“What would Grand Theft Auto have been like on the NES?” It’s an interesting question, and one that Vblank’s Retro City Rampage attempts to answer by fusing the franchise’s original bird’s-eye viewpoint with a bucketful of 80s/90s nostalgia. The game never quite comes together, but designer Brian Provinciano definitely deserves points for trying.
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360 (Version Played)
Publisher: Vblank Entertainment
Developer: Vblank Entertainment
Genre: Grand Theftendo
Release Date: October 9, 2012 (PC, PSN), January 2, 2013 (XBLA)
ESRB Rating: Teen
The opening scene of Retro City Rampage takes place on October 18, 1985. In the first few minutes, Retro City Rampage ratchets up the action and the comedy with a wild heist mission that parodies and/or references Duck Hunt, Mega Man II, “Sabotage,” Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Dark Knight, Mortal Kombat II, and Super Mario Bros. 2. The allusions come so fast and furious that I probably missed a few.
From there, the main plot, which has been borrowed pretty much wholesale from Back to the Future, blasts our hero into the strange future that is the present day. Thankfully, Doc Choc (because chocolate is brown, you see) and his DeLorean are nearby to put things right.
The game keeps up the ridiculous pace of the opening mission for a decent stretch of time until it all comes crashing to a halt about halfway through. Your momentum-killer mission probably won’t be the same as my momentum-killer mission, but somewhere around the “follow that car” mission, you’ll realize that replaying an un-fun and extremely convoluted mission over and over again just pulls you right out of the action. For me, it was when I was tasked with following Retro City Rampage’s version of Batman on foot. During that mission, RCR’s anti-hero has to stop at several coffee stands to drink enough joe to stay awake during what the game calls a “boring stealth mission.” That’s not comedy; that’s laughing at your audience for having to endure a poorly put-together mission.
And things don’t get much better during the mission where the player has to catch old people being thrown off the roof of a retirement home and feeding them to a haunted hearse or having to power the “Go-Go Busters” proton packs by playing a Root Beer Tapper-like minigame. And I know I didn’t need the Saved By the Bell-themed mission that asked the player to beat up Zack and Slater stand-ins before being rewarded with sex with a drunken Kelly stand-in on her kitchen table (as you might have guessed, it’s a Hot Coffee parody). Or any of the missions in the “Final Boss Castle,” which is just a brutal marathon of ultra-hard gameplay tropes that should have been left in the 80s.
Aside from appropriating beloved films/games/television shows, Retro City Rampage also doubles as a satire that tries to take aim at the big game publishing houses and their attack on the indie development world. These missions eschew the rapid fire references and parodies to tell a tale of overweight executives, their ugly wives, and the weird sex lives they have. Oh, and the big game publishers are bad! Take that, big game publishers! Yeah… just, no.
All that said, Retro City Rampage ably answers the question posed above. Seeing a Grand Theft Auto game reworked in 8-bit graphics is great. The experiment is a great success visually but, believe it or not, the graphics actually feel a bit too retro. The 8-bit style crams so many tiny characters onto the map that it’s hard to tell what you’re even looking at half the time.
If you have any affinity for 80s/90s pop culture, Retro City Rampage will surely cause a smirk or two as you play it. But a large portion of the title resurrects the worst quirks of NES-era video games. Get the demo, play the first five minutes, and then turn it off safe in the knowledge that you’ve seen Retro City Rampage at its best.
Review Disclosure: A review copy of Retro City Rampage was provided by Vblank Entertainment for the purposes of this review.