Thursday, May 2, 2013


Retro City Rampage
Developed and published by Vblank Entertainment

Designed by Brian Provinciano
Music composed by Leonard J. Paul, Jake Kaufman, and Matthew Creamer

"Just like in real life, food and drinks heal bullet wounds."
-from the Retro City Rampage instruction manual

"Law is sublimated violence."
-Alvin Toffler, Power Shift

A man with a lot of guns stalks the city. He steals cars. He takes life at will. He is burning to transform himself into a Hi-Score Street Warrior. Time travel is on the table. Stuffed suits in corporate boardrooms think they're masters of the universe, but our hero knows that violence, not globally scaled economic flim-flammery, is the true engine of power. He'll blast his way through the fabric of space and time, if necessary, rising through the criminal ranks, zooming up the underworld leader board-

Oh, but now he's had a setback. Our man had a hot streak of paradigm-shattering novelty slaughters racking up bodies civilian, police, military, ninja, cyborg, but he got cocky. He got killed. He had to start back at the heart of the city, with less cash in his pocket, and a reduced armory. Ain't that a bitch? Now he's got to do that fetch quest all over again. Time for a break. Time to hop over into the free-roaming dimension to work out some aggression, come back to that onerous fetch quest later. Or maybe he'll just hijack a bus, drive on the sidewalks, see how many kills he can chain together to unlock another achievement, maybe a new hairstyle, or a butterfly tattoo for his left pectoral, or a Yugo with mounted machine guns, or a mullet hair-do that doubles as a sapient AI street warfare consultant . . .

What new horror is this? A sub-par attempt at dystopian sci-fi perhaps hoping to pass itself off as a lost story by J.G. Ballard?

Is it the new Grand Theft Auto game? Close. It's a description of the game that has finally made good on the premise and the promise of GTA . . . Retro City Rampage. 

(Well, it's mostly a description of Retro City Rampage. I couldn't help but throw some of my cracked-out fan fiction daydreams, fantasies, and idle musings into the mix . . .)

Here's a video game with ambition. It wants to function as both a kind of imaginary artifact of a time that never quite existed, and, at the same time and in equal measure, it wants to out-GTA GTA.

Retro City Rampage is a work of alternate history speculative fiction in the guise of a Grand Theft Auto-style open world shoot-em-up action game. It takes the distinctive elements of GTA-ultraviolence; narco-business; driving way above the posted speed limit; mass murder of cops, bystanders, and criminal competitors; and, yes, stealing automobiles-and poses this science fictional scenario: what if someone had made GTA for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System?

Think about it. The elements were all there. The NES had violent shoot-em-up games like Contra, Super C, Ikari Warriors, The Punisher, and NARC. The NES had open world RPGs with battery backup game saving function like The Legend of ZeldaDragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, and Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. And the NES had oddball games like Dick Tracy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? both of which mixed driving and exploration with shoot-em-up missions and fetch quests.

Ultraviolence perpetrated with high-end full auto assault weapons . . . open worlds with complex quests(and in the case of Ultima IV statistically tracked moral complexities) . . . exploration . . . fetch quests . . . driving around looking for stuff . . . God's eye top-down perspective action much like the very first Grand Theft Auto  and also like in Ikari Warriors, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Dick Tracy, many others . . .  NARC and The Punisher were specifically concerned with organized criminal narco-business gangs, and both were surprisingly violent games to make it past then-puritanical Nintendo of America's censorship standards . . . you can't have any sex or politics in video games, but you can have authoritarian men with guns shoot street dealers in the face with high-explosive ammunition-nothing political about that . . . the basics, more or less, of a GTA-style game were all there, but spread out among disparate titles created by various companies.

If only someone with a synergistic vision, and an anti-authoritarian philosophy, had strode over the horizon--the advent of the Era of Open World Socially Irresponsible Action Console Gaming would've come much sooner. If this had been the case, what would be the vogue now, in 2013? The mind-it does boggle.

Retro City Rampage is the game that might have been made for the NES if that person of vision had manifested within the depths of the bygone 8-bit era of console gaming. I'm not so much talking about the actual story content you experience as you play the game. The game itself is presented as though it were such a creation from such an era. The graphics-character sprites, dialogue portraits, world/level design, vehicles-are studiously 8-bit. The music is glorious 8-bit chiptune, as are the sound effects. The dialogue and text within cut-scenes are intentionally written in a clunky, grammatically erroneous style suggesting a rushed,  in-house localization into English from a Japanese language original. Difficulty level is moderate spiked with a few truly frustrating missions, but you're given infinite lives and a "battery backup" to save your game. The controls work, but they are often a source of frustration when the action gets fast and frantic. You will die many times. You will come back, again and again, like some mythic hero across many lives. But will you win? Are you a bad enough dude to defeat Dr. Buttnick and rescue the flux combobulator form the Evil Good Guys?

That's what the overall impression of this video game is when viewed as a kind of imaginary artifact from an alternate dimension of reality. And, no, the good ol' NES probably wouldn't have had the power to actually handle Retro City Rampage. Remember, I'm talking about a piece of speculative-alternate-history-fiction-embodied-as-video-gaming-artifact here. RCR fudges the actual hardware capabilities in favor of a working gaming experience, but the 8-bit atmosphere-the set design, music, overall tone if you will-are spot-on. It's an enticing illusion of an 8-bit game that never was, never could've been, but we all wish could have been.

The actual gameplay and story content are more nakedly absurd. Retro City Rampage's story is a mish-mash of spoofs of Sonic the Hedgehog, Ghostbusters, The Dark Knight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Back to the Future, Robocop, Bionic Commando, Double Dragon, Metal Gear, Mega Man II, Smash TV, and many others. It's a Wendy's salad bar of goofs on video games, fast food, music, and movies from numerous eras woven into a frantic orgy of action that would work just as well as an Adult Swim cartoon (get those guys who made the Superjail cartoon to do it!) There are also satirical jabs at corporate malfeasance, death by fast food, pathological consumerism, the hypocrisy of moral guardians who want to blame video games for societal decay and violent crime, and good old fashioned All American worship of power and force. It all moves at a whipcrack pace, stringing together different parodies and homages and conflicting pop culture realities into a jittery, propulsive, sometimes frustrating, but often engrossing action gaming experience.

Game play is top-down, God's eye view POV action and larceny after the manner of the very first Grand Theft Auto game. You have to complete quests which are often timed and revolve around specific victory conditions. In-between quests you are more or less free to explore at your leisure. Legion achievements, many of them humorously useless, are unlockable in the course of finishing missions and achieving exotic styles of mass slaughter and destruction. It is this unapologetic emphasis on monstrous behavior which makes RCR more fun than the more serious minded GTA.

Did I mention that Retro City Rampage out-GTAs GTA? It does. Here's how: the free roaming mode. Basically, you can just run wild with unlimited money and ammunition and see how many tanks you can get chasing you once you've trounced the conventional police forces. Playing in this arena is totally at the player's discretion. It gives you a true feeling of out of control lawlessness and maniacal mayhem with zero pretensions to relevance, social commentary, or attempts at superficial insights into crime and criminals. Retro City Rampage unmasks the secret fantasy at the heart of those Grand Theft Auto games: to play an ultraviolent video game where you can use unlimited force, backed by unlimited resources, all to no good end. Even in the regular game where you have to complete missions and manage money and ammo the plot and story are totally amoral to such a cartoonish and satirical degree that I began to think back to that one time I tried to actually play through GTAIV seriously and found myself laughing at the faux-grittiness and inauthentic "hard-boiled" dialogue. I even had an acquaintance of mine try to convince me that the GTA games were "basically, like, The Wire of video games." Uh-huh. Retro City Rampage is as much a jab at  lazily written, over-hyped games striving for relevance as much as it is a chance to go totally berserk.

Even the story mode, which is, as already noted, an Adult Swim-ready mish-mash of lunacies, engaged me more than any of the story I've sampled from occasional and, frankly, half hearted engagements with any of the GTA titles. Bottom line: GTA bored and frustrated me with high difficulty, cliched characters and plots, whereas RCR addicted me from the title screen and made me laugh out loud.

RCR also has some intriguing surprises up its sleeve. I don't want to give anything away, but I'll share this wad of thoughts I had as I played through one of the final missions: This is kind of pissing me off. It's also kind of great. All along, I thought I was free to do what I wanted. But I was just on a track. Like every other game, really. Even the most sophisticated sandbox-style games . . . you're still ensnared in the logic of the game. You're still bound to choose from the range of options the game designers have built into the game. I mean, I can't just go up to a shopkeeper in Fallout 3 and ask to buy his right eyeball. Or walk up to Liquid Snake and say, "Hey, bro, I forgive you. There's no need for us to punch each other out on top of this flying battleship or whatever the hell this thing is. Why don't we just hang it up for today, scoot on over to the nearest Starbucks, get a couple of mocha frappes, and I'll show you some rad footage of rottweilers mating in the noonday sun on my codec."  Freedom in video games is just an illusion. Well, fuck me. 

By the way, I would love to see the Retro City Rampage movie if, if it were directed by Paul Verhoeven.

Just throwing that out there into the ether. Not unlike a prayer, really.

Retro City Rampage trailer:

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