Sunday, August 30, 2015
Retro City Rampage 486 - A Review of a "New" MS-DOS Game
I knew about Retro City Rampage back when its developer, Brian Provinciano, was calling it Grand Theftendo and trying to port it to the NES. However, he decided to continue development on the PC and eventually released it on Steam and several consoles. In its released form, it may have had the feel of an NES or MS-DOS game, but under its hood it was all modern. Thus it did not really grab my attention and games with no physical release do not either. In fact, the only Steam games I have ever purchased were the Special Editions of Monkey Island 1 & 2 and I value them today only for their ability to build the Monkey Island 1 & 2 Ultimate Talkie Editions.
When it was announced that not only would RCR receive a true port to the MS-DOS platform as Retro City Rampage 486 but also come in a boxed version, my interest was piqued. Having a physical release of a game with no need to run a Steam installer and no concern that upgrading to the latest Windows will break the game interested me a great deal. I was suitably impressed that the game came on a floppy disk. I had never purchased a physical retro "homebrew" style game before, but the price was $29.99 and it came with a Steam key for the extras, so I eventually decided to take the plunge. The total came to $34.99 with shipping.
MS-DOS as a gaming platform began with the introduction of the IBM PC back in August of 1981. The first developed PC game was Donkey.bas, which came on the PC-DOS 1.0 diskette. It relied on IBM Personal Computer BASIC to run, but it came on a disk, so it required DOS as well. While during the first few years of PC gaming many games did not need MS-DOS to run, eventually the convenience of using MS-DOS for disk access and the necessity of using it for hard drive access made it ubiquitous by the end of the 1980s. Until Windows 95 became firmly established as the successor to MS-DOS as a PC gaming platform in 1996-1997, everybody used MS-DOS when they played games on their PC.
It is hard to tell what was the last commercial game released that ran on MS-DOS and came in a box. I am tempted to say Tyrian 2000 from 1999. However, Tyrian 2000 is an updated release of the original Tyrian, released in 1995. Perhaps WWII GI is a better example of a DOS game that was first released in stores in 1999 but received a critical drubbing at the time for using the out-of-date Build engine. The last DOS game to be released on floppy disk of any consequence was probably Hexen in 1995 . It was clear that DOS was Dead by the end of the last century.
While hardly attracting the same attention as consoles, there has been some homebrew style activity for MS-DOS in the 21st Century. SuperFighterTeam released translated versions of the Taiwanese games Sango Fighter (2009) and Sango Fighter 2 (2013) as free downloads that ran in DOSBox. Jason Knight released Paku Paku, a Pac-Man clone which ran on a 8088 CPU with CGA using a tweaked 80 column text mode, in 2011. A guy named mangis is working on a nice-looking CGA tweaked 80 column text game called MagicDuck and has been releasing working alpha builds for quite a while now. Companies still released shovelware compilations of older DOS games in the early 2000s. You could order floppy disks of many of Apogee's classics from their website.
Back to RCR 486 and non-free games. When I received my copy of RCR yesterday, the first thing I did I put it on my shelf and fired up Steam! Actually, that is what a collector or a reseller might do, but I wanted to do something more with my purchase than simply display it. The box is a standard size for a NES cartridge, 5"x7"x1". The Vblank Entertainment logo looks like it came from an Xbox 360 game, the title font looks like it came from a NES game, but the System Requirements label is something that would not look out of place on a Sierra game. I sliced open the shrinkwrap, opened the top flap and looked at the contents :
I received the fully-boxed Retail Box version, which is limited to 1,000 numbered units. I ordered my floppy disk with the boring "business beige" color because that is authentic to DOS games and see-through floppy disks are not. Apparently they are running out of stock of that color. The glasses have two red lenses rather than the red/blue lenses of regular 3-D glasses. If you just want a floppy disk and a Steam code, you can get it for $14.99 plus shipping. In fact, the price for the remaining collector's editions went up $10.00 since I ordered, and judging by my number, they will sell out.
The manual does not need to spend much time on the instructions, which are also located in the game. The red/blue printing was occasionally used back in the DOS days for document-based copy protection. More often it was used for hint guides. In the manual, the cheat keys are hidden by the red/blue printing as is some other artwork, which is pretty cool.
Nor was the cloth map truly necessary as the game has an in-game map. The material of the cloth map feels like the material found in those smartphone wipes and is about as thick. The map is rather lacking in contrast, so it will probably stay in the box. Packaging is nice, but if the game in it is bad, then the whole purpose behind the release is meaningless.
After examining the contents, I did what anyone else would have done back in the day. I took the 1.44MB disk to my 486 and installed it on my computer. The installation process went off without a hitch. The game comes with a proper installation program, which decompresses the game and copies it to your hard drive. Because the game takes 3.7MB of free hard drive space, it cannot be run off a floppy disk. The install took less than 5 minutes on my 486DX2/66. The install program is aptly named INSTALL.EXE, the game directory is RCR and the executable is RCR.EXE. After I installed the program, I made a disk image in case the physical floppy becomes corrupt.
According to the developer, the minimum specification for the game is a 386 with a 387 math coprocessor, but the game was meant for a 486. It recommends a Pentium for maximum performance. It also requires 4MB of RAM, DOS 3.3 or better and a VGA card. It supports keyboard and a joystick or game pad. I highly recommend using a Gravis Gamepad. The game will let you map four gamepad buttons and calibrate the joystick or gamepad. While there are a few more functions than buttons on a PC gamepad or joystick, the main ones map nicely to the most commonly used functions.
The game gives you four frame rate options, 15fps (3 frame skip), 20fps (2 frame skip), 30fps (1 frame skip) and 60fps (0 frame skip). Real VGA monitors run at 70Hz and none of those options evenly divide into 70, but I did not notice a lot of ugly screen tearing. For the main game you may want to use the higher fps option, but for the challenges the lower fps options give a faster paced game.
The other fun option in the settings is the ability to change the color scheme. You can have CGA (both major palettes) or EGA-style graphics. There is an MDA mode, but it displays more shades of color than real MDA. You can have graphic schemes that take from the NES, C64, Atari 2600, ZX Spectrum, Genesis, Game Boy, and even the Virtual Boy.
One criticism of the DOS game is that its sound is limited to the PC Speaker. The original PC release has chiptune music and you can change tunes when you drive the cars. Unfortunately, the only music in this game appears to be when you are on the title screen. While the instructions for RCR 486 indicate you can change music in the vehicles using the Tab or Page Up and Page Down keys, they do nothing.
The developer set himself a challenge to fit the game onto one floppy disk. He had to cut down the game features to do it. Considering 3.7MB was compressed down to 1.44MB, every byte was precious. Plus he wanted to target the PC Speaker as a programming challenge. I would not be displeased if he later released a patch to add music and features, but I will take the game as it is now.
RCR is based on Grand Theft Auto, namely the first two games which had a top down view. The essential goal outside of story mode is to kill civilians and police. There are many weapons you can use to wreak havoc and you can carjack any car and run pedestrians over. There are challenges like the one that gives you a bazooka and requires you to cause as much damage as possible or the one that gives you a certain amount of time to run over 50 people. Some of the vehicles have special features, you can turn the sirens on the cop cars, shoot a bazooka when you are in a tank and one the vehicles has a pair of machine guns, taken from a certain hard-as-nails NES game made by Konami.
RCR tries to parody pretty much every iconic video game of the 80s and 90s. Super Mario Bros. 1 & 2, Mega Man 2 and other games are targeted. The plot of the main game involves the main character who gets lost in time (via a TARDIS) and has to turn to a Doc Brown-type of scientist (from Back to the Future) to obtain the pieces to construct a machine to get him back to his own time. The main character is a henchman for a psychotic Joker-like character who loves to kill off henchmen who aren't up to snuff. Other icons of the time like Rambo and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles make appearances.
RCR has something like an open world, or as open as a game of its design can be. You can enter shops to upgrade your weapons, buy health items and reduce your evil reputation so the police do not attack you every second. You play through missions and each stage is comprised of multiple missions. You have three save slots to save your progress in the main game. Like seemingly all modern games there are achievements and unlockables.
Lazy Game Reviews made a fair criticism that the game tries to parody everything and resemble GTA so closely that it fails to have its own identity. One or the other could be said about many independent and homebrew games. Even though it is not a classic in its DOS form it still brought a smile to my face on occasion and the gameplay is easy to pick up and play. The story mode adds some meat on what would otherwise have been a somewhat shallow offering. However, I will take it because the developer took the time to bring the essence of his game to a large number of older machines.
A final criticism is that this game is not particularly representative of a retail game that runs well on a 486 but recommends a Pentium. No game released earlier than 1995 would put something like that on its system requirements sticker. In 1995, shareware was also dying and this game would hardly be seen as competitive compared with Descent or DOOM II or even Jazz Jackrabbit. People of 1995 would have been puzzled why a game that looked like it should be on the NES should require system power orders of magnitude greater than the gray box. However, the developer did not intend this port to be a completely accurate retro game with a presentation from 1990-1991 and system requirements from 1994-1995. It was to him a fun programming exercise that was sufficiently successful for a limited edition release.
There is no software in this box that I could not have acquired from Steam for $20 less. $5 extra gets you a floppy disk with an installer and a label, and the extra $15 (now $25) on top of that gets you the other physical feelies. The developer cannot be making much off this, especially considering all the additional headaches and time it takes to put together a 1,000 copies of a physical software product. If you just want to try it out, grab it from the Steam. If you want the total experience of placing an order, waiting for it to ship, opening the box and enjoying the physical items inside, then act fast! LGR would probably say something like "Mmm, feelies..."