Imagine you’re playing an open-world, sandbox video game, stealing cars and completing missions, except the mission is to beat up Shaggy, and the car you’re stealing is the Mystery Machine.
Activities like this are common in the world of “Retro City Rampage,” an eight-bit parody made for a post-“Grand Theft Auto” world. Gamers are a generic, mullet-sporting, leather jacket-wearing criminal, running rampant on the streets of Theftropolis, mowing down 80s icons like the cast of “Saved by the Bell” or dressing up as Robocop to frame him for a downtown rocket-spree.
Granted, none of these copyrighted names are used, but the game is written with the bare subtlety of not getting sued. Adam West is pixilated, the Ninja Turtles’ names aren’t mentioned and Yoshi is still ridden, but instead as a misshapen, green motorcycle. If one ever wanted to see (or run over) a blatant pop culture reference, this is the game.
The story is odd, yet simple. Players are trying to fix the Delorean (the one from “Back to the Future”) so that they can go back to the 80s. There are three kinds of mission markers: story missions, advancing the overarching nonsense by stumbling into Nintendo parodies; side missions, doing referential nonsense for no particular reason; and slaughter sprees, creating carnage in nonsense ways. I had trouble discerning the first two, as all nonsense starts to become just as relevant after a while, but the third may have made the most sense.
The gameplay is a strange amalgamation, striking the line somewhere between old school Zelda and early GTA, playing like a Playstation One and looking like a NES. For the most part, the player does just about everything Tommy Vercetti or Nico Bellic could do, plus pick people up and head stomp. Granted, that kind of violence gets tiring, but the gameplay is not this title’s strong point.
What makes this game worth playing is the writing. For the most part, the jokes are pretty spot-on, biting its thumb at every beloved classic, from a feral, radioactive Mario to a LARP style Master Sword. It never gets any deeper than critiquing censorship or corporate policies, but in small doses this game can provide some true rib busting, frolicking from irreverence to irrelevance while mocking game design itself. It becomes tiring, though, when jokes are used to mock its own stale segments, a sheepish tactic and limp excuse.
Another thing that this game really has going for it is the twitched out soundtrack, providing over two hours of chiptune (electronic composed with old video game technology) with a vast array of styles. Jack a bicycle, and you feel like you’re leaving your hometown for the first time. A boss challenges you, and it’s a fight for your soul. Even by the end of the campaign, I was still finding new tracks across the game’s 13 radio stations. With all the minor customizable elements as well, such as retro filters, borders, haircuts, faces, unlockable characters and the like, this game is certainly not low on content.
Like the modern carjacking simulator off of which “Retro City Rampage” is based, most of what this game has going for it is the entire atmosphere it puts together. It blends contemporary elements with old school, creating a smorgasbord of nostalgia and mayhem, though faltering at times on its limited engine. At $15, the price is a bit steep for what’s offered, but if it’s ever seen on discount, this is one adventure that’s too strange to miss.