With the 80s drawing to a close and the Commodore 64 approaching it’s 10th anniversary, support for the machine was still incredibly strong.
While developers and publishers like Ocean Software and System 3 were well-established, new talent was still emerging, bringing new concepts and fresh ideas to the 8-bit gaming scene.
One such studio was Apex Computer Productions, a small independent developer headed by brothers John and Steve Rowlands. Together, they would create the hugely successful Creatures series, and would go on to wow the C64 scene with Mayhem in Monsterland.
Although Creatures would bring Apex mainstream recognition, the game that helped their rise to prominence would be the side-scrolling shoot ’em up, Retrograde.
Developed in conjunction with Rob Ellis of Transmission Software and published by Thalamus exclusively for the Commodore 64 in 1989, the game offered gamers a unique blend of arcade-style shooting and platforming genres. These were underpinned by an extensive upgrade and customisation system, which resulted in an experience quite unlike anything else at the time.
Less sophisticated, however, is the plot, which reveals that seven alien dictators are locked in an inter-stellar competition with one another to see who can enslave the most worlds in the solar system.
Unfortunately for the people of Choom, their planet happens to be next in line for domination, and hero is needed urgently if disaster is to be avoided. Taking on the role of a daring bounty hunter, it has fallen to you to become defender of the people by taking the fight to alien dictators and destroying their home planets.
The principle objective in each of the game’s seven levels is the destruction of the planet itself, and the defeat of it’s alien overlord.
In order to do this, you must first collect a powerful explosive – a ‘planet buster’ – from one of the ground-based enemies found patrolling the planet’s surface. This can then be used to destroy the planet core, which can only be accessed by a series of access ducts that connect the subterranean depth with the world above.
The snag presents itself when you realise that the planet buster be primed before it can be used. What’s more, the device can only be primed at the shop, and they’re not about to let you blow up their home-world, at least not for free!
It’s at this point that the importance of money – or the lack of it – starts to play a central role in the game.
Earning credits is as easy as blasting the various aliens patrolling the skies and harvesting the precious crystals that they leave behind, but it’s going to take a big pile of cash to prime those explosives. The weedy single-shot blaster you start out with severely limits your ability to earn cash and proves to be a real hindrance; if only you had a better weapon then things wouldn’t be quite so difficult!
Fortunately, the shop has a complete arsenal of military-grade weaponry available for purchase, each of which can be attached to one the hard-points located on your battle-suit. The suite of hardware on sale is quite extensive, including guns that not only fire in various directions, but which can be upgraded to increase their overall effectiveness and lethality.
Thus commences a cycle of hunting down aliens and collecting crystals in order to buy increasingly bigger guns, which begets another round of wholesale slaughter for even more money; it’s a cycle which proves to be the game’s central focus, and one that proves to be highly addictive.
While you may not realise it, this is actually an example of the progression systems that feature in many video games today. Just as in Retrograde, these typically involve the accrual of currency, either literal or arbitrary, which can be exchanged for new weapons or abilities that makes them even more powerful; it’s this perpetual cycle of grinding and upgrading that’s at the very heart of games like Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo series, Ubisoft’s Far Cry, and countless others.
It’s not surprising to be able to trace the lineage of modern gaming back to the retro titles; after all, they’re the bedrock on which contemporary game design is based.
What does raise eyebrows, however, is just how fully-featured and polished the progression system in Retrograde actually is; such things would normally be pretty rough around the edges, embryonic even, but that’s not the case here.
Whether by luck, skill, or a mixture of both, Apex created something that proved addictive enough to keep the player hooked, continuing to invest their time in the game.
Now armed to the teeth with death-rays and a bulging bank balance, it’s time to get back to the task at hand. With sufficient capital accrued, it’s time to prime your planet buster and head underground.
Having located an access tunnel and made your way inside, you’ll need to fight your way past guards and other foes on the way to a final confrontation with the ‘duct guardian’ located in the bowels of the installation.
Unfortunately, you’ll need to leave all your fancy space cannons top-side; using firearms down here is strictly prohibited and the last thing you want is to send the whole place up in flames with you still inside. For these sections, you’ll need to make use of your special ‘power fist’, a short-range energy weapon more than a little inspired by Game Workshop’s Warhammer 40K universe.
With the planet guardians defeated and world detonating in a cataclysm of rock and red-hot magma behind you, the only thing left is to deal with the end-of-level boss.
These encounters require the player to face off against a power capital ship, armed to the teeth with lasers and homing missiles. These fortresses are impervious to damage, save for a select few weak points that you must discover.
While the scale of these adversaries in imposing, the overall encounter proves to be something of an endurance test, rather than a demonstration of combat proficiency.
Much to my chagrin, I found on more than one occasion that I’d neglected to upgrade my weapons sufficiently, succumbing to the waves of incoming fire before I was able to deal sufficient damage in return.
More annoyingly, failure to equip the correct weaponry can result in a fight that proves to be unwinnable. The weak points on some of these enemies are located in such places that you simply cannot hit it without a weapon that fires in the appropriate direction, which is not a pleasant experience given just how long it can take to reach this point.
Even if you have the correct load-out and lined up the perfect attack vector, the collision detection on these sensitive areas proves to be somewhat inconsistent as to whether the game registers a hit or not.
Fortunately, the number of positive innovations in Retrograde more than outweigh the negatives; if you thought the shop system was the only feature worth mentioning, then you’d be wrong.
Given that the player will invest an not insubstantial length of time in upgrading weapons, it would have been soul-destroying if the game degraded or reset upgrades in the event of losing a life.
No doubt conscious of this fact, John and Steve chose to do things a little bit differently. Instead of simply killing the player when health is depleted, the game decrements the number of remaining lives, but also completely recharges the bounty hunter’s health; this eliminates the need for any break in the action, allowing the player to continue unhindered.
In addition, extra lives can be earned for every 20,000 points added to the score, plus certain enemies will drop a special over-shield that protects you from damage, as well as completely refilling your health gauge when depleted.
It’s quality-of-life improvements such as these which, when coupled with the excellent progression system, which really make Retrograde stand out, and it’s the main reason why it remains my favourite of all Apex’s games.
On a technical level, the game features some very smooth scrolling, including some cool parallax effects that convey a sense of depth and perspective to the lunar landscapes that you’ll spend so much time flying over.
There are also several occasions where the game features more than the seven sprites supported in hardware, suggesting that some kind of multiplexing routine is in effect, although it certainly appears to incur no penalty in terms of performance.
The general quality of the artwork is excellent throughout, as is the game’s soundtrack; I’ve long regarded Steve Rowlands as one of the more underrated SIDicians, his creative talents showcased in the thumping piece that plays during the tape loader.
In most regards, Retrograde is a thoroughly excellent shoot ’em up that I would have no hesitation in recommending. The cycle of upgrading weapons and earning cash is surprisingly compelling, particularly for a game approaching thirty years old, and it makes a refreshing change to revisit a title that has genuinely stood the test of time.