Gaming’s past is gone, but far from forgotten. Pretty much every 8 or 16-bit classic than won a sizeable audience has seen a re-release or remake, and at the very least lives on via emulator. But times have changed – the simplicity, mania and take-no-prisoners attitude of the early 90s’ many platformers and beat ‘em ups has given way to the complicated sprawls of big-buddget action games on the one hand and the slightly sinister compulsion loops of Angry Birds et al on the other.
Then there’s Retro City Rampage as a potential missing link between gaming's neon past and darker present, a one-man project years in the making, boasting more old school references than seems humanly possible in an 8-bit, GTA-style open world. The ultimate tribute or nostalgia overload?
Bit of both, actually. One can’t argue with the sheer quantity on offer – a breathless torrent of visual nods to the pop culutural landscape of 20 and 30 years ago. Games – Sonic, Frogger, Paperboy, you name it – get the lion’s share of hat-tipping, but cult films such as Ghostbusters and Back To The Future are equally present and correct.
The game bills itself as a parody, presumably to dodge any passing lawyers, but it doesn’t tend to hinge its references around gags – more, it simply shows a familiar scene, then quickly whisks it away in favour of another, and another, and another. It can get wearying: everything is surface level, and there’s no commentary to speak of on these old games it so reveres.
More ambitiously, it themes a number of its many missions around certain older games, recreating their mechanics as well as their appearance. So you will find yourself regularly facing a completely different type of challenge, albeit for just a few short minutes. Pair that with an undeniably impressive, artfully low-fi open world, full of the inevitable jackable cars, punchable civilians and easily-angered police, and it’s impossible to argue with Retro City Rampage on a technical level. It may have taken him years, but it’s a remarkable accomplishment for just one guy.
If the rapid-fire references don’t float your boat, the baby GTA element might. Or it might just grate even more – it’s no less hollow than the 80s/90s fetishism is, and while it’s impeccably done on a technical level it’s still a deeply familiar experience that’s lacking in a central sense of purpose. Driving little cars around and shooting people is something we’ve all been indulging in for a good decade and half, though there is something to be said for returning to its most dialled-down, top-down form rather than the elaborate 3D worlds of the 21st century.
That said, trying to apply purpose to Retro City Rampage is probably to misunderstand its intentions. It’s meant to be a big, silly, noisy party, all sound and fury signifying nothing other than ‘hey, wasn’t the past fun?’ If you can approach it in that spirit you might be okay with it.
Others, though, will be frustrated or even feel battered by its schizophrenic nature. It is the shallow, scattergun gaming equivalent of those We Love 1991 shows, though Sonic the Hedgehog shoes and drivable DeLoreansit certainly beats us half-wit half-celebrities droning out practised line.