If this game came out in 1988 it would have been the biggest thing ever.
A common criticism of videogames is that, with large production teams and so many people in charge, they are not capable of delivering the singular vision of one person. There are rare exceptions – guys like Hideo Kojima, Peter Molyneux, and, sigh, David Cage, can show that a videogame’s story, world, and characters are the creative masterstrokes of one creative visionary. Even still, Kojima’s got a whole team of dudes inserting their own artistic license ever so slightly into character designs, Molyneux has a crew of skilled workers helping him create his lies, and David Cage lets the actors help deliver his “deep, emotional Hollywood experience with emotions.” But there is one game that cannot be even slightly altered by anyone else’s vision because literally only one person ever worked on it.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if the inside of your brain was its own universe? I know mine would have people cutting promos on each other, culminating petty differences in pay-per-view matches. Their entrance themes would be by groups like Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake, and people would only die when their health meters reached zero. It’d be a healthy, deluded combination of wrestling, ska music, and videogames, with their own respective internal logics clashing and creating chaos. But Brian Provinciano’s brain is a little more streamlined – a series of videogame, movie, and TV characters hanging out in a perpetual 1988, with stores, citizens, and even the cars on the street representing his passion for the world of the 1980s and 90s.
Provinciano merely cut open the top of his head and let his brain leak into a computer for ten years while he designed the absolutely brilliant Retro City Rampage. Originally conceived in 2002 as Grand Theftendo, RCR is an open-world action game with an 8-bit aesthetic and mentality, and modern conveniences added only to keep us from shattering our teeth on our controllers. You play as Player (hah!), a too-cool-for-school 80s badass who accidentally travels through time and is seen as a time traveling hero upon his arrival. Doc Choc (a loving parody of Dr. Emmett Brown from Back to the Future) wants to help this hero in any way he can, providing him with locations of the pieces required to restore his time machine.
Throughout Player’s adventure in retrieving the time machine parts, he travels the massive 8-bit Theftropolis, “borrowing” cars, shooting people dead, and causing more mayhem than we’ve ever seen in an 8-bit world. Mission structures are similar to any open-world game, where you go to a location, watch a cutscene telling you what to do, and then you do it. Often you are tasked with doing stuff found in 80s and 90s videogames and popular culture – sneaking around trucks in the jungle a la Metal Gear, twin stick shooting in a dual Zelda/Smash TV tribute, hell, you’re even tasked to go beat up (parodies of) Zack Morris and AC Slater in a painstakingly recreated Bayside High.
The depth in Retro City Rampage is staggering. Provinciano designed every pixel, painstakingly creating a city as large as Liberty City in GTA: Chinatown Wars. And every pixel of Theftropolis is extremely rewarding to explore. Whether you’re finding one of many collectible items scattered throughout the city or watching a dude breakdance in the middle of a parking lot, there’s something around every corner in Retro City Rampage.
Provinciano could have taken the easy way out in designing Theftropolis, creating a bunch of generic buildings and houses, only putting detail into story-centric areas. But oh no! Literally every store has a name, each one a reference to something from the 80s or 90s. “Fresh Prints” gets you some hot Xerox action, “Skate ‘N Buy” will get you a skateboard, and “DJ Hammer” will supply you with weapons. Even certain areas are modeled after memorable locales – the neighborhood from Paperboy lets you do a newspaper-delivering mission (how fitting), and Doc Choc’s house bears resemblance to the Doc’s house from Back to the Future! Even the cars are references. My favorite was a truck that looked like a covered wagon out of the Oregon Trail. He could have called it the Oregon Truck and gotten away with it, but he chose the Dysentruck. A layered reference. Brilliant.
The variety of missions are also mind-blowing. Sure, there are plenty of times you have to steal a car, drive somewhere, kill some people, and be done with it, but there’s so much more to do! There are stealth portions, racing parts, top-down dungeon crawling, even a nod to point-and-click adventure games. Starting a new mission almost always guarantees a new way to play. They’re introduced by sharply written story sequences, with clever parody, double entendres, and some deliciously sharp satire on the games industry that other games wouldn’t dare touch. Characters come and go, and the story isn’t necessarily ENGAGING, but the jokes, moments, and references are beyond worth it.
What’s amazing, though, is that Provinciano managed to make a game that feels like it was made with the RESTRICTIONS of games in 1988, but made with the KNOWLEDGE of a developer in 2012. Mission checkpoints are placed in smart locations, the game controls with analog sticks in mind (twin stick shooting is even an option), and cover is readily available in shooting sections. There are design decisions in this game that are actually SMARTER than most modern-day sandbox games. Provinciano surely knew exactly what frustrated him playing games as a kid, and made it a point to eliminate all of it. Not a moment is wasted, and any failures are the result of your own lack of competence. Believe me, I know.
The best part about this game, though, is that it just FEELS like it was made in 1988. A lot of indie games go for the 8-bit aesthetic because it’s trendy and hip, foregoing the limitations of the hardware at the time and only working within their own limitations. What results is often more or less a Flash game with retro sprites. Retro City Rampage, however, was fully playable on NES hardware up until a year or two ago. Provinciano later made adjustments and added some cool effects that would then make it unplayable on an NES, but that came late in the game and was mostly done for convenience’s sake.
And the music. Let us talk about the music forever. Composed by virt, Freaky DNA, and Norrin Radd, the soundtrack is exceptional. Like the visuals, the music isn’t just an on-the-surface thing – the songs FEEL like they would have been in a game from the 80s. There were no corners cut – the soundtrack is massive and every song is catchier than anything that’s been released in the past decade.
There’s so much left to talk about, but it’s up to you to explore and see how awesome everything is. There’s an arcade with fully playable games available, indie game and games industry cameos, you can frame your screen in a number of retro stylings, the color palettes are customizable to fit the look of an insane amount of both memorable and obscure hardware… the list goes on and on and on.
That’s not to say the game is without its flaws. I mean, it almost is, but there were still moments where I wanted to turn my PS3 into a pile of dust. First of all, cops are EVERYWHERE. Every time you try to commit a simple crime like grand theft auto or murder, an officer of the law is constantly around the corner waiting to chase after you. Losing them is simple and can be done in a number of ways, but to accidentally bump into a guy with a guitar and have the fuzz up your butt for five minutes is kind of annoying. And while the difficulty is based on challenge as opposed to being unfair, the challenge DOES ramp up an insane amount near the end of the game. It’s not impossible, but it’ll feel that way sometimes. But cops and late game frustrations aside, there is too much to love about this game.
Comedy and parody are extremely difficult to do in videogames, but Brian Provinciano gets it. The world created in Retro City Rampage, while made entirely of references and parodies, is its very own thing. There is an internal logic to the world of Theftropolis, and it is beautiful. The comedy comes from the writing, the 8-bit style, and your own knowledge of popular culture, but most importantly, it comes from Provinciano’s heart. Even if you don’t get the references, this game is still wonderfully made and incredibly funny, and Provinciano’s passion is the reason why.
Brian Provinciano poured ten years of his life into this game. Unlike Duke Nukem Forever’s lengthy development cycle, this is a game that benefited from lengthy development time. Even if this game was put together by a team, it would be a remarkable accomplishment, what with the depth, variety, and brilliance in every pixel. But knowing that this game was one man’s entire life for a decade, seeing it come to fruition, and being able to play every minute with a smile on my face makes this a milestone in videogames.
Do yourself a favor and buy this game.