As it's name implies, Retro City Rampage is in many ways an homage to the video and computer games that shaped many who grew up during the 1980s and early 1990s. It is hard to play RCR for more than a few minutes without noticing a reference to a beloved game like Contra, Mega Man or Paperboy, to name a few. While RCR scores points for it's humor and obvious dedication to its source material, its equally retro gameplay will likely rub some the wrong way.
In RCR, you play as Player, a greaser and lowly henchman to a Joker-wannabe, the Jester. After participating in a bank heist, only you and your boss are able to escape. After a strange series of events, Player is sucked into the future, where he quickly passes himself off as a good, honest person, in the hopes of eventually finding a way back to his own time. RCR not only draws from old video games, but also movies, television and everything else that made up the pop culture of the '80s and '90s. Most noticeably, the plot is heavily influenced by Back to the Future. To get back to his own time, Player has to find all the missing parts to a Doc Brown-lookalikes time machine, which just happens to be a Delorean. Of course this will involve a lot of rampaging.
The sole designer of RCR, Brian Provinciano, originally set out to make an 8-bit Grand Theft Auto III and it shows. After this brief introduction, the player is set loose, with nearly free reign to do anything they want in this city. The game is rich with main story missions that have you getting ever closer to returning home, as well as side missions that have you doing everything from managing a trailer park to freeing the A.P.E. XT 2000 Roadster, a robot ape that doubles as a vehicle. The diversity of these missions are excellent as well. While in one mission you might find yourself in a side-scrolling underwater level, your next mission will require you to sneak past guards, a la Metal Gear. There are plenty of other less productive ways to spend your time as well. You can get Player's hair cut at the Salon Mullet, waste some quarters at the arcade, or get a sweet new board at the Skate N'Buy. Even if you were born after the 1980s, or have blocked that period of time from your memory, with the sheer number of things to do, at some point RCR will genuinely make you laugh.
While RCR could easily be mistaken for an 8-bit Nintendo game, it is still very nice to look at. Every inch of the city that Player can explore is dense with things to see. Storefronts are very detailed, from the signs to the brick facades. The plethora of car models are nicely varied, with unique speed and handling. Sidewalks are also filled with pedestrians who display the same level of detail. It is a pleasant surprise when you notice a tiny figure playing guitar, and then steal it from him. Or how getting a haircut or putting on a hat or mask noticeably changes Player's appearance. There are many moments like this, when you encounter something that you would not have expected out of a game, that on its surface, looks very simple. It is also possible to access a wide range of filters, which do everything from adding scan lines to changing the whole color palette of the game. With the welcome addition of a free-roam mode, you can really take in the 8-bit majesty of RCR.
RCR's dedication to this retro style has its drawbacks however. While Grand Theft Auto III was very well received, there is a reason the previous entries to the series were not nearly as successful. The first two Grand Theft Autos used a top-down style nearly identical to RCR, which often made it difficult to get into combat, drive, and sometimes it was hard to tell what was going on at all. While GTA III's transition to 3D mostly helped to eliminate these issues, they were carried over into RCR. RCR's gun play is messy, with the top down view making it hard to aim at targets. By holding down the fire button, it is possible to lock onto an enemy, which is a welcome feature, but it is likely you will have to fire a few errant shots before the game recognizes who you are aiming at, which can potentially result in disaster. When the rockets and bullets really start flying, which occurs fairly frequently, you will likely be straining your eyes to differentiate Player from the mass of chaos that is occurring all around him.
RCR's driving also suffers due to its top-down view. The cars move as if you were controlling them with a D-pad, limiting the directions in which they can travel, unlike controlling a car in GTA III or subsequent entries, where the analog stick allows for much easier and smoother handling. While it is not too difficult to familiarize yourself with RCR's car controls, when you have to escape the police or catch someone, it really becomes a hinderance. At the speed some vehicles can travel, it is nearly impossible to control them. While a one- or two-star wanted level in GTA III was nothing to worry about, with RCR's vehicle controls, it can be a real challenge to lose even the most lackadaisical of pursuers.
Often people will look at beloved parts of their childhood, whether it be toys, movies, or video games, through rose-colored glasses. It shouldn't be surprising then, that RCR, which draws so much of its design and content from '80s and early '90s pop culture, has some noticeably rough edges. While it may be difficult for some to overlook these issues, if you have fond memories of growing up during that period of time, or just enjoy classic video games, seeing all of the references and the great feeling of nostalgia they create is enough to overlook Retro City Rampage's flaws.