A game by Vblank Entertainment for PC, PS3, Vita, PSP, Xbox 360, 3DS, and Wii, originally released in 2012.
A long development cycle is almost universally a bad thing when it comes to developing video games. The longer it takes you to make your release date, the less impressive your game will look against its contemporaries, and if you wait too long, the thing will be just plain outdated. That rule certainly applies in a hardware-driven market where developers are trying to create games using the most cutting-edge technology… but the same cannot be said for a game that’s purposely being developed to look like it might have debuted more than 2 decades prior to its actual release date.
This is Retro City Rampage, and it’s a game whose life originally began in 2002 as a pet project by Brian Provinciano. Back then, the game went under the name Grand Theftendo, and it wasn’t just a retro-looking game, it was an actual retro game. By that, we mean that the game was programmed to run on NES hardware (or at least via NES hardware emulation), with all of the system’s inherent limitations. Brian had a certain fascination with game programming and electronics, which led him to learn 6502 assembly language and start working on a real NES game.
Grand Theftendo was basically his attempt to create an 8-bit version of Grand Theft Auto 3. An impressive amount of work was put into the project, and by 2004, he had created a free-roaming world, complete with the ability to use weapons, steal cars, and embark on some basic missions. However, at that point, there was still a long way to go before the game would be fully fleshed out and playable. Unfortunately, the limitations of the 8-bit hardware also meant that realizing this dream would be a constant fight against the system’s capabilities in order to deliver a truly authentic experience. That meant dealing with slowdown, flicker, sprite limitations, etc.
Finally, around 2005, Brian decided that he was less interested in pulling off a feat of wicked programming skill, and more interested in actually creating a full-fledged game that was fun to play. So, he cast off the hardware limitations of the NES and set out to create a retro-styled 8-bit experience outside of those self-imposed restrictions. The result is Retro City Rampage, a completely original title that is related to Grand Theftendo only in spirit. It is no longer based on the GTA universe and no longer carries that dark tone. Instead, the game is an open-world romp through a colorful and humor-packed world, meant to appeal especially to those of us who grew up playing 8-bit games.
Despite the retro style, the game has all of the things you would expect from a modern open-world game: dozens of vehicles to be liberated from the citizenry, more than 20 weapons, a huge script with tons of dialogue and cutscenes, loads of missions and side missions, and a whole city to play around in. It’s definitely not a game that could have run on NES hardware, but it still looks and feels like an NES game for the most part. The only difference is the amount of content and the fact that you’d never have this much stuff happening onscreen at once without a complete hardware meltdown. Also, playing it in widescreen 480p is somewhat more impressive than the old 13” CRT’s that many of us grew up with.
The game knows its audience, and Retro City Rampage is packed wall-to-virtual-wall with 80’s video game and pop culture references, even more so than Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The game is so loaded with these references that it would be impossible for anyone but our robot overlords to digest them all in a single playthrough. The game pokes fun at bad English translations in video games, has fun with some popular powerups and other video game tropes, and even mimics elements and environments from numerous 8-bit era video games. Practically every major 8-bit franchise is tackled: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear (way before it was Solid), Contra, and many more. Anyone who considers the NES their formative gaming platform will recognize and appreciate the references spread throughout the game.
And it’s not just video games that get their retro references. Movies such as Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure also have their place in the game, as do a number of popular television shows, cartoons, and pop culture icons of the 80’s. The game even lets you embrace the 80’s-ness by allowing you to pimp your character out with any number of popular hairstyles from the time. So, while the Playstation-era kids may be content to enjoy the game on its own merits, the NES-era kids will have an extra level of humor added to their experience.
The game focuses around a character named simply “Player”, who starts out as a low-level thug in a crime syndicate led by The Jester. As with many open-world games, your goal is to make your way up through the organization, taking jobs, committing crimes, and earning money along the way. You’ll be exploring the city streets, including some building interiors, and a few of the outlying environments as well. Most of the game takes place from an overhead perspective, but there are also some side-scrolling sections.
Also, given the fact that you’re playing as a criminal in an open-world game, there is plenty of havoc to unleash. Once you’ve liberated the vehicle of your choice (try the one modeled after a DeLorean, complete with flaming tire tracks that set pedestrians on fire!), you can smash through the city, run from the police, and hop up on the sidewalk to start mowing people down. There are even chain bonuses for achieving sustained levels of mayhem. But it’s all presented in a cartoony over-the-top style that doesn’t take itself at all seriously.
In addition to the retro visuals, Vblank has brought on a number of talented game music composers / chiptune artists to create an appropriately retro soundtrack. First off is Jake Kaufman (known as “virt”), who has a tremendous amount of game music experience, including the Shantae games, Scurge: Hive, Contra 4, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and many others. Next up is Leonard Paul (known as “Freaky DNA”) who has been working as a video game composer since the mid-90's. And Matt Creamer (known as “Norrin Radd”) who released an NES-style deathmetal album called Anomaly.
8 Bit Horse interviews Brian Provinciano of Vblank Entertainment. We discuss Brian’s development background, gaming influences, and the inspirations behind Retro City Rampage. Brian also shares some insights about how much time is spent on the business side of things when running an indie studio. The video features footage of the game in action, along with renderings showing how some of Brian’s sketches became final in-game art.
We also have a considerably longer and more detailed audio-only interview with Brian Provinciano, featured on Fanboy Confidential's site (available to download or stream below). In this interview, we speak with Brian on a wide variety of topics, including the game systems that he grew up with, how he got into programming, and the long history of Retro City Rampage. Brian also shares some great insights on the challenges of publishing content with Microsoft on XBLA versus Nintendo's WiiWare service, and he makes some recommendations for budding indie developers.
This is technically Vblank Entertainment’s first video game release, but Brian Provinciano has worked professionally in the game industry, and worked on several handheld games, including the Midway Arcade Treasures and Sonic the Hedgehog games on the PSP.
Most of the game was created by Brian on his own, in his spare time. But toward the end of development, he devoted himself to it full time. Just about everything aside from the soundtrack was created by Brian from scratch, although he did bring in some folks to add some additional assets and to playtest the game.