Sunday, April 14, 2013

Game Review - Retro City Rampage (XBLA, 2013)

I’m always excited to catch references to the things I love in movies or games.  A well-placed and executed reference can add depth to a story by adding multiple layers, it can enhance the emotional content of a scene by drawing parallels, or it can just give that tingly feeling of nostalgia when it reminds the audience of an old favorite.

The opening scenes of Retro City Rampage are a rapid-fire series of references, even going so far as to recreate bits from classic games.  It sets the stage for a game that will beat the life out of you with a nostalgia stick and continue to mutilate your corpse in the same manner.

And then it does.  Sadly, that’s about all the game does well, as it ends up being a simple vehicle for cramming an absurd number of pop culture references into a game, most of which are painfully blatant.

Set in the 1980s, Retro City Rampage follows the cleverly-named Player in his modest quest to make some cash working as an evil henchman.  Through a strange turn of events, Player ends up stealing a time-traveling phone booth, which sends him to a slightly different time.  The time machine is broken in the process, so he starts looking for the parts necessary to complete the repairs.

It’s overall a weak story, but to be fair, Rampage follows the Grand Theft Auto tradition in a lot of ways.  In terms of narrative, that means that the protagonist encounters a number of vaguely connected subplots that give the writers an excuse to do cool stuff (Remember: in Rampage, “cool stuff” means “references”).  The most disappointing part is actually that the number of references decreases significantly as the game goes on, trading the game’s major strength for various other gags.

The references themselves are shameless.  They are absolutely everywhere (which is honestly pretty impressive), but their conspicuous nature makes them very hit-or-miss - if it’s a nod to something you particularly enjoy, you’ll probably like the reference; otherwise, it feels kind of forced.  I experienced a substantial laughing fit at only one point, but the majority of the game is worth a little chuckle at best.

To make matters a bit worse, Rampage is really a game all about nostalgia.  Most of the references I noticed are about 80s and 90s culture, so many will be lost on younger gamers.  If you’re not interested in remembering and reliving classic 8-bit moments, you’ll likely find Rampage to be incredibly boring.

The rest of the game is similarly niche.  Structured like one of the early Grand Theft Auto games, Rampage gives you free reign over an open but highly pixellated world.  Everything’s presented in 2D from a top-down perspective, so the graphical package is pretty limited.  The sound quality is also old school, although they successfully channeled some of the better NES soundtracks.  Given what they’re doing, the overall audiovisual style is great, but it’s driven by nostalgia, which severely limits the game’s scope.

Then there’s the gameplay.  It’s GTA all over, as your primary focus is running through the streets causing as much havoc as possible.  And that’s just about it.  You’ll hijack vehicles and shoot anyone who gets in your way, but the mechanics behind driving and fighting don’t leave much room for depth.  All the random tasks you’ll have to perform are all ultimately driving and fighting, so it can get awfully repetitive.

Seeing that there’s not much depth to the gameplay, it’s not surprising that it’s all pretty easy and short.  The main story can be completed within five hours, and the optional challenge missions don’t provide any further value aside from some high score leaderboards.  Basically, there’s very little content and very little to bring you back after you’ve run through the story once.

Retro City Rampage is built on a great premise – an entertaining game that pokes fun at gaming’s past through parody.  Instead of getting a production that thrives by reminiscing, we get one that barely survives by desperately grasping at every reference it can find.  As a 90s kid, I found it to be decent enough, but without the benefit of nostalgia, it’s probably not worth your time.

My Rating: 5/10 - ok.

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