Coming Real Soon: Retrobooster
Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 3:56PM
Eric Leslie

Back in November of 2012 I got an e-mail from Terry Welsh, which is a name you might not know but you might know his work - Terry created Really Slick Screensavers, an open-source collection of very fancy, highly customizable screensavers. (They were - are - pretty cool and impressive; check out PC World's review here.) Terry did not e-mail me about his screensavers, however; he wanted to announce that he had, several months prior, left his employment at NASA to work full-time as an indie game developer on a project he'd seen about 2/3 of the way to completion and wanted to push hard to the end of.

What indie game does someone leave NASA to finish? As it turns out, a very pretty, tough-as-nails, physics driven, "2.5D survival shooter and cave-flyer, focusing on skill-based flying and enemy blasting". Terry e-mailed me again a couple weeks ago to let me know that his project was complete, and on February 21st, the world will get to play Retrobooster.

I got to do so a little bit early.

While this is not a review (I haven't finished the game and I'm not even really sure I can finish it), since Terry was kind enough to provide me with a copy I want to share my thoughts about the several hours I've spent exploding things and having myself exploded in zero-g.

As is probably clear from the trailer, Retrobooster is in many ways a very pretty game. Lighting and particle effects abound, and while the game controls entirely on a 2D plane, background and foreground details are used to provide a consistently impressive sense of depth (as well as to bring obstacles into and out of the playing field). I want to give credit for how much that depth does to lend solidity to the environment; when an enemy explodes and the light reflects not just on you and the ground, but also the rocks behind you and the ones behind those, fading back into space, it looks superb.

On the whole I would say that the environment design is more impressive than the "character" design - the player and enemy ships are largely functional, simple models, and the humans you rescue basically tiny stick figures - but nothing in the game is unattractive. Perhaps most importantly, when the action gets frantic (which is often), it looks great without dropping a frame.

Do not get caught in those gears.

What's it actually like to play? ...Complex. More than you might expect for what looks at first like a pretty simple shooter, and maybe even a little too complex, though it's certainly not so obtuse as to be inaccessible. Terry's put the game's instructions up here, and you can see at a glance that there aren't a ton of controls. Inputs for turning and firing forward and backward thrusters, shooting two weapon types, and switching between the weapons in those groups; that's it. Actually using them is where things get tricky.

Retrobooster is a heavily physics driven game. Which is great in a lot of ways, and should appeal to people who take umbrage when a space shooter doesn't account for inertia and let you spin-and-fire like a Viper from Battlestar Galactica. Well, you can totally do that here, and it feels great... until you misread the tight quarters you're in and smash into a wall again. Or you don't take into account the propulsion from firing your weapons, and end up backing yourself into a crusher machine. Or you don't go through a gate fast enough. Or you take a turn a little too wide. Or a gravity machine sucks you in and you fumble the controls trying to shoot it and reverse at the same time. Or, or, or.... Now, to be clear, all of those things are my fault! The game didn't cheat me, I screwed up. But just the act of moving around in Retrobooster is taxing, and the environment (enemies and landscape alike) is highly lethal. It can be stressful, especially when a timing-based puzzle makes you pull off several complicated moves in rapid succession.

The good news about that - and the reason I'm torn about whether to call it "too complex" - is that when you pull it off correctly, it feels great. This is a game that invites mastery, and tough-but-fair games are enjoying a lot of popularity right now. It seems likely that folks who love to dive deep into Spelunky or Rogue Legacy or Risk of Rain will latch on to the challenge of Retrobooster as a welcome test of skill. For me, I've found a few of the enemy encounters and puzzles to be more frustrating than fun... but none so much that I haven't pressed through them yet, and they aren't outweighing the rest of my enjoyment. I'm only a few hours in, though, so I expect it only gets harder from here.

Stuff blowin' up real pretty.

The challenge of mastering its systems notwithstanding, there's a lot to recommend Retrobooster as an entry in the action/puzzle shooter category. Weapon and enemy variety both feel good, and I have yet to get bored with the combat encounters at all. Rescuing humans (done via a cautious landing procedure that blends Choplifter and Lunar Lander) is a fun side activity that rewards you with much needed ship repairs and powerups. Levels range from tight action-filled corridors to expansive mazes scattered with puzzles, traps and one-way gates. The story isn't terribly compelling yet, but I'm still early in the game and I don't need much of an excuse to blow up alien robots. On the whole, this would be an impressive effort even if it weren't just made by one person, so the fact that it was is remarkable. I'm having a good time with it.

If the above sounds appealing, a demo for Windows and Linux is available here. The game's price upon release later this month will be $18, which I think is fair, though I have to admit I'm a little afraid it won't sell very well at that price. (There's a separate conversation to have about someone being able to work on a game for years, quit their job to finish it, release a highly polished product and have an $18 price raise eyebrows, but not in this post.) Pre-ordering now, however, is only $12, and it's hard not to recommend it for that amount if you enjoy the demo and want more of it. Thanks to Terry both for letting me know about the project a year ago and keeping me posted on its progress. Congratulations on finishing it up and getting it out into the world. Well done.

Article originally appeared on Erratic Gamer - So many games. So little time. (
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