In Retro City Rampage DX, you play as a guy named Player, a small time crook who has aspirations of becoming a crime lord. The first step on his journey is to become a henchman for a super criminal known as the Jester, and you rob a bank and use a school bus as a getaway vehicle. But this is only after the Jester shoots some of his own henchman. And from there, Player is sent to the future world of 20XX in a suspiciously Whovian phone booth, and he must work with a brilliant scientist named Doc Choc to get back to his own time. This is all presented in 8 bit sprite based top down view like the original GTA game.
From that description, you should be able to tell if this game is for you or not. It is absolutely loaded with pop culture references, primarily movies and video games from the 80’s, spoofing Back to the Future, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Metal Gear, Batman, Ghostbusters, Contra, and so many more, many of which I’m sure I missed. The story moves at an absolutely break neck pace, too. Characters are introduced and disposed of sometimes in the span of seconds, and it can be tough at times to keep track of who is who and what you’re supposed to be doing, but the plot boils down to an extended fetch quest where you must obtain the required pieces of a time machine to get back to 1985.
The problem with the writing is that it is all over the place in terms of quality. It tries to be a comedy game, which is apparent in how many pieces of pop culture it spoofs, but it doesn’t seem to know the difference between a reference and a joke. Take the opening scene I described above. It clearly reflects the opening of the 2008 film The Dark Knight. The thing is that it doesn’t do anything with that premise. Rather than making any kind of joke, it’s simply a reenactment from a henchman’s perspective that features characters with different names. The humor is much more effective when it’s situational, such as one point where you must help uncover a corporate conspiracy (that also digs at the darker side of indie development). Doc Choc mentions how they stole something and Player says something to the effect of, “That’s awful! Who would ever steal something?” Too often, though, the game thinks that it can be funny by merely imitating something from the 80’s.
This slapdash, see what sticks approach does lead to a lot of variety in mission structure, though. Each story mission is different from the last. Some are quite enjoyable, like one where you must steal a car that looks like Donkey Kong from a military base, or one that has you going around in a hockey mask smashing various businesses that owe money to a loan shark. Others, though, feel like a joke gone bad. One has you swimming through a gauntlet of electrified seaweed and one hit kill gears on a time limit in order to arm a bunch of bombs to blow up four mutant turtles. It’s a clear reference to one of the TMNT games on the NES that had an absolutely infamous water level with a timer where you needed to disarm bombs while also narrowly dodging various obstacles. It’s not very funny, and much like its inspiration, it’s more frustrating than fun.
So while the missions are a mixed bag, the game does a good job of making you feel powerful while roaming the city of Theftropolis. Cars handle well enough so that you can maneuver easily in and out of traffic, and pedestrians hilariously fly across the screen when you hit them. The simple tin stick combat is serviceable if a bit unremarkable, but it’s at least pretty good at making you feel empowered. Additionally, the game looks and sounds straight out of the NES era. The pixelated graphics are gorgeous, and the environments are absolutely dense with nice little details, whether it’s an advertisement for some kind of food chain or some graffiti on the wall. The tunes are catchy and do their job, and there’s a whole ton of them, meaning your ears won’t get bored while you play.
Weirdly enough, the game’s flaws kind of punctuate its theme of nostalgia with a cold, hard truth: sometimes things of the past are more flawed than you remember them being. The game is manic in how fast moving it is and how many references and ideas it throws at the wall, and only some of them stick. This leads to chaos in just about every facet of the game, from the level ideas to the writing, to its structure. It’s a big, sloppy love letter to a bygone era that is moderately enjoyable at times and frustrating at others.
+ Great 8 bit graphics and sound track
+ Free roaming can be a fun, empowering experience
+ Some of the levels capture the deranged, crazy tone the game is going for
+ When the humor works, it works well
- Often mistakes a simple reference for a real joke, and it relies far too heavily on said references
- Many of the levels are more frustrating than fun
- Combat is serviceable but nothing to write home about
- Story is difficult to keep up with due to the pace it introduces and disposes of characters and ideas