It is easy to qualify Retro City Rampage as a self-aware 8-bit ripoff of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. After all, both take place in large cities on which players are free to roam around, star characters whose purpose is to set the place on fire with maniacal actions, and progress by giving gamers the chance to either take on missions of the main storyline or partake sidequests that introduce new personages and situations. The similarities, both for the good and for the bad, end there though.
Grand Theft Auto is a game grounded in reality. Its happenings are not extremely outlandish, and the behavior and actions of its characters follow certain psychological patterns. In spite of its interesting premise of putting players on the shoes of a criminal, its realism paints a serious picture. Retro City Rampage, fully aware of its position as an indie parody, decides to take advantage of outrageously far-fetched scenarios. It is extremely careless and loose on the missions it delivers to players who may - in one moment - pair up with Death itself to slay civilians randomly only to, later, vandalize a laundromat to collect some loot.
The meeting of so many ridiculous tasks in a single game starts being set up by its over-the-top storyline. During a heist lead by crime lord “The Jester”, a man aptly named “Player” runs into a time-machine and decides to take it from the hands of its owners. When arriving in the not-so-distant future (the year of 20XX), the machine breaks down. Luckily, a scientist witnesses the scene, and – believing the thug to be a time-traveling hero – decides to help him gather the pieces to fix his destroyed machine.
From that point on, players are sent all across the city to track down the pieces needed to repair the machine. As they navigate through the inner workings of Retro City, players will come across a fantastic cast of characters with great quirks, dirty mouths, shocking bluntness, and despicable attitudes. Due to the game's wild and reckless nature, organically supported by its wish to explore the extravagant ridiculousness that exists in the life of a criminal that runs people over on the street for no reason whatsoever, each mission comes with the intriguing expectation of what exactly will happen next and who will be responsible for giving you such baffling tasks.
Aside from that, the grand allure present in Retro City Rampage is how it is able to make blatant references to pretty much every single pop culture icon that existed between the eighties and early nineties. The game is not old-school merely on its pixelated appearance. Every tiny brick that builds the web of relationships that exist in the city can be traced back to that time. Some scenario details are carbon copies of Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda; characters of generation-defining movies have been transported in satirical versions and thrown in the middle of this insane city; and even billboards, location names and dialogues are adapted nods to remarkable pieces of entertainment of that era.
Much like knowing which unpredictable turn the story will take next, locating the hundreds of references Retro City Rampage makes to icons of that era is more than an extra pleasure: it is the very heart and soul of the experience. This is a game that is out to make fun of what it believes to be ridiculous (in a positive kind of way), and pay homage to the popular pillars of a generation that have – in many cases – transcended the eighties and found respect and admiration on the hands of many generations that followed.
It works hard to keep that legacy alive, fresh and relevant, and – for the most part – that is what it achieves. Adults who were youngsters during those times will laugh and nod in recognition of the throwbacks; while teenagers will pick up some links to those days with relative ease while cautiously remaining on the lookout for more obscure hooks.
In its essence, though, Retro City Rampage is a game, not a book of references to a great decade. Therefore, it must be attentively judged by its gameplay, and on that regard the game is not a big success. In spite of their creative premises, the missions are often dull and repetitive. They mostly involve driving to a certain point in the city in order to do away with enemies or having to go on a mad killing spree for random reasons. Their structures are rarely surprising and fresh, and it is hard not to feel like you are pretty much doing the same task over and over again.
To be fair, there some tasks – very few of them – that are indeed creative, but they either come on the final stretch of the game or are too sparsely scattered to give the adventure any sort of great momentum. In addition, the game's difficulty curve is staggering uneven, which serves to increase the overall feeling that, differently from its brilliantly scripted and thought of nods to 80s, the design of the main game was put together way too quickly for its own good.
Still, Retro City Rampage is fortunate to be supported by a very solid control scheme. Within the limitations of its perspective and 8-bit presentation, the game found a way to incorporate some modern quirks to its interface, such as a helpful and informative map, and a display to show which item of your character's incredibly varied arsenal is currently being used by Player to murder his victims. However, the finest feature here is certainly how, by holding the shooting button, it is possible to lock onto a nearby enemy in order to easily circle around him while avoiding all the projectiles crowding the screen.
Despite its irregular gameplay, Retro City Rampage is undeniably packed with content. The main quest, with its good level of challenge, can take around eight hours to be completed, and the city is also filled with side missions. Like the ones from the core storyline, their structures are not very varied. However, the fact they are presented as timed mini-games on which players must score loads of points by destroying everything on their sight transforms them into short bursts of fun. Besides, players are awarded medals according to the score amassed, and since the gold prizes are usually hard to get, those little explosive activities have high replay value.
Another area on which the title is excellent at are its technical features. The 8-bit graphics are amazingly used, and they are able to build scenarios, buildings and characters with a lot of variety and charm, crafting a game that thrives on its purposed graphical limitations instead of suffering because of them. The same applies for its stellar soundtrack, which offers a large number of chiptunes that are catchy and fit the mood of the game very well.
When it is all said and done, Retro City Rampage DX is a game that is extremely successful in a great number of areas. Everything that is old-school about it - its mélange of references to the 80s, its bit-built graphics, and its music - is unquestionably remarkable. Sadly, it fails on the area on which must-play titles are separated from merely decent ones: gameplay. As a homage to a long-gone era on which great popular culture was born, Retro City Rampage DX is a resounding glory; as a game, it is playable, yet forgettable.