Retrobooster – Review

Title   Retrobooster
Developer  Really Slick
Publisher  Really Slick
Platform  Windows PC, Linux
Genre  Cave Flyer, Puzzle
Release Date  February 21, 2014
Official Site

There’s a popular myth in gaming – once upon a time, games were really, properly, brutally hard. There were no tutorials, maps, or magic glittery trails leading the way. Regenerating health was to these games as penicillin is to a medieval peasant, and if you died, that was it; you were dead. Extinct. Gone. Nada. Now of course, this is only a myth, right? Games aren’t hard! They’re fun. You can run around decimating the population of a small country while tweeting the developers about how rubbish the game is, even though you’ve played it for five hundred hours. You can liberate a veritable harem’s worth of princesses before breakfast. You are all powerful. You are legion.

Turns out, it wasn’t a myth after all. Games can be hard. Really, properly, brutally hard. Say hello to Retrobooster.

Made by one-man indie developer Really Slick, Retrobooster is an unapolagetic throwback to the rock-hard games of the ’80s. A classic ‘cave-flyer’, your task is to navigate ever-more challenging levels while dodging alien bullets, solving puzzles, and foiling fiendish contraptions in a small spaceship, which is both nimble and unwieldy at the same time.

If there’s one thing this game achieves, it’s being difficult – although perhaps not in the way intended. While it’s true that the level design – which ramps up in intricacy and complication as levels go past – offers its own challenge by presenting scenarios which initially require tight ship control before opening up in to alien-infested areas with spaceships to battle, this isn’t the main difficulty.  In fact, I quite often found myself swearing at my controller as I tried to wrestle to get the ship to head in any specific direction, let alone navigate some of the tighter areas of the game. I found points that were simply impassable without half an hour or so of trying – on both occassions these were areas with timed gates and switches which spiked the level of ship control far above anything that had been encountered before.

Flying the ship is an exercise in patience at first. It has forward, backwards, and rotational thrusters which are used in conjunction with the gravity of whichever world you’re on (or not… you are in a space ship, after all). Each level has its own gravity, be it the conventional pulling you to the bottom of the level kind, or the nausea-inducing centrifugal kind found in some areas. I’m not kidding, either – there were a couple of times that I had to turn Retrobooster off and drink some water to stop myself from throwing up. The force of the ship rotating increasingly-quickly around tight areas caused this game to earn the dubious honour of being the first in twenty-three years to give me motion sickness. The only other time in my life that I’ve experienced it at all was on a Hebridean ferry crossing in a fierce Scottish storm, so way to go, I guess.

The flight mechanics themselves are fairly standard for this type of game, but I never felt at any point that I was totally in control of the ship. More often than not I was fighting the controls rather than working with them, and the number of times I took damage from slamming in to a wall or simply being unable to dodge bullets became absurd. There were always brief moments of clarity, times when it felt like things were finally clicking, before another round of bullet hell once again showed up the handling model for being, amazingly, both too responsive and yet not nimble enough.

Retrobooster appears to be too stuck in its ideals of the ’80s. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m all for games being more than a cakewalk, but there are certain game mechanics that have moved on for a reason. The archaic notion of ‘three lives then you’re dead’ has thankfully been all but eradicated these days. There’s simply no need to slap an arbitrary limit on the number of tries I have when I’m not being shilled for 50p coins by an arcade machine, so Retrobooster‘s insistence on returning to this is at the same time frustrating and nonsensical. This limit makes me afraid to really try things and learn the game properly – I’m always going to take the ‘safety first’ option to preserve the few lives that I have, rather than experiment and find new, fun, and exciting ways to overcome parts of the game. It leads to a stop-start affair, carefully manoeuvring this tiny ship as though it were an HGV rather than a rapier.

Despite all this, there were moments to savour and enjoy. When the number of enemies was being ramped up, the heated battles were pretty fun, and the diversity of weapon pick-ups mixed combat up nicely. Enemy types are introduced a little more slowly than I would have liked, but the sheer volume of laser shrapnel flying through the air at points makes up for this. The ship is equipped with main attacks – lasers, lighting blasts and the like – along with secondary attacks, which can include homing missiles and defensive droids. There is also a manually activated shield which will absorb damage until the meter is depleted, but can be replenished with rare shield-drops from enemies.

A neat little mechanic comes in the rescuing of tiny, Rayman-like people. Their limbs don’t appear to be attached to their bodies, but they’re useful nonetheless; as well as a points bonus, each rescued human can repair the ship and shield should you be below full strength. Rescues can’t be haphazard though – these little people are eminently squishy, and are easy fodder for aliens, lasers, rocks, debris, and even the back-blast from your thrusters. The blood-curdling scream they let out as you accidentally burn them alive is something that won’t leave me soon.

Graphically, Retrobooster is nothing more than functional. Smoke and explosion effects are nice enough, but the ship, human, and alien models are rudimentary at best. The fact that the game will happily run on integrated graphics chips hints that you shouldn’t be expecting a grahpical tour-de-force, but as a first independently-developed game the visuals are certainly nice enough. Performance is great though – although I’m admittedly running a high-end system – there was never a hitch, and I’ve not experienced a single crash in the many hours that I’ve played so far.

The overriding feeling here is of a faithful tribute act to the cave flyers of the ’80s. There’s nothing new here, which would be fine if the execution was perfect, but there are too many frustrations to allow this to be overlooked. It feels like a game that needs to find its own identity rather than ape previous examples of the genre. Controls, setting, graphics, sound… everything is a replication of something that’s come before, but not quite to the level where that can be enjoyed in and of itself. It could be argued that replicating these experiences is the whole point of the game, but I’d counter and say just go and dig out an older example.

Retrobooster is not a bad game. At times it balances challenge with excitement, and despite my bugbears I kept playing – I wouldn’t let the game beat me. However, its issues with difficulty spikes are unreasonable even when taking its focus on difficulty in to consideration, and the constant fighting against the controls in tight and tricky areas must have left my new neighbours wondering if they’ve moved in next to a dangerously angry man. A little more modernisation and balancing would work wonders on this game, as the core of it is good. And hey, after all that, it also only made me nearly throw up a couple of times.

  • Fun and varied combat
  • Some nice flying challenges
  • Enjoyably squishy little people
  • Unreasonable difficulty spikes
  • Oft-unwieldy ship controls
  • Nausea-inducing rotational levels

Looking back to an older, simpler time with nostalgia-tinted glasses can unfortunately mean we miss some of the reasons why things have moved on. There is merit in the past, but it should always be tempered with what we've learned since. Retrobooster unfortunately sticks too closely to a decades-old formula, when a little modernisation could easily have breathed new life in to this genre.

There are enjoyable moments in this game, and for those people that refuse to be beaten there's plenty of challenge on offer here. It's just a shame that a lot of the difficulty is derived from bullet-sponge enemies, dubious ship control, and the archaic and frankly needless implentation of the 'three lives and you're dead' system which hides a lot of the well-designed levels underneath layers of frustration.

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  1. Richie Richie says:

    This looks kind of interesting. An XBLA or Vita port with better controls, plz!

  2. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    I loved the look of this as soon as I saw it; I used to love playing this type of game in the arcades (big buildings with large machines where you put money in so you could play a game that didn’t include ‘MMO’ anywhere) and miss that level of difficulty. That said, like Richie, I’d likely prefer to hang off for a Vita port as that’s the sort of thing I’d love to chill out (not!) on the sofa with.

  3. Terry says:

    Thanks for the comments. I made this game. OS X would be the easiest and first platform to port Retrobooster to. I suspect it will take much more work to get on XBLA or Vita, so the game will have to sell quite well to get that far. Most players seem to prefer playing with the keyboard and mouse instead of game controllers, so it might be worth considering playing it on PC. You can always try the free demo and decide which input device you like best.

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