Given how long it’s been in development, the news that Retro City Rampage was going to be available to download and play took me completely by surprise. Started a decade ago as a Grand Theft Auto demake by Brian Provinciano, it’s been something I’ve been reading about for so long that it never seemed like it would ever be real. I only learned of its release days before it was going to happen, and I actually didn’t believe it was true. I was wrong, though, and a few days ago I got to finally play the game I’ve been waiting years for.
If there’s one thing you can see ten years worth of work put into, it’s the references. Some games make the occasional nod to another series, but this game was built on drawing bits from just about anything that was cool or popular in the eighties and nineties. I swam through the water level from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, did a mission at a strip club with parodies of the Ghostbusters, and drove past signs that made fun of Skate or Die and Ghosts n’ Goblins. I got most of my missions from a Doc Brown knockoff, most of my work involving getting pieces for a mock-up of the Delorean from Back to the Future.
Every time I think of a reference I remember another one. The game thrives on them, and for someone who lived through those eras, playing through it is like going on a sightseeing trip through your own childhood. Half of the fun in the game is just in walking around the city and looking at all of the different stuff that’s been crammed into it. There isn’t a single space, level, car, or character that isn’t some kind of joke or reference. It’s a huge treat when you know them all, and figuring out the ones you don’t know is almost a game in itself.
That’s great for the older guys who play it, but what is there for the newer gamers? Why would they want to play it? Well, there’s lots of fun to be had from playing the game itself, as it turns out that an 8-bit version of Grand Theft Auto can make for a very good time. You can steal cars, shoot passerby, and tangle with police to your heart’s delight in this game. As an added benefit, you don’t have to worry about dealing with enemies hiding behind walls and around corners you can’t see. As the game plays in a top-down Legend of Zelda style, you always know who’s floating around you.
This was taken into account when fights were cooked up. Shooting at the police in small groups might not be that challenging, but many of the levels are specifically built to push you to your limits. Enemies can come from any direction since there’s no reason for you not to know they’re coming. Many firefights have a Smash TV vibe to them where they send wave after wave of targets at you. There is a really good cover system in the game during some of the shootouts, but for the most part you’ll be moving around and trading shots with hordes of bad guys.
These guys are built to push your endurance, too. This game was built with NES era skill in mind, and some of these fights can get pretty frustrating if you get lazy about dodging. Luckily, you auto-target the enemies to some degree, allowing you to strafe around during fights. You can also jump really high, so as long as you’re not shooting you can hop around the enemies. Just the same, these abilities only help you get through if you’re smart in how you use them. You can’t just get lazy and hope for a checkpoint in a lot of these brawls. You act stupid, you get killed, and you do it again. Then maybe you do a bit better but die again. It forces you to really knuckle down and stay careful. If you don’t, get used to seeing your number of deaths shooting up every time the game reloads.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any checkpoints, though. The game has a smart checkpoint system, one that places them right after long fights, just outside of mission start points, and just before bosses. It’ll rarely break up a long fight for you, but if you just did something really hard and got picked off by some straggler just afterward, odds are good that a checkpoint triggered before that. I’ve come really close to losing my temper when I died just after doing something hard, only to find that the game had my back and I popped right back in a few steps back from where I was. It makes a lot of the harder areas more manageable, and was a welcome addition to a game shooting for NES era difficulty.
There’s a bit of platforming in it too – what would an NES game be without a little jumping? These areas can be pretty aggravating as well, but it’s the kind that has you hammering on the replay button the second you see your character die. I got really stuck during one sequence involving a triple jump. Now, you could get a lot of distance with these jumps, but you could get even more if you hit the jump button while on top of certain symbols. Some of these symbols were out in the open, but others were released just by you passing over a switch. A lot of the time, though, I’d hit the jump button while touching the release switches instead of the jump boost symbol, resulting in an amount of deaths that I’d rather not go into. Sometimes those switches were only a hair away from the symbol’s dropping point, requiring split-second timing to hit the symbol and not the switch. My controller would have been airborne if I hadn’t been holding it in a death grip, but I kept trying. While I was annoyed, the feeling of relief and happiness when I finally walked out of the room is unmatched in a lot of today’s games.
The difference between frustration and rage is a fine line, though, and Retro City Rampage goes flying across it in its racing levels. Now, the controls for driving are competent, if strange. You have to tap at the directional buttons to turn your car, with each press giving you a quarter turn. Seems silly when you could just hold the direction you want to go in, but this way keeps you driving in straight lines and can make your life easier in some areas. Unfortunately, it’s not very intuitive when you have to do it in a hurry, which makes racing hard. If you’re like me, you”ll get the controls down to the point where you’re mostly comfortable, but have trouble when you get smashed into tight spaces and have to get out of them. It’s a serviceable control scheme when nothing weird is happening, or you’re not on a time limit.
Sometimes you have to race, though, and it’s when the game’s difficulty shoots to controller-hurling levels. I guarantee you that you’ll bump into something and knock yourself to one side while you’re trying to complete a race at some point, and it takes a lot of time to recover when you’re not completely comfortable with the controls. You lose a lot of time with the slightest mistakes, and given that the races tend to change as you’re progressing through them by adding in weirder and more dangerous routes, I guarantee you’ll slip up somewhere. It’s inevitable.
That wouldn’t be a huge deal if it weren’t for Retro City Rampage‘s cruel time limits. During races you have to be perfect. There’s no other way to look at it. If you slip up once, you’ve probably lost the race. In pulling from Grand Theft Auto, they took the gameplay element I hated the most about it: short time limits for races. The developer has given you exactly as much time as you would need if you had been playtesting these stages for a few weeks and could remember recite every turn from memory. These time limits are excruciating, draining all of the fun out of the game while you attempt to maintain absolute perfection for a few minutes. There’s nothing quite like playing a perfect race for four and a half minutes only to miss a turn and nail a wall, costing you the race.
That’s assuming you didn’t accidentally drive just a little too far away from the race’s checkpoints, either. In my rush to get to the next checkpoint I tended to take shorter turns to make up some lost time, something that usually resulted in missing the checkpoint. You don’t have to pass directly through the symbol when it shows up, but you do have to be pretty close. There were a lot of times when I thought I was doing fine, only to notice the game was directing me back to a checkpoint I hadn’t quite touched. I can’t even describe how this made me feel when I was already angry with the game.
When you have some time when you aren’t focused on keeping yourself alive, you’ll probably notice some really nice music. It’s not the sort of stuff that has the complexity and catchiness of Mega Man or Duck Tales (My God, the Moon! The Moon!), but it does make for some good listening. It reminds me of early NES era tracks, specifically from a lot of the old games released by Ultra (a spin-off company made by Konami to get around Nintendo’s licensing laws from that time) like Metal Gear and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s a lot more ambient than the high-energy NES tracks I tend to love, but it is fun to listen to and provides a nice backdrop to the crime story you’re playing. I would have liked something with a bit more kick to it given the game’s absurd nature, but it does work.
Retro City Rampage is a good throwback to the NES era, managing to replicate a lot of its frustrating difficulty while still taking steps toward keeping you from destroying everything in your house in anger. The checkpoints were a nice touch, but they aren’t available in the middle of most tasks when you’d really need them. They might have broken up some of the harder sections and made the game a lot more palatable, but that’s not what Provinciano was shooting for. I’m happy he stuck by his vision of the game in it’s entirety, but it sure did make me angry in some places. If you have enough patience to play something that really is Nintendo Hard, this game has a lot of great references and inside jokes for you. It does its best to be entertaining throughout, and if you have the skills (and patience) to get through it, you won’t be disappointed.