.

  9. Eschwen says:

    No mention of River City Ransom? I haven’t played this yet, but I can’t imagine a WIT of it would be complete without a nod to River City Ransom.

  10. Secundus says:

    the actual gameplay of hotline miami is completely totally different to any form of GTA clone. its a shame that something as genuinely creative as hotline miami gets associated with refs: the game because they came out around the same time and are both top down.

    • The Random One says:

      Pretty sure Hotline Miami is very deliberately trying to associate itself to GTA; the core of its tone seems to be a scathing satire of its tone, although not of its gameplay.

      For example, the very first image released IIRC featured the main character’s DeLorean proeminently, rendered in ye olde GTA top-down style, even though as I understand you never actually drive the car in the game. That’s a deliberate reference if I ever saw one.

      • DonDrapersAcidTrip says:

        “The core of it’s tone is a scathing satire of it’s tone” I don’t think you actually know what you’re talking about. Top down does not automatically equal GTA.

  11. Shooop says:

    This game’s trailer just perfectly summarized what’s wrong with the majority of the internet.

    Simply regurgitating jokes (that the internet for some reason calls memes) as quickly as possible doesn’t make them funny.

    • rockman29 says:

      Totally agree.

      And I completely agree with this review.

      Exhausting is the perfect word to describe this game. There is so many pieces which don’t fit into the… very messy whole. Exhausting is the perfect word.

      Though I do commend the developer, as it seems to be a very small team comprising of only one person for most of the development.

      I am extremely glad I did not cough up 14.99 USD for this game.

  12. Jakkar says:

    I was foolish enough to buy it at release, on faith, having loved the old advertising.

    Damn me.

    It’s just so boring ._.

  13. Zogtee says:

    I question if it’s even parody. Repeating a title of something (movie, game, whatever), maybe changing it slightly to avoid trademark troubles, without having anything to actually say isn’t really parody, is it? It’s more “OMGIMSO FUNNYLOOKATMEDAMMIT”.

    Yes, I bought it on release and I regret it.

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    RobF says:

    I absolutely loved it. It’s completely unserious:the videogame, it is unrelenting in its BAM BAM BAM HA presentation but that’s OK. I don’t want everything to have a point, RCR just wants you to revel in its inanity for a while in the story mode and I’m totally fine with that.

    It’s the Sigue Sigue Sputnik Of Videogames. Absolutely daft as a brush, completely in your face with it all and wearing quite possibly the silliest things it could be. I’m old enough that this stuff means something to me but not being one to revel in an orgy of eighties references, I’m more inspired by how it just does not give a toss really. It’s not even sly nod and a wink, it’s EVERYTHING RIGHT THERE LOOK AT IT. Not even really trying to be funny with it, it’s almost anti-nostalgia.

    And it had Paperboy less shit than the real Paperboy. That’s a win in my book.

    Loved it. From the cop markers to the world’s most pointless haircut-in-games feature, I thought it was a brilliant, brilliant thing and I’m so glad it exists.

    Also, anyone who plays it in See64 mode is a big fool.

    • rasssmus says:

      Word. All these negative comments had me worried, ’cause this game deserves to be played.

      And when exactly did Saint’s Row become something “meaningful”?

    • Shooop says:

      I don’t mind utter silliness, the opposite in most cases.

      But this just looks like Internet Forums: The Game. Where the only attempt at humor is just throwing out a pop-culture item on the screen and expecting you to think of it as a joke. Duke Nukem Forever did the same thing. I need not say more.

      • Premium User Badge

        RobF says:

        That’s being massively unfair to it, it’s not really that at all. It’s more like a shock and awe of 80′s culture references, there’s no “haha look at me, aren’t I funny?” to it in any way, it’s cramming everything in that it can in a non stop artillery of references and seeing just how far it can go and get away with. Whatever problems you have with the internet at large are nothing to do with this game, man. And it’s certainly no DNF either in tone or intent.

        But none of that matters anyway, that’s all just a stupid, stupid layer on top of a fantastic little 8 bit styled GTA game where you get to steal cars, run over pedestrians, collect coins after you’ve ran over the pedestrians, punch mariachis in the face and steal their guitars, cut your hair when there is absolutely no point because you’re a tiny chunky pixel anyway, play violent shooty mini games and run rampant round an open world. And then steal the A-Team’s van because why the heck not? There is not a point in history since 1985 when stealing the A-Team’s van was not a worthwhile pursuit.

        To focus on the obviously deliberate lack of story (because it’s really working that authenticity as hard as it can) or the non stop BAMBAMREFERENCE is just like, why? Are you really playing this for the story, honestly? Did anyone sit there and think for one second there’d be a profound point to all this? It’s GTA as reimagined for the SNES era and everything that entails. The constant drop of idiot and I-know-this-is-terrible eighties references are just there to link one set piece to the next and to be as cheeky as possible. And it is very IP-skirtingly cheeky at that.

        I honestly don’t understand why there’s even the slightest focus on the story. It makes -no- sense to me at all. It’s like slating Half Life 2 for not having Pokemon or something. This is a dumb silly game but it transplants the GTA open world formula into its fevered eighties dreamworld perfectly. Which is everything it ever was supposed to do.

        • Shooop says:

          Why do you keep bringing up story when neither me or the poster before me did? I get the feeling you don’t even want to get the point.

          • Premium User Badge

            RobF says:

            Because the constant stream of references are in the story mode, that’s why. Outside of that it’s a fairly straightforward series of arcade games or a wander around an 8 bit city a la GTA game.

  15. FionaSarah says:

    While I agree with a great deal of what you’re saying I think you completely missed the fact this game is basically bottled fun. I enjoy myself everytime I play it.

    Do I feel fullfiled and that my time playing it was meaningful in any way? No of course not, but that’s exactly the same as the games which it’s trying to ape.

    Oh yeah, it’s also amazingly well put together. To call it a minor technical marvel is a little bit of an understatement. It’s very, very impressive.

  16. Zeewolf says:

    I’ve only played it for 0.4 hrs so far, according to Steam. It just felt like a mess. One surreal sequence after another, no pause in between, no time to reflect on anything. I saw the reviews and the “this is brilliant!!!” forum posts, so I thought that it’d get better later. Apparently not, then… too bad.

  17. Risingson says:

    I agree with the review, as I felt exactly the same way. It’s like videogame zapping, catching glimpses of different conversations and games, like Michael Bay’s Armageddon in videogames. Fun? Maybe. But it begs for focus.

  18. celozzip says:

    glad i’m not the only one, played 38 minutes then mark of the ninja came out and i[ve played that for 3 hours now. i’m gonna try and go back to rcr at some point though.

  19. ulix says:

    Did the arcadey games of the 80s which this is referencing have any deeper meaning in their story or mechanics? Did they make you feel emotionally attached to anything but the tight mechanics? Did popular 80s TV and movies have good writing? Were they anything but silly fun?

    No, they didn’t. And that’s either what will make you feel especially good and warm inside about them, or because you snobbishly brush them off.

    I don’t and didn’t play Mega Man 3, Super Mario Bros. 3, Contra, R-Type or other games for their atmosphere, story or deeper meaning. I played them for their incredibly simple, yet at the same time incredibly tight and incredibly fun mechanics. Exactly what this game offers.

    • DonDrapersAcidTrip says:

      Uh, you could play Mega Man 3, Super Mario Bros. 3, Contra, R-Type without being bombarded by annoying internet nerd “LOLRANDOM” humor literally nonstop from the minute the game starts.

      Don’t know why people keep saying this “IT DON’T HAVE TO BE MEANINGFUL” crap. No but it doesn’t have to be irritating unfunny bullshit either.

  20. strange_headache says:

    Yes this game is a mess, but the kind of mess that reminds you of the hard party you had the night before and that you are now forced to clean up over a splitting headache. It is the kind of mess that you either like or absolutely despise. I like it…

  21. Kefren says:

    [Spoilers] This is timely. I finished it last night, rarely playing a game on release (I normally wait until they appear on GOG…). I told my girlfriend I’d watch a film with her, but then realised I was on the final missions, and because of the checkpoint system worried that if I quit, I’d have to replay all those end stages again, some of which were ferociously hard. And so it was that I spent about an hour on the final stage, only finishing it at 1am, by which time I had every nuance of movement, timing and strategy (don’t shoot Buttnick every time he crosses your path, so that by the time he gets really fast you’ve reached the endless stages of road with no traffic on). It took ages to work out the movements to avoid his rockets at highest speed, but then ‘whammo’ done, main missions over, new modes unlocked.

    I enjoyed a lot of aspects of the game.
    1: Doesn’t take too long to play a quick session of – some missions only take minutes. Even some longer ones with challenge and requiring multiple attempts only take a few minutes once you’ve put the practice in.
    2: The overall game can be completed in a few evenings if you mainly just do the missions, yet there is plenty to still do and unlock. I like that. I prefer it to games that go on for weeks. Give me a shorter game that I can replay any time. (System Shock 2 rather than Dead Island).
    3: I got a lot of the references despite never being a console person (i.e. Nintendo and Sega are pretty much background to my games maturation). Some were really nicely done, yet twisted into a new direction.

    I should not that some of the levels are very hard. I gave up on one or two (e.g. playing death, having to kill a number of people in a tight time limit). The ‘Sweat Bomb’ levels really tried my patience, yet I felt strangely pleased once I finally got past them. Ditto with the Smash TV levels. The end of the game was horrendously hard, but at the same time playing a mix-up of Chase HQ, Roadblasters and Hang On brought a smile to my face, at least until the harder stages. By Jove, I really hate Buttnick.

    It’s amazing that one person did all this, Brian Provinciano. I’d emailed him, and he replied a few times despite it being his busiest day (RCR launch day).

    It’s worth noting how I played. Keyboard controls even though I have a gamepad (worked fine). I recommend running the game full screen, rather than within a retro TV/cabinet screen that it defaults to, it makes the game easier (though do look at the different surround options). I loved the different video modes, often playing in C64 mode and almost imagining I was really ‘back in the day’. The video modes were fun to try out. What I usually did was switch to the next one when I died, and end up cycling through them all. This made repeated attempts at a single mission quite satisfying, since it _looked_ different each time. Funnily I was playing the final mission in ‘Brick handheld’ mode (basically a blurry mono Gameboy) when I eventually completed the game. I didn’t want to press Esc in case it quit from the congratulatory scenes, so only saw them in blurry yellow! Wished I’d gone back into a full colour mode before that, but I hadn’t expected to finally win. I suppose it added a real retro touch to completing RCR.

    The game itself is smooth and I came across no bugs. A very minor issue was the arrow to go into buildings looked a bit like a healing heart, which caught me out when in a manic battle once or twice. Also sometimes the blue ‘main mission’ indicator is hidden under one of the orange side mission indicators.

    I think the game is an impressive achievement, and obviously a labour of huge love, and we should applaud that. Despite Alec’s ambivalence you can probably work out from reviews and screenshots if it is likely to be your thing or not. If it does look like it then go for it. I got mine as a pre-order so got it DRM free on GOG, where it is on sale (along with Steam or direct from the main RCR site). At the very least you’ll have a pick up and play quick stress reliever and a few chuckles. Even the haircuts made me laugh, and I did change costume every now and again for variety.

    • dirtrobot says:

      Yeah I’m totally blown away at how this was done by one dude. I bought this game mainly on the principle of supporting an indie who actually cares about gameplay (not just long-winded egomaniacal story telling) with low expectations. But my expectations have easily been blown away.

  22. rohsiph says:

    I enjoyed it as a fluffy companion piece to XCOM over the last week and a half. No, there’s hardly any subtext or consistency, but it felt like I fit the prime target-demographic, growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, mastering NES games after school that were just as “pointless.”

    There was one string of consistency I’m saddened no one has touched on yet: the obvious nods to early Nintendo of America censorship. You don’t kill pedestrians, you “give them ‘wings’.” You don’t steal cars, you ‘borrow’ them. You get ‘sick’ on ‘milk.’ Those examples lack any subtlety of course, but they carried through the missions, making the experience feel connected as a ridiculous, iconoclastic look at what things were like back then and what they may have become if the only advances in game design were in mechanics and graphics.

    Maybe I’m just a schlub, but I got a kick out of the Game Genie spoof, helping out Shredder from TMNT, and the Doc’s obliviousness.

  23. Etnos says:

    I like references, they work well when smartly done. However I had the same felling with Borderlands 2, references for the sake of reference feels week and generic, no context, no build up.. just HERE YOU GO: ANOTHER REFERENCE, GOT IT!?

  24. dirtrobot says:

    “The problem, for me, was caring. Once again, that parody status seems to be a bit of a get out of jail free card, so there is no apparent desire for resonance in anything the player does. The player is The Player, given gabbled sociopathic tasks by cartoon criminals which they can choose to do or delay doing,”

    This quote is exactly how I feel about every GTA (and RDR) ever. Great story for the first hour or so, then it devolves into fetch and murder quests – leading me to hate my now-cardboard protagonist I’m controlling.

    Love RCR, my only issue is sometimes wrestling with the controls. The content is just so ridiculous that I can’t get grumpy about the avalanche of references.