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Wot I Think: Retro City Rampage

Grand Theft

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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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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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