Imagine you're on a tennis court and someone's filled one of those ball-chucking cannons with the entire NES back catalogue and set the thing to max speed. That's what the first 20 minutes of Retro City Rampage feel like: a hailstorm of 1980s games references whizzing at you, with very little discernible improvement in your tennis skills.
Things settle down a bit after that, but not by much. Retro City Rampage really is as full-on, super-concentrated and tight-jeaned a tribute to the NES era's games and culture as you're ever likely to meet.
It looks and sounds the part brilliantly: fluorescent pastels, blocky text, screaming synth-guitar solos and a hero with hair so slick you half expect a dying seabird to crawl out of it. The real treat is that it's a playable nostalgia trip, with in-game nods to Mario, Sonic, Paperboy, Frogger and so many more that '1985' begins to feel more like the number of games referenced.
Grand Theft Auto eighties
The core of the game is Grand Theft Auto, 8-bit-style and very nice it is, too. You can piledrive your way through anything, the cops are useless and the poor pedestrians go flying. Theftropolis City is a thing of wonder, too. It feels like where the entire cast of videogaming goes when it clocks off: there are bits of Mario Bros. and Zelda in the architecture, Yoshi bikes on the road and the trainer bloke from Punch-Out!! running the gym. The citizens even measure distances in pixels, bless 'em.
God knows what the plot's about (time travel and Batman, we think), but it leads to two types of missions. One is your familiar, GTA-style blasting and stealing, except with an unusual emphasis on Mario-style stomping and the chance you'll have to kill Shaggy from Scooby Doo (no joke). The other is in the form of homages such as a Mega Man-esque platform bit, or a loving recreation of a slice of Paperboy.
You don't need to be a child of the '80s to get into it. Of course, it's more fun if you notice that the tower-climb shootout is a nod to Impossible Mission, or that the barrel-rolling refuelling section is a knock-off of 1983's Tapper, but even if you weren't around in the days when Donkey Kong had no tie and a better haircut, you can still enjoy van-jacking a van that inexplicably looks exactly like him.
Some of Retro City Rampage is bemusingly Americocentric and it's sometimes only just playable with a standard Wii remote. This is a game meant for the Classic Controller and without it your fingers have to breakdance madly over the A, B and Minus keys. That it all works is pretty amazing when you consider that there's a new character, control set-up or play style coming for your face and hands every five minutes. It works at first, at any rate: things start to go wrong about halfway through.
The game's loyalty to GTA - same mission style, same spray-and-pays, same hidden packages and challenges - means it also mimics Rockstar's bad habits. That sinking feeling you get before an open world race mission, knowing it'll be 27 attempts before you memorise all the turns and avoid unlucky collisions? It's the same thing here, only worse, because the 2D view means you can't see the corners coming.
A hitch in time
The difficulty's all over the shop, too. Sometimes you can hold the fire button with one hand and read a book with the other and still win easily; other times, you're trapped in the seventh stage of an interminable Smash TV-inspired top-down shooting nightmare, as 20 rocket-launching idiots pour out of doors and prevent you from reaching... an eighth stage of interminable Smash TV-inspired top-down shooting. It's as though the developer forgot it was supposed to parody the bad/good old days, not recreate them. Giving us a nudge-nudge 'crappy water level' reference is one thing, making us play a crappy water level is another thing entirely.
The bite-size, freewheeling fun of the earlier stages soon seems as distant as the actual 1980s, having been replaced by grindingly tedious hardcore retro. By the end, your enjoyment will depend on your patience for full-on vintage gaming: one-hit deaths, unavoidable damage, nasty time limits, sparse checkpoints and game design where one hour of gaming means 30 increasingly tearful attempts at a single two-minute section.
If Retro City Rampage was an '80s party, it'd be a funny, authentic one, but you'd only want to stay for a few hours before making your excuses as the atmosphere started turning ugly. But not before grabbing some free food. If it was an actual '80s party. Which, just to be clear, it isn't.