At the simplest level, Retro City Rampage is, well, pretty freakin' simple. It's a gloriously wayward GTA demake in which you steal cars, pull donuts and drive over pedestrians. Oh, and you can then shoot it out with the cops across the length and breadth of a compact open-world metropolis that looks like it could fit inside a good old NES cartridge.
Go deeper, though, and you'll realise there's a rogue strand of Pokémon DNA in the pixel-art and chiptune mix. It's a Pokémon for pop culture references, in fact, and the real pleasure of VBlank's 8-bit charmer is watching thirty years of movies, TV, comic books and video games smooshed together in a manner that manages to be both intricate and strangely throwaway. Can you catch it all?
Many of the references are too good to spoil, but here's one to get you started. Early on in Retro City Rampage I went into a house on the trail of some MacGuffin or other - a typical GTA-type mission. The house belonged to Biffman, however, who's the Retro City version of Batman, and after locking the superhero out of his own gaff using a big red key, I searched the microwave, which the game informed me smelled of rodent, before I was offered a phoneline hint on how best to proceed from there.
I stopped to ponder all of this for a second: was I enjoying a riff on Batman, on Gauntlet, on Maniac Mansion, or on old cheat lines? I think it was probably a bit of everything at once - and that's just one instance, just one mission. Pluck an 8-bit game or a cherished 1980s movie out of the ether, and chances are it gets a reworking here, providing the basis for mechanics, a level idea or the odd line of dialogue. Before the end credits roll, you'll wield Ghostbuster proton packs and you'll bottom-bounce on enemy's heads. You'll feel asleep - or whatever the correct phrase is - in the back of a military truck. You'll meet Mr T. You'll get to the chopper.
As the name "Biffman" suggests, Retro City Rampage isn't the most inspired of games when it's trying to be funny. It has proper jokes in it, but they're often a little heavy-handed in the telling and the end result can fall a bit flat. That doesn't mean the whole thing isn't hectic, wall-to-wall fun, though. Not at all. The best way I can think of explaining VBlank's peculiar sense of humour is this: playing Retro City Rampage isn't like watching Anchorman for the first time, it's like when you and your friends get together and end up doing all the Anchorman quotes. (You have to like Anchorman for this analogy to work.)
The pleasure here is the sheer depth of pop culture knowledge on display, in other words, and the sense of a shared childhood it provides. From Virtual Boys to Ninja Turtles, the game delivers a warm thrill of recognition every time you spot something you've always loved and realise somebody else always loved it too. If you're the kind of person who nods in quiet acknowledgement when that line about being part of a generation of 30-year-old boys comes up in Fight Club, this is the game for you. In fact, this is the game that could probably quote that line back at you word for word while you're tooling down the freeway in a stolen ice cream van, being pursued by the cast of Who's The Boss?
I've started with the endless references because the endless references are the first thing to make much of an impression. Retro City Rampage's opening few minutes provide quite a choppy ride, actually, as you bounce from one skit to the next, one static cut-scene screen to another. It's only once you've settled down into an open world filled with markers for story missions and side offerings alike that you realise there's much more to do here than alt-tab between IMDB and that Cheezeburger site to make sure you're still in on the joke.
"You can get a haircut that makes you look like Kid out of Kid 'n' Play or pour money into a Virtual Boyified spin on Super Meat Boy in the arcades."
There's the city, for starters: Theftropolis, with its skyscrapers, its dive bars, its coffee shops, and its parks. You can get a haircut that makes you look like Kid out of Kid 'n' Play, pour money into a Virtual Boyified spin on Super Meatboy in the arcades, or just spend your time stealing motors, backing over their owners, and irritating the police until they send in the big guns.
One thing all of this stuff has in common - and that list is really just scratching the surface - is the focus on smart controls. There are two different ways to handle driving, for example, both of which are wonderfully straightforward and precise, and when it comes to fighting, there's a lock-on attack or the option to approach shooting and punching like you're playing a twin-stick shooter. Clear-headed and nicely tuned, Retro City Rampage makes action look easy in a way that the original GTA titles never did - and it ensures that, when the campaign makes the inevitable reference to Smash TV, it's surprisingly effective as a result.
Cops are pleasantly aggressive, meaning that you can get a car chase going in no time, but they're also quietly underpowered, so there's none of that awful open-world frustration where you want to start the next mission but tiny fender-benders keep seeing you set upon by SWAT helicopters. The city's a great place to explore in between jobs, as you catalogue the weird names of the shops, hunt for bizarre video game secrets, and enjoy the nicely differentiated handling that marks a fire truck out from a sports car.
It all looks lovely, too. VBlank takes the 1980s aesthetic seriously, offering the limited colours and huge pixelly sprites and backdrops of a NES title while chucking in the kind of density of moving pieces the old grey box could never hope to handle. Some games go for an old-school art style and end up with something that doesn't actually look like a genuine 8-bit classic; strip away the dozens of pedestrians, and Retro City really could have been made by Capcom or Konami back in the day.
"It's then,an adventure built of other adventures, and its originality comes from the manner in which everything comes together."
The missions try to add a little contrast to the open-world chaos. They're short but varied for the most part, and as well as providing a collection of special power-ups for you to try out, they frequently toss in nods to other genres. Results are mixed, inevitably: towards the second half of the campaign, the design really hits its stride with exploration and puzzle sections and some brilliant stand-out battles. Before all that, though, in amongst clever spins on adventure games and a decent stab at platforming, you get a poorly calibrated version of 'Splosion Man that lasts far too long and a car-tailing mission that makes jokes about how bad car-tailing missions can be while delivering one of the worst in recent memory.
Such disappointments tend to be blips, though, and they're quickly forgotten in the churn of this dazzlingly generous game. Even when it's over, there are challenges to blast through, a free roam mode to mess about in, and stages to replay until you've uncovered every secret and maximised every score. It's an 8-bit spectacular with a huge arsenal of weapons, all of which feel distinct and characterful, and it's even found time to add in a workable cover mechanic. Browse its casinos and arcades and you'll find plentiful mini-games, while a tour through its menus will uncover quirky themed over-lays nestled next to the widescreen mode. I've travelled across the city from every angle and done a good proportion of the side events, and I know there are still things I've missed. I know there are gimmicks out there that have probably provided other people with their own favourite moments, and I haven't even seen them yet.
As yet another game with an 8-bit feel and a lengthy development history, it's hard to play Retro City Rampage for too long without thinking about Fez. What's fascinating, in fact, is that the end results couldn't be more different, with Polytron using the classics as a way of leading the player into weird new experimental wonderlands, while VBlank's more concerned with remixing and remodelling, stitching one game to another and seeing what comes from the combination.
It's an adventure built of other adventures, then, and its originality comes from the manner in which everything comes together. If you love old games - and old movies and all that other old jazz - there's a good chance you're going to love this, too. It has an ancient heart, shot full of bullets and criss-crossed with tyre treads.