3 Difficulty levels
Ship speed fixed
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Developed by Psygnosis
Published by Psygnosis in 1999
Have you ever wondered what a mix between Einhänder, Silpheed and Xevious would sound like? Let's be honest, no one has, and back in 1999 very few people outside of Europe must have had the chance to lay eyes on Retro Force, a possible answer to the question above. Brought to the world only in Europe by Psygnosis, prominent developer in the PC and Amiga scene but rather low profile in mainstream platforms, the game mixes vertical shooting during normal stages with rail perspective during boss battles. The scope is ambitious and includes a long campaign with a detailed story that starts with an alien invasion and involves time travel.
Before I continue, allow me to say that this game carries a few traits that are not very well seen within the most hardcore shmup community, those being health bars and inertia. "Euroshmup", you say? Well, it comes from Europe alright. Although I think health bars are a fairly mild design choice depending on the game, I do agree that inertia is awful - we definitely don't need that much reality in our dodging fun. Fortunately the level of inertia in Retro Force isn't so severe, and I could perfectly live with it after a few minutes of familiarizing. There are a few other aspects in the game that are more troublesome, so inertia and health bars shouldn't be reason enough to crucify this obscure and offbeat effort of the low-res 32-bit era.
An alternate version of Einhänder? Not actually...
Going from the rather cool animation intro into the game itself, the player must choose between four pilots, each one with distinct "aerial capabilities", as described in the manual. Paris and Hawtin are the human teenage duo, Pi and Sinclair are androids. These so-called aerial capabilities do not refer to flight speed, which seems to be the same for all of them, instead they're related to how high they can "climb" with their spaceships. Climbing (L1) and diving (L2) is necessary in order to reach certain areas in a stage. Thankfully there are just a few sections where you really need to use these commands, and you always get back to the default plane after a few seconds anyway.
The main weapon (X) is selectable with R1 and comes in three types: straight shot, spread shot and laser. The ground weapon (circle) that's used to hit ground enemies as in Xevious is selectable with R2 and also comes in three types, each one having a different distance reach and effectiveness radius. All weapons start quite weak and are powered up by their specific items, often released by destroying medium to large enemies. Weapon power level can be seen in the selection display in the lower corners. Special weapons have limited ammo and are triggered with the square button after being acquired by specific icons: rockets, homing missiles, side-shots, multi-bolts and plasma balls. Lastly, screen-clearing bombs are deployed with the triangle button.
Other items up for grabs are energy recovery cells, shields and colored crystals, which add more points the end-of-stage bonus. Orange crystals are hard to come by, but they're worth more than the regular green crystals. If you touch the cat face inside the blue light beams pointing up to the sky you activate a checkpoint, where you'll get back to in the case you plummet to death smoking when the health bar is depleted. Also watch out for 1UPs that look just like the checkpoint cat face inside an open arch.
Not only is every single button in the controller used (it's possible to reassign them), but the huge amount of items to collect and interpret also takes Retro Force away from the pick'n'play nature associated with the shmup genre. This game is a bit more complicated than usual, and sometimes there's so much going on that the only remedy to clear things up is to use a bomb. The visuals aren't bad for the most part, but they're predominantly dark and can get confusing at times. Pacing is slow and never changes, large enemies have health bars and some of them come with an invincibility shield that's energized by some ground targets you need to destroy first. It's kind of intuitive, but until you figure out what enemy does what it's pretty common to lose lives stupidly. On the other hand, you don't lose any energy by touching a wall or a cliff.
Travelling through time to stop an evil prophecy from fulfilling
(courtesy of Dailymotion user THAIRACER)
Retro Force has four very long stages divided into three sections each. After a short initial pre-stage you're sent back to the ice age, advancing in time until you return to the present to fight the cat-like final boss. Even though there's a lot of diversity in the game design and the extensive use of several levels of screen tilting adds to the notion of movement, Retro Force fails to cause a lasting impression because the stages feel cluttered, the second half of the game is full of cheap deaths caused by lasers, the music is totally forgettable techno stuff and a few bugs (for the lack of a better word) can lead to unfair deaths. The climbing/diving gimmick is frustrating because some pilots can't reach a few of the higher items, and in some instances I died because I got stuck during one of the climbing maneuvers. There was also one occasion where I died because the perspective changed from rail to vertical during a boss fight, making it impossible to dodge the bullet sprays that were designed to be dealt with in a 3D environment. The most irritating aspects of the game however are the awful loading times. They break up the pace badly, killing any sense of flow the game barely had to start with.
A special nod goes to the goofy character design, an obvious heritage of the early days of 3D polygon rendering in video games. Some people find it charming, others consider it downright awful. It's pretty irrelevant to me since it doesn't get in the way of the gameplay. However, the thing I will never forget about Retro Force is the ridiculous look of the cat creature that possesses the boss prior to each stage finale. It's unintentionally funny, you have to see it to believe how lacking, primitive and campy the animation is.
Co-op play is available, as well as auto-saving and the possibility to save a game in-between stages. I could never figure out how the extend scheme works because extends are most frequently awarded as you view the end-of-stage statistics and bonus screen (suffice it to say there are many available, but I think they might be related to the amount of crystals you collect rather than the actual score). I completed the game in one sitting during one hour and a half, playing with Sinclair in the NORMAL difficulty (MEDIUM).