Retro City Rampage is an open-world game inspired by the Grand Theft Auto series that combines driving with fighting and shooting in a retro 8-bit style. Originally started as a homebrew NES demake of Grand Theft Auto III, it was eventually developed into a full game. The game is set in eighties and the protagonist is a mullet-styled gangster who wreaks havoc in Theftropolis city. It draws many elements from the series it was inspired by, such as the ability to hijack any car, fight on foot with melee and ranged weapons, and shake off the law when too many crimes are committed.
The main story mode consists of a number of missions that involve heists, extortion, but for instance also helping out Doc Brown from the Back to the Future movies to help repair his time travel car. The game has a quirky style and hectic pace, and is filled to the brim references to popular culture, especially movies, celebrities and other games with many cameo appearances. Next to the main mission various side missions can be taken on or the city can be explored in full at the player's leisure. During certain parts 30 challenges can be triggered where an objective needs to be completed in a short time, such as driving around a tank or getting air time shooting a bazooka. These can later be replayed as arcade challenges from the main menu. In addition there is a free roaming mode with the maximum amount of money right from the start.
The protagonist, dubbed The Player, can fight with his fists and other melee weapons, or shoot a large variety of guns. There are about 25 in total. These are collected while playing or are bought in shops. There is also a cover system where it is possible to duck behind objects and fire quickly. Any car or bike of the 40 available can be taken over and pedestrians can be mowed down, leaving behind money. The gun targeting has a lock system where it is possible to strafe around an opponent without losing the target direction. Other options include the ability to jump, and pick up and throw objects, including pedestrians. Committing too many crimes raises a threat meter causing the police force to arrive in increasingly larger numbers. The main character can buy various customizations, play arcade games or gamble at the casino. There are five special, permanent power-ups such as "Speed 'Kills' Shoes" for faster speed that are discovered or bought throughout the game. Vehicles can be repainted at spray garages, but cops can also be shaken off by collecting cop cloaking devices that make them lose the trail. Health is replenished by collecting hearts or buying food at vending machines.