Brian Provinciano loves games. No strange thing for a developer, but his is a more dedicated passion than most. Before we meet outside a Starbucks on a damp Nottingham afternoon, he's just been to the local Game, picking up copies of both Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Their covers differ oh-so-slightly from those sold in his home town of Vancouver, and they're to be added to his collection, another couple of scalps for this committed completist.
It's not just GTA ephemera that Brian collects, though. He's also compiling another compendium, an assortment of memories, inspirations and cherished moments thrown together in a digital scrapbook.
"My original dream was that I wanted to see a version of Grand Theft Auto running on NES hardware," Provinciano, animated by his enthusiasm, says. "That was what excited me." An eccentric hobby, what was then known as Grand Theftendo was worked on in the downtime from Provinciano's day-job working as a programmer at Backbone Entertainment.
"But in time I got more excited with making a fun game, and making the best possible game it could be. It couldn't really be done on NES hardware - it was just too limited a platform. I saw the potential in it, and I realized it'd be great to make it a full time job, and in order to do that I'd have to make an original game. And in time that became more exciting to me anyway."
Welcome to Retro City Rampage, an open-world game with 8-bit stylings that's too witty to call a pastiche and too original to call a parody. It's a cascade of references, tied together with game mechanics pulled from far and wide. The real shock isn't seeing this most modern of genres told this way - it's how Provinciano pulls together countless influences to make one giddy, brilliant whole.
Its aesthetic is spot-on, Retro City's NES legacy lending its blocky blacks, yellows and greens an impeccable authenticity. A cathode glow softens the edges, a smart CRT frame gently warping the edges of the screen and scan lines smoothing the sawtooth pixel edges, while chiptunes composed by Jake Kaufman among others provides a fitting score.
It works as an open world, too; it's rich and expansive, and while its aesthetic might be a little retrograde its mechanics are more contemporary. Grand Theft Auto's provided the template, and its influence extends to the latter games in the series: there's a combat lock-on that works well, snapping smartly to nearby targets and allowing you to strafe. If Rockstar is ever to return to the top-down model that it tinkered with in Chinatown Wars, it would do well to learn from this game.
Retro City Rampage isn't slavish to its chief source, either. "There are two big things that I've veered away from GTA on," says Provinciano. "One of them is the fact that I didn't want it to feel like driving from A to B and shooting stuff like GTA - and that's why I've made so many of the missions so varied."
Variety is one way of putting it. Retro City Rampage's patchwork of references starts with its title - a playful nod to characterful beat-'em-up River City Ransom - and spreads extensively from there. Barely 10 seconds go by without a reference popping in, and they're often much more than just wry cameos.
Head down to the sewers and you're bitten by a radioactive plumber, which naturally unlocks the ability to stomp-jump on enemies. At one point you'll bump into a Major Lee Solid, who sets you off on a mission that introduces light stealth elements, though they're not around for long; within seconds it's warped into an Ikari Warriors tribute as it seamlessly blends into a scrolling shooter.
"Some of them play like adventure games, some of them play like eighties coin-op games," explains Provinciano, "and the big kicker is that they all happen in the open world so they don't feel like mini-games even though it's mixing up the mechanics. If there's a Root Tapper-style game, you're not just moving up and down - you can move freely and you're using a throwing mechanic just like everywhere else."
There are more throwaway references too, and while they don't run as deep, they're just as charming. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle's Shredder seems to have found work in the city's barbers, customising your character's avatar with haircuts that add another layer of reference, Princess Leia bobs mixing with mohawks and combovers. One cut-scene also affectionately riffs on Saved by the Bell, a pixelated sketch played out to digitised canned laughter.
The hundreds of distractions that make up every good open-world game prove a ripe excuse for yet more intertextuality. Step into an arcade and the cabinets are full of playable 'demakes' of current indie gems - sadly, we can't reveal exactly which indie gems they are, but rest assured that they involve some contemporary icons being manhandled into unexpected genres - and a card game torn from Mario Bros. 3, doling out extra items when panels are lined up. Without Nintendo's icons to lean upon, Brian recorded the original mini-game from the NES and aped the timing of the cards - a dedication that helps make the gag stick.
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Will follow shortly on Xbox 360, PC and Mac as a free update.
A love letter to the 8-bit era.
Playing Retro City Rampage is a dizzying, exhausting experience, an assault of nostalgia, in-jokes and diverse play mechanics. The most remarkable achievement is how it sticks together, and how, despite it drawing in every cultural cornerstone in the recesses of Provinciano's mind, it presents a cohesive whole.
It's also a deeply personal game - thanks, perhaps, to the fact that Provinciano worked on Retro City Rampage on his own until relatively recently - and it's imprinted with the personality of someone steeped in pop culture and someone who, in taking on such an impossible task, walks the fine line between insanity and genius.
"What's kept me going is just the determination," Provinciano says of his efforts since the project started in 2003. "I sacrificed a lot of time to make sure I didn't fail. I just wanted to create this massive game, and I wanted to have everything in it - and I wanted it to be good."
Good is just the half of it. With Retro City Rampage, Provinciano's created a compelling mash-up that does so much more than pay homage. In patching together moments gone and wrapping them up in retro aesthetic and bold design, this is one of the freshest and most thrilling games on the horizon.
Retro City Rampage will be launching early next year on Xbox Live Arcade, with versions to follow on other platforms.