Looking for Retro City? Just strap on your nostalgia goggles.

Strewn about the fictional city of Theftropolis are live cheat codes. They give you extraordinary powers, but also revoke your ability to save the game until you shut it down and return. Activating one for the first time is an experience all at once nostalgic and frustrating: two words which seem to encapsulate the earnest but bumpy ride through Retro City Rampage.

Almost ten years in the making, Retro City Rampage is the brain child of developer Brian Provinciano. It started as an experiment to recreate Grand Theft Auto III for the NES, known at the time as Grand Theftendo. Finally released last week, it has evolved into much more. Using a crime-ridden open world as its foundation, Retro City Rampage casts you as the opportunistic “Player;” a thug who gets caught up in a time-traveling doctor’s attempt to repair a futuristic car. Seizing on the good doc’s plight as a chance to cause havoc, Player cuts a swath through Theftropolis on a series of missions and mini-missions that are linked to a mystery straddling the past, present, and future. 

The plot may take you all over the place, but Retro City Rampage is a game occupied with the past. Think the GTA-meets-Back to the Future plotline contained a dense set of references? Think again. Like a quilt made out of pre-millenial childhood, the game world is stitched together with hundreds of references to TV shows, movies, and – most importantly – video games from the 80s and 90s. It goes well beyond iconography to define the mechanics and flow of the game. 

You’ll assist Major Lee Solid in protecting his weapons business by wreaking havoc with a bionic arm to give his competitors a bad name. Later, you’ll help Lee arm some bombs in an underwater sequence reminiscent of  Super Mario Bros. and the classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game… turtles who you earlier beat up when they came out of the sewers. Speaking of Mario, hopping on the heads of enemies pairs seamlessly with gunplay as a method of taking out threats and nuisances.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Provinciano skirts the limits of the law to pack the game with a more genuine, deeply embedded sense of gaming history than perhaps any title to date. For players steeped in the media of the last several decades, the result is a chaotic playground of sorts. Retro City Rampage is The Friend Who Wants To Stay Up Late With You Talking About Your Childhood: The Game. That kind of playfulness comes at a price, however. The social contract of Provinciano’s walk down memory lane dictates that beyond the nostalgia — when the references become too scattershot (and they do), or go entirely over some players’ heads (and they will) — there should be a compelling game beneath it all. It’s on this front, unfortunately, that Retro City Rampage is less dependable. 

Of the 62 story missions in the game, it’s not an exaggeration to say that roughly half of them are a wash for one reason or another. Some will send you all the way across town to meet a friend of the doctor’s, only to have them give you a power-up that you use for one minute and then never revisit again. Several depend on the timed, expert use of the game’s vehicles, but the controls leave a lot to be desired when it comes to weaving in and out of the city’s labyrinthine alleyways. Missions which mock the fetch and follow quests of eras gone by don’t improve on that style of play, but rather repeat it. And this is to say nothing of the last hour or two of the game, in which the stages depend on so much tough-as-nails classic pattern recognition and precision that beating them slowly deflates any sense of victory. 

Talking to Provinciano, he noted that he didn’t want Retro City Rampage to feel like a collection of mini-games. Ironically, it’s the moments that do which are some of the strongest. Playing through the story and exploring Theftropolis leads you to uncover nearly 40 “sprees” which lampoon the often pointless side-missions of the Grand Theft Auto universe. Whether you’re rolling over 50 innocent bystanders with a steamroller in 50 seconds, or parading around the city causing damage with an everlasting rocket launcher, many sprees have an addictive, hilarious quality to them that will keep you retrying to secure a higher spot on the leaderboards. If Retro City Rampage is a modern arcade game, it’s these sprees more so than the narrative that keep you inserting your quarters and coming back for more. 

Retro City Rampage

In going from Grand Theftendo to Retro City Rampage, Provinciano seems to have gotten carried away by the increased scope of the nostalgia that he’s attempting to bottle, allowing it at times to swallow the design of the game…or rather, to become the design. Like a dancer at the barre, he seems to be showing off every move in his repetoire, every memory that’s shaped him into the gamer he is today. And if you’re that gamer too, then no score should dissuade you from making the trip to Theftropolis. Just be aware: the place isn’t exactly tourist-friendly.