A few years ago, Michael Thomsen published an article
wondering if Metroid Prime was video gaming's Citizen Kane. It's a baffling notion that was, understandably, mocked by gamers around the world. Honestly, I don't know if Metroid Prime is our Citizen Kane. I liked both and wouldn't even know where to begin when it comes to comparing the two. But there's one thing I do know for sure: Retro City Rampage is our industry's Mad Magazine.
Retro City Rampage is a never ending confetti explosion of classic video game references and jokes. Within seconds of starting the game you'll be bombarded with references to the Mega Man II intro, the Duck Hunt pooch, Mortal Kombat's "Toasty" guy, the Green Hill Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog, and the underground piping of Mario Bros. And that's just the video game references. The whole stage is couched in what appears to be an 8-bit retelling of the opening minutes of The Dark Knight.
Although it looks like an 8-bit Grand Theft Auto 2, Retro City Rampage has its sights set a little broader. This is a stinging indictment against modern games, the people that make them, and those of us in the press that cover them. By stretching them to their extremes, designer Brian Provinciano has pointed out how ludicrous modern day gaming tropes really are. I'll never look at another pointless tailing mission the same way after playing this game.
There's a story here, though it's little more than an excuse to get us from one parody to another. You play a low-level criminal named Player, who spends much of his time hunting down ridiculous parts so that his mad scientist buddy can rebuild a time machine. Gee, where have we heard that before?
Each stage is an opportunity to skewer a different game or genre. Often you'll have to play a parody of a specific level from an iconic game, all while the game is tossing jokes and references at you. Early on, Player is forced to stealth his way through a Metal Gear-like compound (complete with guards with translation problems). This gives the designer a chance to also make fun of RoboCop and Bionic Commando, a couple of franchises I never thought would be smooshed together.
Later in the game you'll meet up with the Game Genie, who forces you to go through a Legend of Zelda-style dungeon. By itself that isn't a terribly original idea, yet it works here because they take the time to lampoon other overhead games (including Smash TV). The same thing happens late in the game when we're presented with a Rad Racer parody. The fact that this section is compatible with your old school red and blue 3D glasses may have been enough for some people, but Retro City Rampage goes the extra step by tossing in references to Super Mario Kart, OutRun, SpyHunter, and many other classic racers.
Like any comedy, not all of the jokes hit their target. There's a parody of an infamous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stage that doesn't go far enough. Other times it felt like I was left hanging as I waited for a punchline. Thankfully most of the humor works, and even when it doesn't, the absurdity of the story and situations should be enough to keep you going through all 62 stages.
When you're not tracking down items for a time machine, you can zip around Theftropolis stealing cars, running over pedestrians, and causing the usual open-world chaos. Even with the simplistic 8-bit graphics, Retro City Rampage's world is bursting with familiar cars and locations. Spend a few minutes walking the streets of Theftropolis and you'll have a chance to steal famous rides from the Ghostbusters, A-Team, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and more. The stores and billboards are also love letters to 1980s pop culture, including MJ's Face R Us Plastic Surgery, Skate or Buy, Grogbrush's coffee stand, Bugeye Louie's Bike shop, and many more.
There are also 37 different arcade challenges, which are separated into slaughter sprees and second-rate sprees. Here you'll have a minute to complete an objective, usually involving killing Theftropolis civilians as quickly as possible. Although simple, these quick missions are a great way to waste some time. Best of all, each of these missions is archived in the main menu for easy access. You can even compare your scores to friends'.
Even though the scope and ambition is far beyond your typical 8-bit title, Retro City Rampage does still suffer from many of the problems that plagued classic Nintendo Entertainment System games. For starters, many of the late-game missions are needlessly difficult. A particular fight with the Dr. Robotnik-inspired villain left me cursing Brian Provinciano's name. I also ran into some control problems that stemmed from the limited gameplay mechanics.
And yet, it's hard for me to criticize some of these problems. Frustrating boss battles are true to the spirit of the 8-bit action games. This game does try to meet the player halfway, offering well-placed checkpoints on the especially difficult missions. But even that may not be enough for a generation of gamers who don't remember a time when games were genuinely hard.
Retro City Rampage is one of the few games where too much happens. The jokes and references come at a rapid fire rate; blink and you'll probably miss two or three. There's barely enough time to digest one thing before the game throws something else at you. Needless to say, the frenetic pace can be exhausting. By the time I finished the story, I had seen so much content that it all started to blur together.
Brian Provinciano is at his best when he's dialed into one specific target. There are bits about modern game journalism and the disposable nature of developers in Retro City Rampage that are truly inspired. If nothing else, this is his critique on gaming culture, both good and bad. It's easy to write this game off as nothing more than an homage to a time many of us have nostalgia for, but that completely misses what makes this game so remarkable.
Retro City Rampage won me over the moment I saw that I could emulate the look of Nintendo's black and red Virtual Boy on my PS Vita. From there I was delighted by the amusing story, challenging missions and non-stop pop culture parodies. Somehow Brian Provinciano has been able to create a product that works as both a deconstruction of Grand Theft Auto and an extended satire of classic games. That's something that not even Rockstar Games was daring enough to attempt.