There are hundreds of missions in Shakedown: Hawaii, each one of them a bite-sized mashup of arcade violence and dark humour that takes aim at late capitalism. None of the missions overstay their welcome, but also, they don’t culminate into anything more rewarding than the experience of just driving around the game’s bright, lurid streets looking for trouble.
Designer Brian Provinciano’s spiritual successor to 2012’s Retro City Rampage, Shakedown: Hawaii is out today on PS4, Switch, and Vita, and it’s bigger and prettier than its predecessor in almost every way. Its 16-bit sprites flutter in the pixelated winds that blow across its sprawling island, which is several times the size of Rampage’s map. The faded backgrounds and grimy streets of the original have been replaced with electric pinks and balmy palm trees, making the carnage you still leave in your wake feel more like the residue of a gonzo vacation than a Bonnie and Clyde death pact.
Shakedown: Hawaii puts you in the shoes of an ageing businessman who must come out of retirement for one last set of jobs to save his corporate empire from the ravages of capitalism in the age of the internet. The retail shops and video rental businesses upon which commerce was built in the age of the old Grand Theft Auto games that inspired Rampage and Shakedown have been sent spiralling into debt thanks to content streaming and two-day delivery. Rather than be radicalised into opposing these hostile forces, the protagonist is inspired by them, and so you spend the majority of Shakedown using a combination of violence and grift to slowly build back up your corporate empire and take over the island.
Similar to Rampage, the missions still mostly consist of you hijacking vehicles, going to a place, and then going on shoot ‘em up murder sprees to facilitate hostile takeovers. In Shakedown, all of that is in service of building up a balance sheet and diversifying your portfolio of businesses and real estate assets. You can blow up Amazon-inspired delivery vehicles to help your brick-and-mortar stores win back market share, or you can repossess cars from owners late on their payments and immediately lease them back out again as part of a convoluted but all-too-believable subprime auto lending con. And, of course, as the title promises, you can shake down local businesses for protection money. Sometimes this means knocking over merchandise. Other times it means high-stakes shootouts with police.
All of these activities have the potential to line your bank account and facilitate your takeover of a SimCity-like map, one block at a time. As a glutton for spreadsheets, I wanted an added layer of numerical complexity, and at first, it seemed like the dollar sign-filled city overview would provide this, but ultimately, it’s just a way of keeping score. You can spend your extra funds on purchasing new businesses or buying new outfits and weapons, but there’s not any overarching threat to your financial goals. Once you’ve taken over businesses, you can’t lose them. The real estate market isn’t volatile, and there’s no stock market to play with, so despite all of the digits bombarding you in between missions, there’s nothing to really manage behind the math.
The premise allows the game endless opportunities to take shots at venture capital run amok and scams aimed at made-up demographics like “gamers between the ages of 14 and 30,” but that can get tiring. I spent most of the five or so hours I’ve spent playing Shakedown longing for the time-travelling antics and NES references embedded in the first game. There’s something overly taxing and frankly just too real about fucking over a beautiful city as a rich, Fanta-toned baby boomer whose head is colonised mostly by hair plugs.
Everything in Shakedown looks gorgeous, though, and it controls like a dream, at least if your dreams are filled with ’80s arcade racers and weighty but responsive twin-stick shooters (mine are). Matthew Creamer’s soundtrack is bursting with a chiptune-fuelled zest for life that always felt restorative no matter what soul-crushing shenanigans my character was up to.
The game really sizzles when projected through the warm glow of the Vita’s OLED screen. Offering one last zombie-like gasp to Sony’s handheld, Shakedown is both cross-buy with the PS4 and utilises cross-save, a nice nod to the promise of the past which at this point feels as cute and retro as any of the game’s other references.
I just wish there was more heart in Shakedown – something to make all of the punchy driving and frantic fights feel like they were leading somewhere worthy of the 16-bit paradise that surrounds them. It’s easy enough to take the game out for a quick spin and enjoy the mush of colours and sounds that fly by, but it would have been even nicer if the game offered me a more satisfying way out of the business cycle churn of its main story.