At last year’s GDC I attended a talk by Retro City Rampage’s whiz-kid designer, artist and coder Brian Provinciano. In the presentation he told the story of the game’s development so far, drawing audible gasps and even one outbreak of spontaneous applause from the room full of coders as he revealed his genius workings.
The adulation is warranted. It’s no mean feat creating a homage to Grand Theft Auto within the tight constraints of the NES hardware, Nintendo’s industry-defining console from the 1980s. “Theoretically the game could be burned to an NES cart and it would run on the system,” he explains to me at GDC 2012 a year later and two months away from the game’s launch on XBLA, PSN, Vita, Wii and Steam.
“The only ‘rules’ I’ve broken is adding the capacity to have more sprites on screen at one time (for explosions), and I fixed some issues with the NES font set. Depending on how well the game sell I may even do a special edition for NES.”
A lavish, exuberant celebration of gaming’s past, Retro City Rampage also boasts an open world around the same size as Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars. While the design characteristics of Rockstar’s popular series form the spine of the experience, the game is filled with nods and references to classic titles and cultural detritus, from Frogger to Paperboy to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the 1960s era Batman TV series.
The game enjoys a similar mission structure to GTA, as you assume the role of The Jester, a henchmen for a major crime syndicate driving between tasks and targets. “I’ve designed the game so you never have to drive too far between missions,” says Provinciano. And as soon as you arrive at your destination there’s a checkpoint.”
Indeed, while the game may assume a retro aesthetic, the design inside is contemporary and friction-less. It supports dual analogue sticks and has a smart lock-on system to make shooting engaging rather than frustrating. “For players who aren’t interested in cut-scenes you can even hold down a button for 20x fast forward.”
Retro City Rampage is, in many ways, a tribute game, even though the execution is – as evidenced by the GDC appaluse – a class apart. You can visit arcades in the game and play Provinciano’s own 8-bit versions of indie hits such as ‘Splosion Man and Super Meat Boy. Meanwhile, The Jester earns character abilities drawn from titles such as Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, Contra and Bionic Commando.
There’s an argument that the current crop of indie games with their pixel art visuals, eager nods to classic titles of yesteryear and chiptune music represent a generation of game developers revisiting their childhood game experiences, perhaps trying to recapture the feelings of playing games at that point in their lives.
If that’s true then Retro City Rampage is the ultimate expression of the 8-bit homage. “There is a feeling that I am getting this out of my system,” Provinciano tells me. “My next game is going to be very different, probably 3D.” But long before we get to that, there’s a city to rampage.
Retro City Rampage is due for release in May and will be available for XBLA, PSN, Vita, Wii and Steam.