Retro City Rampage

So, where were we? I had just finished Vice City, a game that can be described as “GTA, but 1980s”. Well, that description also applies to Brian Provinciano’s Retro City Rampage, just in a different way. The RCR project apparently started off as Grand Theftendo, a fairly straightforward attempt at a partial port of GTA3 to the Nintendo Entertainment System. At some point, however, Provinciano decided to abandon actual NES compatibility in favor of something merely NES-styled, and also abandon perfect faithfulness to the material that inspired it in favor of new content that fits that style better. The result is more stylized, faster-paced, and sillier than GTA. Put it this way: the first power-up you get is a pair of magic shoes that let you run as fast as a car and run down pedestrians on foot.

The engine is more like an adaptation of the original GTA than of GTA3, with its top-down view. Except it’s not quite top-down here. GTA, aiming at realism, rendered humans as they’d look from above, just a head between a pair of shoulders when you’re standing still, but RCR is in that naïvist-isometric view familiar from Legend of Zelda and the like, a grid of floor tiles seen from above but with side-view figures walking around on it. Not only does mixing dimensions like this make it look more retro, it affords jumping, which makes it play more retro. One of the player’s most effective combat techniques is jumping on enemies’ heads, Mario-style.

When I’m driving around and running over pedestrians, the style reminds me a lot of certain old coin-op games, particularly Capcom’s Speed Rumbler, which similarly let you use a car to run down enemies on foot. It really makes me realize just how connected GTA was to what went before. Apart from its open-endedness, it strikes me that the main difference is the moral one: even if you didn’t understand exactly what was going on in Speed Rumbler‘s brief opening cinematic, it made it clear that the people you were running over were bad guys. RCR doesn’t have that, but keeps things at a high enough level of abstraction to feel basically good-natured anyway, even as you run around doing slaughter sprees for high scores.

The setting is a big mashup of 8-bit videogame classics, and to a certain extent 80s pop culture and modern indie games. Mario-style green pipes and Sonic-style checkboard-pattern dirt cliffs are just part of the landscape here. Various set-piece missions are based on Bionic Commando, Smash TV, Paperboy, and so forth, probably including some that I couldn’t identify. Storefronts throughout the city have names that pun on classic videogame titles, with signage patterned after their logos. That last point might sound lame, but I’m still comparing it in my mind to Vice City, which also had jokey signage, except the jokes tended to be dick references and similar. I prefer the videogame puns.

All in all, it’s pretty delightful — moreso than I would have guessed from the title. My one big complaint is about the ending sequence. The final mission takes you out of the city and to an island fortress where a long sequence of set-pieces play out one after another. Some of them are quite difficult, but there’s no respite until the game’s end. Or, well, obviously you can just save the game and take a break, but somehow that doesn’t feel the same when you’re still in the middle of a mission. Throughout most of the game, missions have maybe at most three or four stages, after which you’re back into free-roaming mode and can decide what to do next: another mission if you like, or maybe try to rack up some slaughter sprees, or just go exploring and look for hidden packages. The endgame takes that freedom away from you for long enough that it feels like it’s breaking a pledge.

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