Retro City Rampage is a lot of things, but subtle isn't one of them. One of the first screens — with the title "Common Sense Warning!" — informs you that the game is packed with parodies, and it continues to bludgeon you over the head as you play. You may be a pixellated character given some freedom to romp around a city causing chaos, but Vblank Entertainment is calling all of the shots, consistently reminding you that you're a guest in its wacky game world. It's also a fun experience, if you sign up and agree to play by its rules.
The title, appropriately, tells you all about what's on offer. Inspired by the first two top-down GTA titles, famous for incorporating a large world of pixellated driving madness as well as controversial violence and satire, this goes well beyond that source material to produce something entirely off the charts. It's a breathless, uncompromising ride that sticks to the top-down driving and shooting for the most part, but dives off into riffs and references accompanied by short bursts of alternative gameplay. We don't intend to spoil too many surprises, but quite a few NES era titles make brief cameos that incorporate side-scrolling and racing genres, and some recent top-class indie releases — from those such as Team Meat and Gaijin Games — are also accessible whenever you please. It's multi-flavoured to an extreme degree, meaning that you often have no real idea what's going on.
The story — and it's in italics for a reason — follows suit. Within the first five minutes we became utterly baffled, and it didn't really seem to matter. You feature as Player, so generic a tough guy that you don't even have a real name, and you go back in time — we think — and have to help the Back to the Future-inspired Doc to put together a time machine to travel back. Everything else is a series of parodies and references to a number of retro game franchises — such as Metal Gear, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and many more — as well as TV shows and movies from the '80s and '90s. The game references are likely to be picked up by many who are actively downloading this on WiiWare, though you need to be of a certain age to grasp many of the other pop-culture nods and winks.
As we've suggested, however, Retro City Rampage doesn't necessarily move logically from one inspired idea to another, but actively crams as many in as possible. Generally the script is humorous — the boss name inspired by the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise will be immediately recognisable to kids of the '90s — and it hits its marks by playing up to its crazy approach, like a fan-fiction written when high on sugar sherbet. At other points, however, it can be self-indulgent, making cracks about the game industry or even individuals within it in a not-so-subtle way. Most of the storytelling doesn't fall into that trap, but when it does it feels flat and exposes a sense that these segments are more about game-creator Brian Provinciano having a dig at unnamed executives, rather than keeping the game fresh and fun.
A similar trend falls into the gameplay itself. Much of it involves driving around the impressively scaled city, while racking up humorously-named achievements and combos for mowing down as many pedestrians as possible — sensitive parents should look away, as they're ruthlessly satirised in the storyline, too. The various cars, trucks and road-worthy things — which we won't spoil — have unique handling and mechanics, adding to the sense that this is a title put together with a lot of dedication, focus and attention. Often you're simply driving between story missions and side missions, while on other occasions you're racing around checkpoints and against time limits.
Once on foot it all naturally slows down, and you're often doing a mix of melee fighting, shooting with a range of weapons and even stomping, a cool twist on the classing platforming trope that becomes essential in later stages. There's exploration on offer with a huge range of additional challenges scattered around the city — though they're also accessible in the main menu — and a broad range of shops and buildings to discover. You can customise Player's look with some sunglasses, a funny hat or a hair cut, while Nolan's Arcade is a site where you can indulge in a number of short but welcome mini-games. It's here — and in the story's hub location — that you can access ROM City Rampage; while it's neat to see this "prototype" NES version of the game, the lacking sound and slight bugginess make it little more than a brief side-note, even if the process of its development is ultimately more interesting.
The vast majority of missions are either fun or, in the odd case, raucous and indispensable, with occasions where the script and level design combine perfectly. It's all about variety and keeping you on your toes, and with the core story — disregarding tough side quests and Arcade Challenges — coming in at about four hours, there's little sense of repetition. Rather like the storytelling, in most cases the balance is fair (albeit challenging) and missions are a blast, yet on a couple of notable occasions there are significant difficulty spikes that can feel a little cheap. It's hard to tell whether they're there to lengthen the game, to irritate the player or whether they're some kind of "meta" joke about retro games playing dirty — whatever the case, they almost compelled us to throw the controller a few times.
Our controller of choice, that is fortunate to have not met its end against a wall on those rare occasions, is the Classic Controller or Classic Controller Pro. It's entirely possible to play this game with a sideways Wii Remote, and the setup is functional, yet the game leaves you in no doubt that the Classic Controller is the way to go — with weapon selection, jumping, stomping, shooting, driving and more activities besides, the additional buttons on offer are invaluable. Also useful is the right analogue stick, which serves as a free aim option that's particularly useful in tougher levels; the Wii Remote alternative is to fire in the direction you're facing and lock-on to enemies, which is a decent alternative.
While a four hour story mode may seem modest, it's likely that the optional extras will more than double that playtime. The aforementioned Arcade Challenges are fiendishly difficult, with gold medals in each sure to test the most skilled of gamers, while you can roam the city in your Story Mode save for all of those side missions or, if you prefer, simply go into Free Roaming Mode with unlimited cash and one of a number of unlockable characters. If the core concept and gameplay grabs your attention, there's enough extra incentive to keep you coming back for many hours.
It would be remiss of us, of course, if we didn't praise the overall presentation of Retro City Rampage. The pixel-art is terrifically colourful and precise — we recommend switching to a 4:3 ratio on your Wii and TV for best results — while the sound effects are classic 8-bit homages. The music is also an absolute high-point, with a fantastic sense of style to fit the varied and unlikely scenarios being played out in the story, and a neat touch of being able to switch the "radio" in a car while rampaging around the streets. Grab some headphones, dig out a t-shirt from the '80s and pretend that you're gaming back in 1989.
Retro City Rampage is a unique offering on WiiWare, with an utterly chaotic sense of gameplay and storytelling that's as baffling as it is often brilliant. Occasionally the zany focus can slide a bit too far, with sections of the story or relentlessly difficulty levels that seem to be there to amuse the developer rather than gamers, showing it can be a thin line between parody, satire, and self-indulgence. That's a small gripe in the overall context, however, and what this represents is a stylish, bonkers and loving dedication to old-school gaming; essential for gaming veterans, and well worth consideration for those that want to know what all those old-timers are talking about when referring to the "good old days".