The Music of Retro City Rampage :: Review by Simon Elchlepp
As far as retro game ideas go, crossing Grand Theft Auto with the world of vintage 8-bit games and graphics is a little strike of genius. If you then also decide to make your game a parody of 80's pop culture and video games, you've got a winner on your hands. However, it took programmer Brian Provinciano about a decade to realise this dream project of his, starting out in 2002 on his self-made NES development kit. During the lengthy development process, Retro City Rampage changed from an 8-bit clone of Grand Theft Auto into a fully original game that would still maintain some trademarks of the GTA franchise (the vast open cities to explore, the mission structure that would see you climb the ladder of a crime syndicate, etc.) Among the many classic games that Retro City Rampag would reference sometimes through 2D platformer-style sequences were Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, Contra, and Bionic Commando. Retro City Rampage's release was finally scheduled for 2012 as a downloadable title across several platforms including WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Steam.
For Retro City Rampage's soundtrack, Provinciano managed to attract the talents of three experienced chiptune artists: Jake Kaufman (aka virt, winner of SEMO's 2012 Award for Best Score - Independent), Matt Creamer (aka Norrin Radd), and Leonard Paul (aka "FreakyDNA"), with whom Provinciano had already worked together on Sonic Rivals in 2006. Retro City Rampage's open world-structure required the three composers to create a bigger score than such retro-inspired games usually receive according to Porvinciano, the game contained about two and a half hours of music. As for the score's stylistic direction, in interviews both Paul and Creamer expressed their desire to experiment with existing genres of music and express them through the classic NES sound, treating the NES' technological limitations not as a disadvantage, but as a framework that stimulates creative solutions. That approach seemed to work well enough, with the game garnering a nomination for Excellence in Audio at the 2010 Independent Games Festival.
In an unusual move, Retro City Rampage's soundtrack was released before the game via Bandcamp and iTunes in February 2012. This might have also prompted the soundtrack's slightly confusing release history. The most basic version of Retro City Rampage's album release contains 38 minutes across 24 tracks and was released in digital format and as a lavish vinyl edition. However, if you had pre-ordered the soundtrack before its release, you received ten bonus tracks by Creamer. Some time after the score's release, the composers added another ten bonus tracks by Paul and Creamer to the album's 24-track digital album, which brought it up to 35 cues ("Side Complete" by Kaufman appeared twice on the extended digital album). Fortunately, if you had already bought the 24-track digital album, the composers offered a download code for the 10 new bonus pieces. However, this extended release still didn't include the pre-order bonus tracks. This review refers to the currently available 35-track album version.
With a game as self-consciously recreating and commenting upon a past era as Retro City Rampage, you'd expect its music to follow suit. Indeed, on a good part of this album, the composers craft a beautiful homage to the Capcom and Konami action NES games of the late 80s to the early 90s. Kaufman opens the album with "Retro City Rampage Title Song", which hits the ground running with an enthusiastic, energetic melody lead and cleverly layered, driving rhythms that let you know right away that you'll have a blast with this album. There's a metal influence to "Retro City Rampage Title Song" that truly fires up the song and makes it a perfect start for the album. The same metal leanings return through the frantic drum fills on "Renegade" an impressively focused and tight track and "Do or Die", whose hyperactive second half is a throwback to the full-on sounds of the first Contra games (and which could have been explored in greater length than on this track).
On other tracks, the references to vintage NES games are of a different nature. After a light introduction, "Not Mega..." starts to accelerate and cheekily segues into a perfect recreation of that late 80s' Mega Man sound so many listeners will fondly remember. Kaufman emulates the classic Mega Man sound right down to the percussion samples and crafts a fitting homage that is melodically as strong as the model it's fashioned on. Creamer's "Smut Peddler", on the other hand, started out as a parody of the original Paper Boy's one and only cue, and caused Creamer some pain in making his track sound similar, but not too much so (for creative and legal reasons). While the end result of this struggle is only 73 seconds long, it was all worth it as "Smut Peddler" is one of the album's most fun tracks, its bright melodies intertwining and getting dizzy on their endorphins as they spin around each other.
Indeed, while almost all songs on Retro City Rampage stick to NES traditions and are on the short side, that's no deterrent to the fun you'll have with this music. There are some filler tunes like "Proton Decay", "Tune 6", or "Betting Zoo". But generally, all three composers manage to give their tracks, no matter how short, a character of their own, and be it only a catchy melodic riff. Meanwhile, the longer 1+ minute cues are jam-packed with lots and lots of musical details. This is music that refuses to stand still, its melodies and beats changing every few seconds, but almost always organically and hardly ever sacrificing a track's flow.
Of course, loading up an NES-style soundtrack with as many varied textures and beats as on Retro City Rampage requires assured handling of the hardware's limited capabilities. Again, you're in good hands with this team of chiptune veterans. "Action / Chase" will make you marvel at how Kaufman manages to coax rhythms as densely layered as these out of the NES' three channels. Throughout the album, the composers prove themselves to be virtuosos who make full and stunning use of tools they're working with. "Joy Ride" is almost as good as "Action / Chase", with its galloping percussion and a compelling melody that matches the rhythms' busyness. The sense of urban cool and fun that runs through these cues also makes its way into some of the slower tracks that you probably hear while exploring Retro City Rampage's streets and back alleys. For that purpose, "Will to Survive" and "Cleaning up the Streets" are tailor-made with their snappy melody riffs, groovy yet determined beats and gritty syncopations. "Mission Briefing / Danger" is a surprising, but appropriate shift mood towards a tenser, edgier atmosphere that once more perfectly underscores the situation at hand, with a true sense of foreboding hanging in the air.
However, while Retro City Rampage is a loving homage to classic NES sounds, full of soaring melodies and exciting rhythms, it's more than just pastiche, as Creamer and Paul's comments about translating other musical genres into chiptune sounds hold true. There are of course the metal influences on some of the soundtrack's earlier cues, but particularly the second half of the album is a veritable smorgasboard of different musical influences, all held together by the NES' signature sound, at least most of the time. These genre fusions are particularly Paul's domain, and he contributes some of the game's most intriguing and definitely quirkiest cues. Their trademark elements are the creative use of sound effects as part of a track's melody or rhythms, and a focus on breakdowns to keep the music's rhythmic direction unpredictable. "Sidegirl Revenge" effortlessly merges club beats and chiptune sounds, and becomes addictive through its unstoppable melody leads and the way Paul manages to write rhythms that find the perfect balance between catchy and surprising. The dance rhythms of "Kaarage" are more robotic and less exuberant than "Sidegirl Revenge", but just as ear-fetching. "Half Steppin'" grooves along to old-school hip-hop beats and is the perfect musical backdrop for a walk down some shady city streets an impression that's only reinforced by the cue's strutting, echoing melody riff. "Bit Happy" is more than a bit happy (excuse the pun) and features the album's most carefree rhythms.
These happy-go-lucky beats are simple, but infectious, and although they probably could have carried the song quite well the way the are, Paul submits them to a number of changes and develops them in exemplary manner, without giving up the song's cheery mood. Sometimes Paul's penchant for off-the-wall stylings takes things further then need be, as "Toadstool Om Nom" and "Camel Toed Lady" are odd interludes rather than songs that actually work, but even then they're fun for their eccentricity your mileage will vary. Let's not forget about "Not Nate...", Kaufman's homage to late hip hop artist Nate Dogg. Kaufman's aim, according to an interview, was to recreate Dogg's "buttery-smooth vocal stylings" with the means provided by the NES hardware, and "Not Nate..." indeed does a great job at giving its melody lead a warm, organic quality. Just as fetching is the track's rhythmic background, an intoxicating mix of chiptune arpeggios and sleek R&B rhythms.
If there's one problem with this album release of Retro City Rampage, it's the fact that the bonus tracks at the end are not quite up to the standards of the rest of the album although that's not really a gamebreaker. Creamer's bonus contributions tend to be short, nice filler tunes, although "Nordic Night" sports an infectious groove that you'd love to see extended beyond the cue's 44 second running time. His most substantial bonus track is "One Last Quest", and while its not as dazzling as "Action / Chase", it's still a solid contribution through its uplifting melody that's fitting as a 'last level' tune not because of its intensity, but instead for its optimistic mood. Paul continues his streak of danceable, peculiar tunes, most successfully on "Bit Bop". "Monsieur Piedlourde" feels a tad too repetitive and "Wobbly Thrown"'s nasal synth lead can be obnoxious, but it's "Smash Me" that will divide listeners. This is Paul at his most breakdown-happy, gleefully playing with the track's forward drive to the point that the music becomes disorienting. This aspect is underlined by the warped and twisted melody line that opens "Smash Me", and by the fact that the various melody riffs introduced later on don't interact much, but rather play independently from each other. It's more of a curious experiment than a fully-realised composition, but it's still quite fascinating.
Retro City Rampage achieves two big things: firstly, it's an amazingly entertaining, fun homage to NES action soundtracks. Taking inspiration from the best sources, the composers write music that's as exciting and adrenaline-driven as the scores it's modelled on. The opener "Retro City Rampage Title Song" gets your pulse pumping right from the start and the joyful rush rarely lets up for the album's first two thirds. A cue like "Action / Chase" shows the composers' virtuoso handling of the NES' technologically limited hardware, and that skill also carries the album's second big strength: its stylistic versatility. There's not only the obvious Contra-style metal influence, but the composers also manage to add R&B, breakbeat-happy club music and 80s hip hop to the mix, and particularly Paul's danceable contributions are sometimes head-spinning genre mixes. Retro City Rampage disappoints slightly due to the slightly lesser, if still solid quality of its bonus tracks, which let the album's final 15 minutes down a bit. But that should in no way stop you from sampling this largely masterfully executed trip down memory lane.
Overall Score: 9/10