In the ongoing trend for indie developers to make retro-style games, we typically see simple gameplay and blocky 8-bit graphics. Developer Really Slick has gone the other way with Retrobooster. They have taken a classic game type and updated it with new gameplay ideas and crisp, clean graphics. At it’s core, Retrobooster is a mix of a classic cave flyer and a bullet hell style Shoot’em Up. Alone these are two very different yet equally challenging genres, but combined make for a fairly difficult game with a pretty sharp learning curve.
My first challenge was learning how to fly. The ship has a series of thrusters that propel it forward and backward, they can also rotate the ship either clockwise or counter-clockwise. While it may sound simple, there is quite a bit of player skill involved as both inertia and gravity are factors. When flying towards an obstacle, you cannot simply turn to avoid it as your ship still wants to travel in it’s original direction. Instead, you need to reverse thrusters, rotate in the desired direction and then engage full forward thrust, all without losing too much momentum.
This instantly brought back memories of old games like Thrust and Gravity Force, which made me smile. Admittedly, I spent the first hour smashing into every surface available, though part of that was from me trying out different control schemes. You can fly the ship using a gamepad, keyboard and mouse or just the keyboard by itself. Personally, I found using the mouse worked best as it controls all ship movement. Sliding the mouse side to side causes the ship to rotate while the left and right mouse buttons provide forward and reverse thrust respectively. This also means that I could control the ship with just one hand, which leaves my other hand free for combat.
Your ship has primary and secondary weapon systems. Initially you have no secondary weapon equipped and only a single forward gun for your primary. As you proceed through the levels, there are weapons pickups that will add to your arsenal. These new weapons include Thermite Rounds, Homing Missiles and an automated Drone that follows you around and shoots targets on its own. In total there are twelve weapons available, split evenly between primary and secondary. With the exception of your default gun, each weapon has a limited amount of ammo so use them wisely.
Of course, this too is a challenge as you need to carefully aim the nose of your ship when firing. Basically, you need to be flying directly towards an enemy while firing, then quickly reverse and rotate to engage the next target. You can also destroy your target by crashing directly into it, though it’s not recommended. This requires you to be flying fairly fast at the time of impact, which will damage or destroy your own ship in the process. For times like these the ship is equipped with a force field.
The force field is turned on when you hold down the proper key, releasing the key turns it off. So you can have it active only when needed, and you will definitely be needing it. The field protects you from both enemy fire and crashing into the scenery. Activating your shield drains the ships energy, so don’t use it unless you really need to. If you are willing to take the risk, there are pickups that will fully recharge your energy. Most of them are surrounded by danger or in hard to reach areas. In the midst of trying to avoid crashing while dodging enemy fire and lining up your aim, you should also keep an eye out for civilians. Throughout the game you will find people running around on the ground, sometimes they shoot flares into the air to get your attention. These are survivors of the alien invasion looking for rescue. If you don’t reach them first, they will be killed by enemy forces. Like everything else in Retrobooster, even something simple like landing to pick up survivors is harder than it sounds.
I have accidentally killed more people than I rescued. When the tail of your ship is close to the ground, landing gear automatically deploys. If you manage to land near survivors they will run into your ship which gives you points and also replenishes some health. The problem I ran into was that these people would always run to my ship as I was trying to land. This caused me to either descend right on top of them and crush a survivor or two. To avoid crushing anyone, I tried firing my thrusters just before touchdown setting the people on fire as a result.
In addition to the alien forces trying to destroy you, just the act of navigating the various game levels is perilous. Each level is like a maze and to pass you must get to the end, which is designated by a checkered line. Quite frequently you will come across dangerous obstacles such as pistons that open and close, which if you are caught in their path, your ship will be smashed. No amount of shielding will protect against crush damage. Despite the game being a 2D scroller the level designers managed to work in 3D dangers. For example, early in the game, you find a large spinning gear. The edge of the gear is facing you, the player, while it spins. The ship can only pass through the gear when there is an opening in the spokes, which can’t really be seen from the players angle.
For this reason, the ship has a type of laser pointer light coming from the nose. If the light shines through the scenery it means there is an opening. This also helps in levels where the background has been made to look like exactly like the walls of the level, making it difficult to know where it is and isn’t safe to fly. As you progress, the game starts to introduce more elements to each level, these include energy fields, gates that you must push open and slipstream areas. These areas will propel your ship along a predetermined course without any consideration for objects, enemies or any other dangers along the path.
At the start of the game you only have three lives and it was not unusual for me to use them all just to finish a single level. When starting a new game, you may choose to begin on any level you have previously cleared. With over 30 levels, this allows the game to be very challenging without being nearly impossible. There is one minor exception when choosing levels. As you proceed through the game, there are occasionally some levels which are very simple in design and have no enemies. Instead there are walls of text for you to read as you fly by. This is how the story of the game is told. You cannot begin a new game on any of these as they only occur in between some of the real levels. After going through a few of the exposition levels I wanted to go back and reread some of the earlier story, but couldn’t remember which level I had to replay in order to see the part I wanted. While not a major issue, it did bug me a bit that there is no easy way to just read the full story.
Besides just allowing you to jump past already completed levels there is also a checkpoint save system. If your ship is destroyed you respawn either at the beginning of the level or at certain key places that are usually right before or after a particularly hazardous area. At anytime you can quit playing and, so long as you still have lives left, when you launch Retrobooster, the New Game option in the main menu will be replaced by Continue Game. This will allow you to pick up where you left off at the nearest spawn point in the level.
Also in the main menu is the option to change profiles. This let’s you have up to four separate save files in one install of the game. If you share your PC with others who also like to play, this is a great feature that keeps everyone else from overwriting your saves. Retrobooster ran flawlessly on my machine. The graphics are composed of nice, albeit simplistic, 3D models, so there is not much you can tweak here. Your choices for graphics options are limited to a Full Screen/Windowed toggle and the Anti-Aliasing choices of X2, X4 of Off. The lack of options did not bother me and I saw no performance issues or hiccups running full blast.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
Retrobooster is an extremely polished indie game with excellent graphics that offers many hours of challenging gameplay. However, it is also a somewhat niche genre that can be very frustrating to play. If you are a hard core fan of cave flyers then this game is well worth $18.
- Time Played – 9 Hours
- Widescreen Support – Yes
- Resolution Played – 1920×1080
- Windowed Mode – Yes
- 5.1 Audio Support – Yes
- Control Scheme – M+KB, KB Only, Gamepad
- DRM – None
- System Specs – Intel i7 870 @ 2.93GHz, 4GB RAM, GeForce 9800GT
- Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
- Availability – Official Site
- Demo – Yes
- Bugs/Crashes Encountered – None