Of all the mysteries of E3 2012 (trust me, this year’s event was full of ‘em), perhaps the biggest was the dozens of Vita demos peppered across Sony’s booth that the company completely failed to acknowledge during its Monday night press conference. Did someone tell Tretton and co., “if you build it, they will come,” or what? Here’s a little bit of free advice, Sony: if you want people to buy your games, it’s probably a bad idea to rely only on word-of-mouth marketing. I know that it costs a lot of money to quote J.K. Rowling in your PowerPoint deck, but yeesh…couldn’t you at least have thrown a few more logos up in that bitch?
Nearly every game on display at Sony’s Vita demo stations – including first-party stunners like Gravity Rush and Sly Cooper, re-releases of console classics like Jet Set Radio, and unique PSN exclusives like the oddly charming WarioWare knockoff Frobisher Says – would seem to suggest that the Vita is in for a great year, assuming Sony actually wants people to know these games exist. But there was one title that stood out among an already fantastic assortment of software: a game that celebrates the joys of gaming more than all the press conferences, celebrity endorsements, and booth babes the ESA could cram into twenty years worth of E3s.
The game is Retro City Rampage, a top-down, open-world action game that began life in 2002 as Grandtheftendo, an 8-bit demake of GTA III that creator Brian Provinciano originally intended to release as homebrew code for the NES. In the decade since development first began on the project, it’s evolved not only into a full-blown commercial product set for release on nearly every digital game service you can think of (except the 3DS eShop…d’oh!), but into something entirely distinct from its biggest influence – something Provinciano calls an “open-world action parody.”
Early in RCR’s development – before Provinciano had hired a team of dedicated pixel artists and chiptune musicians to give it the unique flavor it has today – he began peppering RCR with references to all his favorite movies, TV shows, and video games as a fun way to learn the ins and outs of assembly language programming. The influences are immediately apparent, and they help RCR stand out in an already crowded landscape of “retro-influenced” indie games. The top-down perspective and vehicle handling are, of course, reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto, but where RCR really shines is in its constant and shameless parodying of pretty much any staple of 80′s pop culture you can think of. An early cut scene, meant to explain the motivations of playable character “The Player,” is almost frame-for-frame identical to the title preamble of Mega Man 2, complete with a music track that sounds suspiciously similar to Manami Matsumae’s composition for Mega Man 2. As the scene pans to the top of the building, we see The Player standing, essentially, in Mega Man’s footprints, but broadcasting more sinister intentions. This building is home to the “Stoogemac $Bank$,” and The Player is going to rob it!
In the year 20XX, Retro City Rampage finally became a reality.
In the hands of the wrong developer, RCR could have come across as little more than fan-fiction: fun for a few seconds, but ultimately forgettable. Fortunately, the underlying gameplay – a mix of on-foot and vehicle-based shooting and exploration, side-scrolling platforming, cover-based shooting, stealth, and many others – fuses expertly with art and sound design that make RCR’s world feel like a Toontown of sorts for the myriad pop-culture universes from which it borrows. Remember those playground conversations of decades past, where you and your friends dreamed up the ultimate video game? You know…where you got to rob Scrooge McDuck’s gold vault with the Joker from Batman? And then Frogger died crossing the road but you one-upped him using Sonic the Hedgehog’s red shoes to get to the other side and hit the crosswalk button, but then the traffic wouldn’t stop so, so…and then Joker blows ‘em all up and then you lose all the loot and go on an adventure through time with Doc Emmett Brown’s DeLorean AND Bill and Ted’s gnarly phone booth, because who wants one time machine when you could have TWO? But then the phone booth breaks and you have to use Nintendo parts to fix it, because what the hell is a flux capacitor anyway?
If this sounds at all familiar or appealing, you’re in luck: it all plays out in the first ten minutes of RCR. And that’s ultimately what makes the game a success: it was dreamed up by someone just like you used to be, back before you grew up, got a job, started paying off loans, and filed for divorce. Back then, you didn’t care about the cost of licensing Beatles tunes for your video game, or getting Joe Montana to show up to your birthday party; you just knew what you wanted the world to be like, and for those few minutes between fractions and world geography, you made it happen. Provinciano and his collaborating artists and musicians remember recess too, and they know it beats the pants off the alternative.
Even the worst games are fun when viewed through the right lens.
Retro City Rampage is due out at the end of the summer for PS Vita, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360, and PC. Don’t miss it, or I’m gonna sick the A-Team on you.