EGM talks with the one-man wrecking crew that is Brian Provinciano about the NES-style brand of GTA-inspired mayhem that is Retro City Rampage.
EGM: Retro City Rampage, for people who don’t know, is an absolutely insane, brilliant mashup of retro-gaming paradigms and obscure pop-culture references. Tell us about the game in your own words.
Brian Provinciano: At its, core you can think of it as Grand Theft Auto meets Super Mario Bros., to put it in terms people recognize. Steal cars, and then jump on pedestrians for coins. Collect power-ups and evade the police while rampaging the city shooting a light gun or swinging a bionic arm. It’s a big nostalgic ride, and it all takes place in a “toon town” of the ’80s and ’90s NES era.
That’s the core, but the missions extend beyond that, fusing classic games and modern mechanics together. Whereas GTA’s mostly driving and shooting, RCR’s missions span virtually every genre, adding stealth, arcade, side-scrolling, questing, rhythm—there’s even an underwater level. What I’m most proud of, though, is that everything flows together using the same mechanics and visuals. Even missions inspired by ’80s coin-op games seamlessly take place in the open world.
RCR also guest-stars ’Splosion Man, BIT.TRIP’s Commander Video, and Meat Boy, with 8-bit versions of the first two games and a retro “3D” racer for the third called Virtual Meat Boy. Hint: It’s all red and black. Oh, did I also mention that Virtual Meat Boy can be played with those red/blue 3D glasses?
EGM: I always describe you to people as the Quentin Tarantino of gaming, because you seem to take the old and refashion it into something new and fresh. What were some of the inspirations and influences behind RCR?
BP: It’s such an honor to be called that. RCR is basically everything that’s me. Everything that could somehow be crammed into and expressed as a videogame. From my childhood to my sense of humor, nods to my favorite games and movies, friends, the city I live in—Vancouver, Canada—inside jokes and even social commentary on issues that concern me. All of those are the building blocks for the characters, the city, the dialogue, and the levels in the game.
Ever since I was young, when I played a game I liked, I’d want to put it down and make my own version, whether this was drawing Sonic levels in MS Paint or eventually programming. With RCR being the mashup that it is, I’m able to fulfill it all in one place.
As for the classic-meets-modern aspect, games have come a long way since the NES days. In the past, they relied on players reading the manual, and poor design just made the game “hard.” Over the years, we, as gamers, have become more critical, and we developers have learned how to craft better experiences. The player should be able to pick up the controller and just play through the entire game, learning everything they need to along the way. If the player fails, it shouldn’t be because the game is broken, but because they need to improve their skill. Super Meat Boy’s the perfect example of this. The controls are tight; if you die, it’s because you didn’t time your jump right. So, one main focus has been to ensure it still feels like a classic game, but with the intuitiveness of modern ones.
EGM: I’ve heard and read so many ridiculous apocryphal anecdotes about the making of this game. “Provinciano lived in a van under the overpass and ate out of dumpsters for 10 years while making RCR!” “Provinciano scavenged old Castlevania NES cartridges and hacked the chips!” Can you talk about the process of making RCR? How long it took and some of the adversity you faced?
BP: Ha! The Castlevania NES cartridge part is actually true! Well, sort of. Before making RCR, I was working on a similar 8-bit open-world game called Grand Theftendo, which actually ran on the NES. Indeed, I modified Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse cartridges to develop that game.
I started that project around 2003; I then began developing what’s now RCR in late 2005 or early 2006. The slow development’s largely because I’ve only been developing it full time for two years. The rest of the time, I was working full time at other game companies, which often included crunch time.
It’s been a very, very difficult process to finish RCR. Not making the game itself, but everything else no one thinks about. Doing nearly everything myself, from programming and design to business and marketing, is a near-impossible task. All of these are full-time jobs, so I’ve been working seven days a week for years straight. It’s pure passion, and I wouldn’t trade this for anything, but it’s stressful. More often than not, I sit down to do the last 5 percent of the game, only to be hit with e-mails I need to respond to, forms to fill out for the ESRB, clarify things for the translators, or plan the PAX booth. It never ends, and that makes that last 5 percent take a year.
As a self-funded indie developer, cash flow also wears me down. I’ve had to put my mortgage on the line, cash in my retirement savings, and live with very few luxuries. Like all other indie developers in my same position, we all seem to come down with health problems, too—no coincidence that we’re working ourselves to death. Medical bills drained my bank account once before I cashed in my retirement savings, and problematic contractors I’d hired to try to get this thing out the door faster drained it again—a very common problem. There’s no end to the story of problems that we all go through, but I’m driven to succeed and push though. I don’t think my body could physically endure this a second time around, though.
EGM: How much help did you have on the game, and how much of it is your undiluted vision? Talk a little about some of the pros/cons of the “auteur” approach versus the traditional “team of developers” approach.
BP: Most of the game is indeed all me. I’ve had some help, primarily with audio and art. The super-talented Maxime Trépanier jumped aboard to help with the art and has done about a quarter of it now, and three musicians—Virt, Freaky DNA, and Norrin Radd—have composed around 2.5 hours of music and hundreds of sound effects.
I’ve also had a lot of people playtesting the game and giving feedback along the way, helping ensure the mechanics feel tight, the missions are intuitive, and so on. Playtesting’s vital, and no matter how good a game designer someone is, they all need playtesters to ensure that fresh eyes can enjoy the game as well as we envision it.
I feel very strongly about this approach. As someone who jumps between programming, design, dialogue, and art all within a matter of minutes, the gameplay and story come together in a way like no other. As I’m putting a scene together, I might come up with an idea for a quirky animation to insert. I draw it and keep going. Seeing it in the game might then stem ideas for more dialogue or gameplay. When I do this, I get in the zone, and it’s the most amazing thing. It’s the opposite of the assembly lines of triple-A studios, where the designer needs to request features from the programmer, needs to squeeze the writer’s story into the scene, make sure the art fits. It’s just so much harder to be creative and eliminates the possibility of “game improv,” so to speak.
I definitely could use help in the overhead and administration part, though, so I can focus on being creative and be in that creative zone more than a few times a month.
EGM: RCR looks like an 8-bit game—albeit the greatest, fastest, smoothest, most vivid 8-bit game ever. Tell us a little about the look of the game and how you achieved it, technologically.
BP: I built the game engine to operate much like an actual NES does—and, as such, forcibly limited its authentic 8-bit feel. While it’s a bit more difficult to develop when these limitations are strictly enforced, people will play it, and it’ll just “feel right,” even if they can’t put their finger on exactly why.
Of course, I did need to take liberties. Graphics and audio aside, the game under the hood’s doing more than even GTA2, so the 1.78Mhz NES CPU couldn’t handle it. I also had to increase the number of sprites onscreen for the sake of gameplay and to avoid the classic NES flicker. I also had to fudge font authenticity due the amount of text needed to be displayed on a single line in the case of leaderboards and other languages with longer words.
EGM: RCR’s heavily influenced by GTA, of course, but as I played it, I was never sure if you thought GTA was the greatest game ever or the stupidest game ever. What’s your take?
BP: If it weren’t for GTA, there probably wouldn’t be RCR. I’ve been a huge fan of the series since the original top-down games. GTAIII made me buy a PS2. I bought a PSP for Liberty City Stories and a DSi for Chinatown Wars; I bought GTAIV on day one. I played through IV in its entirely, but it just doesn’t hook me like Vice City did, which I feel was the last great GTA game. A lot of it has to do with the gritty direction it’s gone, but a lot also has to do with the grinding. The game turned into “find a cab, ride a cab” and missions that required you to pick someone up then drive them for several minutes to a location before you could actually start the firefight, only to die and have to do it all over again. That frustrated me to no end. So, I’ve taken all of what bothers me about these games and done my best to avoid repeating the same mistakes. RCR, for example, has checkpoints throughout missions, and you can replay missions or arcade challenges from the main menu if you don’t feel like running across the whole city to get to the starting marker. I don’t believe there’s a true “80-hour game.” Eliminate the running and driving from A to B, and recalculate that number.
EGM: What are some of your all-time favorite games? What are you playing now?
BP: Super Mario World, Batman on NES, Tetris, Commander Keen—these were all great. There was a while where I barely played any games, as I was too busy working. Super Meat Boy was actually the game that broke me out of that rut. BIT.TRIP Runner and ’Splosion Man are also great, of course. GTA2 and Vice City are unquestionably all-time favorites, and Crackdown reinvigorated my love for open-world games after feeling they’d become kind of stagnant.
EGM: What’s your favorite part of RCR? Can you share some of the early feedback you’re getting from testers?
BP: Honestly, it sounds cheesy, but the most recently done mission is always my favorite. A lot of this probably has to do with the fact that the characters are well developed now, so their personalities show through, and the dialogue writes itself. The engine’s done, so I have a ton of gameplay mechanics and tools at my disposal for the design. I know what worked and what didn’t, so I can now put things together in new ways immediately. At the end of the day, I guess that’s just learning. I have a degree in Retro City Rampage school now.
A lot of the feedback from testers has focused on making sure things are intuitive, such as displaying hint icons and making sure the weapons feel right. The little things add up, though. I pay attention to the smallest details, so the to-do list for polishing and tuning became very long.
EGM: When will it be out, and on what platforms?
BP: It’ll be out on Xbox Live Arcade very soon, and WiiWare in a few months.
EGM: What’s next for you after RCR is out there in the world? Any projects lined up?
BP: I’ve got a lot of ideas—definitely want to do a sequel or a spin-off. I’ve got a few ideas for other open-world games as well, and I’ve even got an idea for a sports game of sorts, despite the fact that I’m not into sports games at all—it’s just totally different! I’m also really interested in doing an action-rhythm game. This is something I’ve wanted to do since Dance Dance Revolution first came out, and now I’ve got a great team of music guys, so we can make it happen. Too many ideas, really! What will I do first? Will I ever have time to do all of these? I hope so!