Retro City Rampage calls itself a parody. Putting the likely legal reasons for this badge aside, there are (broadly speaking) two kinds of parodies: biting satires and warmly affectionate ones. RCR clearly falls into the latter category. It is a tour de force crammed full of references to (mainly) 1980s pop culture, both in style and contents.
The protagonist, simply called "The Player" is a minor henchman in the gang of a mad criminal called "The Jester" operating in said decade. After a bank robbery disastrously gone wrong and a subsequent run-in with Bill & Ted, the Player is transported forward in time, into our present (called the year "20XX"). Uprooted, he enlists the help of a certain "Doc Choc" who has built a time machine into a suspiciously DeLorean-looking sports car. Before the Player can travel back to his own time, he has to find various replacement parts so that the Doc, who is charmingly naive and ignorant about the Player's criminal activities, can fix the phone booth, though. In the process, the good-evil Player uncovers several big conspiracies and fights even badder guys than himself while, of course, permanently having the evil-good law enforcement agencies on his back.
The general gameplay is clearly inspired by the Grand Theft Auto games: Freely roaming around "Theftropolis City", the Player can collect weapons and hidden power-ups, steal cars, fulfil missions or simply run over innocent bystanders for fun. Whenever he commits a crime with a policeman present nearby, the "threat meter" will rise, indicating that the police will chase him more aggressively until finally, even it is replaced by military if the Player takes it too far. Hiding for a time decreases the threat meter, as will having your car sprayed in a different, inconspicuous colour (the Player remarks: "That will totally work!").
Hidden in there are various references to other classic computer and video games, though. One mission involves the Player jumping on a bike (not the motor-driven kind) and delivering newspapers. Infiltrating the local superhero's mansion, he suddenly has to "solve" simple "puzzles" and finds a hamster in a microwave. At several points of the story, he suddenly finds himself in Jump'n'Run inspired sections, sometimes even under water (James Pond?), the end game is a prolonged chase sequence reminiscient of Chase HQ and the fighting styles available to the Player range from the obvious weapons to Golden Axe or Double Dragon inspired pickup moves and jumping on people's heads.
The latter being a good example of the overall tone of the game: While the nods towards gaming history are of a loving nature, there are various pointed stabs at the world surrounding the gaming culture. The Player himself delivers several deadpan remarks which allude to well-known subjects, such as in this case the media discussion about violence in video games: When the Player finds an arcade machine whose game lets his avatar stomp on monsters' heads, he "suddenly feels the urge to stomp people in real life", which he then promptly proceeds to do. In a similarly ironic vein, the game begins with a "common sense warning" parodying those false disclaimers with their typical double standards.
Which obviously makes this a game for people old enough to remember those times about twenty to thirty years ago. The humour of it all is anything but accessible – you either "get it" or you don't. Both on these slightly serious subjects (this also includes more than one major stab at Microsoft's business practices), but also when it comes to seemingly irrelevant details like the large choice of mullets which the Player can have his hair cut into. It all contributes to the warm, fuzzy feeling of returning back to one's innocent youth.
Emphasising this even more is the audiovisual style. The game is accompanied by a broad variety of chiptunes and the graphics… the graphics! Running at an effective resolution of 320x240 pixels, the game looks like it comes right out of the late 1980s. The quality of the pixel art makes it obvious that this is not inability, but a conscious choice of style. On top of that, the game offers various graphical filters which can, on the one hand, smoothen or sharpen the picture and apply various colour palettes modelled after classic computers or console systems. So if you like the green-brown-ish tint of the classic Game Boy, you can have it just like the colour bleeding effects of the Spectrum. My personal favourite: the C64 palette.
Of course, there is the question why. Is it the nostalgia of those colours reminding me of a carefree, fun time as I experienced it personally? It is undeniable that it is a curious "coincidence" that my preference correlates with my personal computer-related history. Still, I like to think it's not just that. The C64 palette contains muted colours; the default as well as the NES-inspired one, on the other hand, are quite shrill and I certainly cannot imagine anyone seriously picking a CGA palette if they can avoid it! Though whether that is a factor or just rationalisation after the fact, who can tell?
Which, of course, is a valid point to make about the whole game. In spite of most of the short "parody levels" not being quite on par with the main gameplay and some even gnawing dangerously at the frustration level of games as they were actually made back in the 1980s (though you do have unlimited lives…) as well as the progressing plotline narrowing down the freedom inherent in the gameplay more and more over time, RCR is an absolute delight to play! It's literally been years that I've been entertained this well by a game I didn't know before! Even more than the (admittely funny) storyline, the totally free play, simply exploring all the corners of the city and discovering its many hidden secrets, is very close to my heart. Whether this will be the same for younger players or whether they will see it as just another mediocre and eventually forgettable curiousity, I don't dare to judge.