The following is a list of references I noted while playing the first 20 or so minutes Retro City Rampage:
- River City Ransom
- Grand Theft Auto
- Back to the Future
- Tenacious D
- Duck Hunt
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
- Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
- Metal Gear/ Metal Gear Solid
- Game Genie
- Mega Man
- Mortal Kombat
- The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
- Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!
- Beastie Boy’s “Sabotage” Spike Jonz music video
- Batman (Dark Knight/Nolan and Adam West Era Universes, specifically)
- Duck Tales (Scrooge McDuck, specifically)
- Super Mario Bros.
- Sonic the Hedgehog
- Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
As someone who relishes in film, music, television, and videogame references, I thought Retro City Rampage (RCR) would be right up my alley. The first half-hour is an exhilarating mess of 8-bit tunes and cutscenes manipulated by fast-forward controls – LIKE A VHS! – that come barreling out of the game. It’s noisy, but charming. As our hero, Player, tangles himself into a story about time travel, Joker wannabes, and busted DeLoreans, the isometric view seems adjusted far enough away to see all of this zany, radical adventure. But, dudes and dudettes, RCR bites it in a most righteous fashion. Like a marathon of Family Guy, the humor’s unconnected stamina becomes paralyzing.
The game’s adopted Grand Theft Borrow template showcases its dizzying world of references. Everything – I mean everything – in Theftopolis nods to some chunk of ’80s and ’90s pop culture. Looking like an early entry in the Grand Theft Auto franchise softens RCR‘s cultural boom, but only so much. After an hour, it’s a daunting reminder of all the worlds and concepts I used to joke about with friends. Back then, however, we had the luxury of timing and spontaneity. RCR bases itself around a constant trickle of inside jokes. Doing so without polarizing people isn’t easy, as proven by the game’s story.
It’s a simple premise – Player assists Doc Choc reassemble his demolished time machine. Like a version of the Fonz with an unquenchable thirst to do stuff for people, Player willingly tosses himself from job to job. I didn’t share his enthusiasm.
RCR uses its respectable knowledge of pop culture as fuel to propel the objectives and set pieces. Trouble is, continually chucking reference after reference becomes exhausting. Trying to extract something deeper from the story leaves one wanting.
Having a jump action a la Super Mario Bros. to stomp-kill enemies is an empowering, mostly awkward, device. Having a cover system in an 8-bit isometric game is questionable and unnecessary. I forgot I had the cover system until the last few hours of the game, reminded only when Player began a mission already hunched behind some crates. The tiny sprite size only worsens things. Still, it’s good for those who practice it. For me, jumping around like a pixelated gummy bear was more controllable and fun.
In the latter half of the game, the difficulty spikes, changing the shoot/dodge mechanics from goofy nostalgia controls to an exercise in precise timing. In several of the more obvious referential outings – the infamous underwater levels of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, electrical seaweed and all; the room-by-room succession of Smash TV – dancing around enemy fire and other environmental obstacles felt just like a blow-in-the-cartridge experience – brutal, unrelenting, and full of me scoffing and whining. Just like old times. Maybe this challenge jolt was purposely crafted to complete the NES-ness of RCR, but the sudden spike in difficulty mixed with the game’s snickering “Congratulations! You Lose!” death screen (complete with a death count), leads me to believe otherwise. It feels more like a practical joke.
I appreciate challenge. I recently argued it makes games more rewarding in the right setting. Here, though, it feels immeasurable. I’m not sure if I got more skillful while playing or if I just lucked out and made my way through. Imprecise pixel detection makes its next-gen return. That the game becomes easier after a certain amount of failures – weapon requirements change, missions can be skipped – only furthers the point. It comes off as a nudge in the ribs followed by a swift “Ah, I’m just kidding.” It’s entertaining, absolutely, but it’s also numbing and tiring after prolonged exposure. Much like the humor.
Homage is important. It’s admiration paid through exclusivity and I enjoy it. I like flexing my IMDB-esque pop muscles when this type of entertainment is released. I like being the only guy in the room who understands when game mechanics are mimicking
I guess what I’m saying is I got Peter Griffin instead of Abed Nadir.