If you can say nothing else about Retro City Rampage, you can say this: It has the best chiptune diarrhea sequence ever committed to 8-bits.
Rampage, a doubly parodic fusion of early Nintendo and open-world gaming, is packed with—no, scratch that, almost entirely made of—references both classic and modern. Hence the Dark Knight-inspired “Jester” and “Biffman” characters, a Paperboy-style mission supplied by a Doc Louis (à la Punch-Out) lookalike, scores of cameos from current indie developers such as Phil Fish, and the aforementioned digital bowel trouble that opens up a Saved by the Bell chapter. Plus so many, many more.
There are plenty of gags aimed at open-world grandaddy Grand Theft Auto, too, like an intentionally slow, on-foot car tailing sequence where you need coffee to stay awake. But, despite the obvious satire that comes with combining gaming’s innocent past with its ultra-violent future, Retro City Rampage is actually quite similar to the earlier 2D GTA games.
As “Player” (yes, that’s the character’s name), you can steal cars, murder citizens and police alike with weapons ranging from pistols and shotguns to robotic claws and proton packs, try your hand at challenging score-based “Rampages,” and generally trash the cozy little 8-bit city of Theftropolis in O.G. GTA fashion.
As in any game grounded in an open world, the setting is what really ends up stealing the show. Theftropolis, despite the forced humor of its name, is as engaging a world as any San Andreas or Liberty City (or Hong Kong, for that matter). From manic foot chases down alleys with police to quiet, relatively murder-free drives past punningly named storefronts, the experience of the city as a whole alludes to classic 8-bit gaming and engenders moments of levity without shoving nostalgia and jokes down the player’s (“Player’s”?) throat. Paired with the simple-but-effective combat, it’s more humorous homage than full-on parody.
If only the same could be said for the mission-based content. Retro City Rampage has an all-or-nothing, home run approach to humor. When it works, it really works. To wit, again: chiptune diarrhea. But all too often it seems like where the open-world of Theftropolis captures the subtle feeling of 8-bit gaming indulging in open-world wanderlust, the story and side missions are more about making recognizable characters say dirty things, and shoving in as many See What I Did Theres as possible.
This slavish devotion to humor befitting an Ebaum’s World or Newgrounds doesn’t often get in the way of the actual missions, which are fast-paced, inventive and funny on their own terms. (Even your basic race mission gets a clever twist, with a shotgun-riding trucker demanding you pull over every so often during the trial to pick up fast-food or to run over the skateboarders that are “lowering his property value.”) But when the game’s conceit does interfere with its play, hoo boy, is it noticeable. The idea of a porcine game publishing boss imbued with corrosive perspiration, who “sweat bombs” employees to improve morale? Funny. The execution of said funny idea in a twitchy, frustrating platforming section unlike anything the player (sigh... “Player”) has encountered before? Well, sometimes humor can only go so far.
Truly, that’s the one main problem with Retro City Rampage as parody. It’s a title that plays with time (figuratively and literally—the plot’s largely about rebuilding a DeLorean-esque time machine), but sits in an uncomfortable space between rote jokes about Metal Gear’s hiding in boxes and “topical” gags about the David Hasselhoff Burger Incident. While playing and screwing around in a city whose richness belies its basic graphical fidelity, or in the free-roam mode, or in any of the several truly clever spins on traditional 8-bit era/open-world missions, one comes away with the same feeling: Retro City Rampage is a game that’s more fun than funny. And, between the stabs at the game industry and the “Pen Club 15”-caliber jokes, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been with a little less snark and a little more earnestness.
Sean Clancy is a freelance writer in the Boston area. He’s a frequent contributor to DigBoston and talks all kinds of stuff on Twitter.