Saturday, 19 January 2013

REVIEW - Retro City Rampage (XBLA / PS3)

Observant readers of this site will notice that I have already reviewed the PC version of Retro City Rampage, giving it a fairly harsh score based on both my experience playing the game and the incredible disappointment I felt after waiting several years for it to finally materialise. Now that the dust has settled and a new Xbox Live Arcade version has arrived I felt it was time to come back to it with a fresh set of eyes and no preconceptions. While the core game remains the same, there are many notable improvements to the gameplay and as such I had a great deal more fun with it than the PC version.

The brainchild of just one man, Brian Provinciano, Retro City Rampage started life as a homebrew NES game based on Grand Theft Auto. Entitled Grandtheftendo, it soon grew far too big for its hardware boots and so Brian made the logical choice to produce it for PC instead. With the limitations removed he aimed bigger and soon a whole sandbox world was born. He wanted to stick closely to the NES roots so began adding references to classic 8-bit games. This soon incorporated TV and movie references from the same era and, as more and more nods to classic shows and games were added, Retro City Rampage was soon a full blown parody game.

Taking control of the minuscule hero sprite, named 'Player', you are let loose in an equally tiny over-head city. The main plot is a wholesale rip-off.. I mean tribute to the Back To The Future movies. Wild haired Doc Choc meets you in his DeLorean and you soon find yourself stuck in the wrong time period. What follows is a varied selection of reasonably short missions consisting of the usual GTA staple of fetch quests, killing sprees and driving from A to B. These missions will grant you the opportunity to sneak around a Metal Gear environment, swim through a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dam section, kill everything in sight in a Smash TV twin stick shooter, and much more. References come thick and fast, and in just a short section of gameplay you will have murdered the Ninja Turtles and the A-Team, been involved in a Dark Knight style bank raid, spotted the dog from Duck Hunt, jumped down a Mario style pipe and head butted a block, flipping over some Koopas. The rapid fire nature of the missions keeps you interested and looking forward to what is coming next. Due to the brevity of the missions though, the game can often feel like a selection of mini games, akin to Nintendo's Wario Ware titles, rather than a standalone title. It keeps the energy levels up and the surprises flowing, but at the same time it doesn't really allow you to immerse yourself in the game world.

While many jokes and references hit the mark, and are genuinely amusing, many others fall flat. Some jokes are repeated so often they become quite tedious, and some seem like personal digs at certain individuals and companies, rather than light hearted parody. Almost everything in the game references something from the 80's era of games and movies, even the buildings all have names mocking familiar brands, for example 'F U Mondays' and 'Sixbucks Coffee'. Some are obvious, but others will only be understood by hardcore fans of NES games (the Iron Sword box art ribbing 'Fabby-O's Cereal, for example).

Graphically the game looks the part, with the excellent retro visual style perfectly capturing the whole 'Grand Theft Auto' look on an 8-bit console. Seeing as this was the author's initial premise for the whole project, I can safely say he was hugely successful. But, although the world is brimming with character and retro charm, the main problem is that the sprites are tiny. I mean, really really small! It can lead to confusion as you try to make out what is happening on screen, with interior sections in particular being an eye strain. It seems strange that everything is so small as when playing original NES games, most of the spites are actually quite large. You only need to boot up Super Mario Bros. 3 (as if you need an excuse!) after playing this to see that Retro City Rampage has got the scale slightly wrong. The 2D sections in Retro City Rampage have slightly larger sprites (only just) and are much easier on the eye as a result.

Back to the positives though, as special mention must be given to the staggering array of visual options that allow players to choose the colour scheme of the entire game. These include the NES (naturally), the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Atari 8-bit, CGA and VGA PC, and even hand held consoles such as the Virtual Boy and Game Boy. They all look wonderful and so it is worth trying a new one each time you play. You can also select a border around the game that resembles old TVs of the time. You really are spoilt for choice, and it really showcases the amount of effort gone into the whole package. Aurally the game also excels, with a suitable catchy selection of chiptune tracks from talented, and well known chiptune composers; Leonard "FreakyDNA" Paul, Jake "Vert" Kaufman and Matt "Norrin Radd" Creamer.
These tunes enhance the experience and are a joy to listen to, taking you back to the good old days of listening to Castlevania or Mega Man games on NES.

The core gameplay is kept interesting by throwing in missions that are both highly entertaining and a welcome break from the constant carnage of the top-down GTA action that makes up the main bulk of the game. One moment you are blasting waves of aggressors in a Smash TV style game-show using flame-throwers and rocket launchers, the next you are 'sploding your way over pits and traps in a 2D platforming section clearly 'inspired' by an explosive (sorry) XBLA title. It is this sheer variety that keeps you enthralled from beginning to the moment the final credits roll. As well as some in-game sections resembling Rad Racer, there are some awesome mini-games included in 'Nolan's Arcade', one of the many buildings in the GTA world. The Bit.Trip Runner spoof is great and I could honestly have played this for the rest of the game's duration. It captures the essence of its inspiration perfectly and is immensely playable. Also representing the indie game crew is Super Meat Boy, here in a forward running game that resembles the old school racers of yesteryear. The added bonus being that it is presented as if it were on the horrendous Virtual Boy console, 3D optional! It is also great fun and obtaining all the plasters is no easy task, I can assure you.

Brian has listened to feedback from players of the PC version to tweak and improve this new Xbox Live Arcade iteration. The game has far more information and tips on what you are supposed to be doing and what abilities are at your disposal. In a game with so many different sections, each involving different controls or gameplay mechanics, this is a welcome addition. Better implementation of checkpoints takes away much of the frustration from missions that made you replay the whole thing if you died. The annoying 'tailing' mission was a main offender in this respect but is now much more bearable, due in part to the addition of coffee that can be purchased to speed up the game. The 2D 'Sweat Bomber' sections have been improved and are now far less infuriating. They can even be skipped should you die enough times (though this would make you a massive pussy worthy of ridicule, of course). Finally, some of the side quests have been tinkered with to make them fit in better with the main story.

That this is the work of just one man is an incredible accomplishment. Sure, it is not perfect, in fact there are some elements to the game that spoil the overall experience. The main GTA top-down section gets repetitive quickly and the aforementioned tininess of the world and its sprites is an issue. Also the sound effects used by in-game characters for any vocal exclamation are quite irritating and used constantly. The cut-scenes move along far too rapidly, often making it hard to keep track of what is going on, and there are some nasty difficulty spikes later on in the game that will have you pulling your hair out. Completing the game allows you to play a 'Turbo' mode, but it is so fast it is absolutely horrible to play and should be avoided (annoyingly, 50 achievement points are up for grabs for finishing Turbo mode, but it isn’t worth the inevitable headache). The sections that mimic Rad Racer, Bit.Trip Runner, 'Splosion Man etc. are so fun to play that it actually feels disappointing to have to return to the GTA part, and once you have finished the game and seen all the gags there is little to bring you back for more. Like any 'sandbox' game, once all the missions are completed, running around an objective-less world is pretty boring. Luckily the arcade mini-games will keep you coming back until you have perfected them and earned the secrets.

Overall though, Retro City Rampage is enjoyable, frantic, amusing, often frustrating, but never less than a wonderful tribute to the 8-bit era. It has such a clear passion for its source material that you cannot help but be charmed and impressed by it. I am unsure how younger gamers, and those unfamiliar with the games and movies referenced, will react to Retro City Rampage, but I hope that it will spark an interest in the games parodied and inspire them to try the originals. Good games are timeless after all, and while Retro City Rampage can never achieve the dizzying heights of playability of the games it lovingly parodies, it is an outstanding tribute to those games and offers some great gameplay as well as some chuckles, and who could ask for more than that?

The Good

  • Amazing Retro Visuals with a huge array of options
  • Outstanding Chiptune Soundtrack
  • Many amusing references and jokes
  • Exceptionally fun mini-games
  • Lots of variety in missions

The Bad

  • Becomes Repetitive
  • Some Humour misses the mark
  • The main GTA top-down section is, arguably, the weakest part of the experience

Developer : Vblank Entertainment, Inc.
System Reviewed : XBLA
Also available on : PS3, PC
Price : 1200 points / 9.99