In a way, there's something admirable about the way Retro City Rampage builds a giant world on the strength of references to old games and movies and TV. When you get the light gun at the end, for example, I turned up my volume for a bit and just enjoyed the sound. When you pulled the trigger there was that SPROING sound, the sound made when you pulled the trigger on the Zapper on the NES. The screen flashed. A white square appeared around the target if you hit one, and it was like Duck Hunt all over again.
But at the same time it starts to feel incredibly lazy. Like they were so laser-focused on making a game that would endlessly reference everything that they forgot to make anything worth experiencing beyond that. It's just a constant barrage of everything. And I do mean everything.
Take the first bit as an example, in which you rob a bank with 'The Jester' where you escape in a school bus like The Dark Knight, have to cross the road like it's Frogger, and then make a further escape by running past A-Team and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle references. Until you get in a DeLorean and go to the future.
But wait! It goes further than that, stealing level ideas and characters practically whole-hog from other media. Buttnick is just Doctor Robotnik and so is his wrecking ball attack. Underwater levels set up to specifically be just like the now-infamous one from the NES TMNT game. A final sequence set up to be like Rad Racer or Mach Rider (I can't decide which because they're very similar). Even the entirety of the overworld's design is a throwback to the overhead open-world GTA games of old.
Which also makes the game complete with the worst parts of the old games it's referencing. We've had decades of advancement in games and their mechanics, and any kind of throwback needs to recognize that some changes were made for the better, and making a fun game like this needs to be a clever combination of old and new mechanics, which they just didn't have.
Why put the shooting controls on a second joystick if you don't have full 360 degree rotation? Sure, that's not how OLD games were but it sure as hell is how new ones are. And you know what? Sometimes old games were really frustrating because of their limitations! Those weren't difficult design choices, that was what they had to deal with because the hardware was so poor! Where's the fun in trying to attack an enemy who's just a couple of pixels out of reach simply because you can't face him? Because your sprite doesn't exist with that direction programmed in? Sure, there's lock on targeting, but that doesn't work much better. Same issue, worsened by the locking on being somewhat spotty.
I mean even the fact that they reused the idea of the water levels from TMNT, levels infamous for being terrible, shows where their minds were at as they were developing the game. It's meant to get a pass by reminding you of the level, instead of really making something fun. And those levels aren't terrible here, but they're emblematic of the game choosing a look and reference over a real design decision.
It's sort of the same design philosophy behind those awful Friedberg/Seltzer comedies that somehow come out every year and somehow make a lot of money. It's a game made of references in the same way as every one of those is just a flash of things you might be familiar with. And I know! That’s a very mean thing of me to say! Because this is a way better game than those movies but... but it's still not a particularly great game even then.
And I definitely feel that this game is coming from a place of reverence, not crass commercialism and a cynical belief that idiots will just buy things that remind them of things. Maybe designing those water levels was catharsis for years spent unable to master that TMNT game, a pain shared by many. If no one is making Rad Racer, why not make it again yourself and relive that experience? Robocop is like the awesomest thing ever, why not build it in somehow?
You know what's also awesome, though? Playing a fun video game, and that's just not what Retro City Rampage is. For all the clever and 'clever' references, for all of the time spent on building just that perfect retro feel, they didn't bother making anything original, or really, memorable. The only memorable bit is their audacity in making a game that is just other games, but I've played those games. They were better. And really, I'd rather just play those.