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Destructoid review: Retro

12:00 PM on 01.14.2009 // Brad Nicholson

When I sat down to play Big Head Games’ Elefunk for the first time, I was unprepared. I didn’t realize that a physics-based game starring an elephant could have depth. It did, and I filed the simple observation in a folder in my brain marked, “Who saw that coming?” That folder also contains the memory of a shattered kneecap (frisbee accident) and the final boss battle in Dead Space.

I enjoyed Elefunk, so when I found out that Big Head was doing an iPhone title called Retro, I rushed to the iTunes App Store to see what the studio could do on the platform. I was pleasantly unsurprised.

I won’t tease you any longer. Go ahead and hit the break for the full review.

Retro (iPhone, iPod Touch)
Developed by Big Head Games
Published by Big Head Games

Released on December 29, 2008 (US)

Retro is a mix of a few gameplay elements -- none of which is particularly embraced by a genre. It has highly addictive gameplay, smooth controls, and decent visuals. But the music, the sporadic difficulty, and poor crash physics leave much to be desired. Of course, what game about exploding suns and helpless scientists doesn’t have problems?

In Retro, you are given control of a bulbous, hovering spacecraft on a mission to rescue scientists throughout the solar system. Each mission requires you to extricate all of the scientists within a short timeframe. The good news is that these helpless men often group on the makeshift landing platforms, making the missions much easier. Missions are officially over when your craft reconnects with a mothership located towards the top of every level.

The premise is certainly laughable, but I did have a good deal of fun messing around in the various (although similar) environments. Retro is gratifying. It can also be refreshingly tense, especially when you finish a level with mere seconds left. I often find myself swaying my body with the ship and cursing when I make a mess of things.

Placing a single finger on the touch screen gives the craft thrust and slightly tilting the device allows for directional movement. It is a refined control scheme: the tilting is subtle, the thrust is easily applied, and you will hardly ever find a finger in the middle of the action.

The bulk of your time isn’t spent with your finger riding the thrust. Most scientist rescues are done in caverns, with dubious juts of rocks sprinkled in a mazelike pattern. The craft requires you to continually tap the thrust to maintain control. Small touches can guide your ship through narrow openings and into areas where scientists are being held on little landing zones. Picking these guys up is as simple as allowing your ship to fall on the platform.

My biggest gripe with the game has to deal with the physics. The craft is weighty, but knocking into a barrier (usually a rock) transforms the ship into a missile, destined to hit another rock. It drains your shield bar and forces you to restart the mission. Many of the crevices scientists are placed in are narrow, evil things that will bounce your ship around almost ceaselessly. Save points are recorded each time you grab a scientist, but nothing wipes the good taste of a game out of my mouth quicker than the tragedy of numerous deaths in sections that seem to require more physics-based luck than skill.

I am also not a fan of save points that can put you at a dead end, forcing a restart. Retro does that a lot. I often found myself stranded on platforms, unable to get to the next or knowingly unable to finish the level, as they require a tremendous amount of thrusting to return to the mothership with your scientist payload. Some platforms have fuel and shield regeneration, so the navigation through has to be plotted accordingly.

Planning becomes essential after the introductory stages, but this can require too much time. It takes away from some of the quick playability that needs to happen with a mobile title. Also, some of the levels are just too damn hard. Occasionally, Retro steps over the line of difficulty and enters into the realm of frustration. Just as I don’t enjoy luck over skill, I find hard for the sake of hard ridiculous. I feel that some of the levels are just too jumbled and lack the kind of contextual clues that players need to be successful.

The visuals in Retro are basic. The backdrop is an angry, bright red star. The craft is a dull gray, with a blue visor that adds just a touch of personality. The rocks and outcroppings are bland in terms of texture. These elements work together to present a decent presentation. The single song on the soundtrack that endlessly loops will definitely grate on your nerves if you play for an extended period of time.

Retro is a title that doesn’t push, but it also doesn’t pull you. The controls are solid and simplistic. The visuals are decent, but can become too familiar after traversing a few levels. The game is fun and occasionally exciting but the moments when Retro reveals its wonky physics, obtuse level design, and manic difficulty are the moments that you’ll find yourself putting the game down. That said, the good qualities of Retro far outweigh the bad.

Score: 7 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)

Brad Nicholson,
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