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Retro City Rampage review: Love letter


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It would be impossible to sit down and write out everything you love about everything. It'd be a pursuit of madness. Why would you do it? Just to have some kind of time capsule for all of your cherished memories?

But what if you did it within the confines of a video game? It would be an even madder pursuit, for sure, but that's exactly what Retro City Rampage is. It's a love letter to all of developer Brian Provinciano's favorite things within the borders of an 8-bit open-world crime game – a game, I might add, that is so beautiful in its simplicity and hilarious in its execution that it has become one of my favorite games of all time.

Gallery: Retro City Rampage (2/20/12) | 13 Photos

Retro City Rampage, which started as an NES demake of Grand Theft Auto 3, stars super criminal extraordinaire, Player, who's looking to make the big bucks in Theftropolis. He's a self-professed expert at "going and getting things," which makes him perfect for all of the usual missions found in your typical open-world game – go kill this gang of dudes, go retrieve this important object, tail this guy so he can lead you to a special destination. These familiar missions pop up frequently in Retro City Rampage, but what makes them unique is the context and story surrounding them.

The greatest strength of Retro City Rampage is its story and hilarious writing, which provide a fresh spin on these tried-and-true objectives. Consider the mission in which Player remembers how he once helped a computer company rise to the top by stealing an operating system and licensing it out as the company's own. Still not satisfied, Player's boss asks him to kill the program's creator, because the company, absurdly, has exclusive rights on all funerals. "You see red, I see green," the employer says.

This particular mission transitions into a cutscene in which an executive describes how the computer company plans to hoodwink indie game developers, bleeding them dry for marketing efforts and focus group testing, eventually forcing them to sign over the rights to their game just to get it published. It's a familiar narrative for those who follow the indie scene, and there's meta humor and commentary like this strewn all about Retro City Rampage.

But it's not all video game satire; there are plenty of other pop culture references, too. The Jester, a Joker knock-off, is constantly at odds with Theftropolis superhero Biffman. Player makes a trip to Bayshore High and helps Principal Balding deal with a group of rambunctious teens – the Saved By the Bell gang, in this case. Grog Brush's ale house is a charming send-up to the Monkey Island series. There's even a time-traveling doctor who rocks a sweet Delorean and needs Player's help.

Theftropolis, essentially, is kind of like The Last Action Hero's depiction of Los Angeles – it's full of references and locations recognizable to the outside eye, but for its citizens it's just another day, a day where you might see a tank rolling down the highway, blowing up everything in sight. You know, Tuesday.

Speaking of which, that's one thing that Retro City Rampage does very well: give Player all of the power. The police are never a real threat, but more of a fun nuisance. Even at their most perturbed levels they simply bump into Player with squad cars and take pot shots at him. No citizen is really a threat, either. Player always feels powerful, and that feeling goes a long way toward enjoying Theftropolis and its many locales. It's not without its challenges, though. Retro City Rampage has quite a few tough missions, forcing Player to fight for his life. In true retro fashion, it can be downright frustrating at times, though it's never unfair.

Thankfully, Player isn't without his own survival tactics. Retro City Rampage leverages simple, time-tested gameplay mechanics and tosses in a few modern conventions. You can lock onto enemies when using firearms, stomp on peoples' heads like Mario or engage in melee and hand-to-hand combat. There's a serviceable cover system at work, which certainly isn't a retro mechanic, though it's not out of place here and is really useful in tricky situations.

Apart from catering to a life of crime, the city of Theftropolis offers a huge urban sprawl with tons of shops and destinations that feel alive. People walk about doing their thing, you can patronize a variety of shops to customize Player, eat food, play arcade games – you should definitely make time for the Meat Boy, Bit.Trip Runner and Epic Meal Time mini-games – or just simply drive around and soak it all in. It's a big city, one that made me feel like a giddy tourist, anxious to see what was down the next street.

Combat also takes the occasional backseat to segments inspired by other games. In one mission, Player is sent to jail after attempting to steal a police bait car. In order to break out, naturally, he puts a cardboard box over his head and proceeds to sneak past a group of soldiers in a segment inspired by Metal Gear – and that's just one of many Metal Gear-inspired moments. There are other missions inspired by Contra, Jackal and many other classic games (and even a few references that went over my learned head).

The brilliant writing and revolving door of references, however, is both Retro City Rampage's biggest selling point and greatest downfall. If you're not steeped in video game legacy and a pop culture junkie, much of the charm will be lost on you. While I think anyone can pick up Retro City Rampage and have a good time with its missions and lighthearted story, it caters to a very specific set of players with no wiggle room. Suffice it to say you won't get the full experience unless you're a longtime gamer.

Retro City Rampage is still worth playing for its simple, accessible gameplay and charming, lovingly crafted world that Provinciano created. It's the perfect game for gamers, an experience carefully executed to appeal directly to them. Seasoned players will enjoy it on a higher level, smiling at every sly wink and clever nod, but even the uninitiated should have a good time waging a one-man crime spree through Theftropolis.

This review is based off a PSN download of Retro City Rampage, provided by VBlank Entertainment, played on both PS3 and Vita.
Retro City Rampage is also available on PC. An Xbox version is also planned.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no."Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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