Let’s… Sorta… Talk About Retro Force

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Gentlepeople of the interwebs, what is retro these days? You see, I ask that because the definition of retro is one of those weirdly grey areas for most people. You could say that the Spectrum is retro (and it is). You could say that the Mega Drive and SNES are retro (are they are) and now we’re getting to a point where the Playstation era of gaming is also pretty retro. It sort of is but some people aren’t quite as convinced.

By the by, if you weren’t aware, Spectrum owners had it worse than you could imagine becuase they had to load games using TAPES. CASSETTE TAPES. If you’re old enough to remember them, know that I feel your pain. If you’re not old enough to remember them: YOU’RE TOO YOUNG. STOP BEING YOUNG.

Anyway. Off topic. Retro things.

I say all this because Retro Force on the Playstation doesn’t answer that question at all and the whole point of asking was meaningless. And it doesn’t even MATTER what retro is, provided you have that loving nostalgia for it and you remember it fondly and all that jazz.

But thinking back on this game, a game that Psygnosis sort of managed to do well given the tripe that gave us in the PS1 era, Retro Force doesn’t really have anything specifically retro about it… aside from the weird character models that look like something from a Victorian dollhouse ON ACID.

Seriously guys, those characters… are creepy as fuck.

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LOOK AT THEM. CREEPY AS FUCK.

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CREEPY AS FUCK.

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CREEPY AS FUCK.

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AND WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS MEANT TO BE?! IT LOOKS LIKE A SENTIENT BIN MELDED WITH A ONE-ARMED BANDIT MACHINE. SERIOUSLY GUYS. CALM THE FUCK DOWN WITH THE CREEPINESS.

WOW.

As I mentioned, in the PS1 era, Psygnosis had a VERY haphazard time of things. One minute, they were giving us glorious games like Wipeout, Destruction Derby and G-Police, and the next they were giving us shit like Psybadek, Rascal and the Spice World game that isn’t even a game but there’ll be plenty of time to get into that at some point.

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And stuck firmly in the middle between those two games is Retro Force, a fairly decent little shmup that really didn’t do anything offensive at all. Apart from the character models.

And to be honest, it feels like I’m already planning to give Retro Force a bit of a raw deal on things because it’s not great and you’ve already guessed that from the title of the review. It’s a Sorta… game as opposed to a good one for a few reasons that I will get into but I’m actually going to be quite nice to begin with because I feel as though this game really did fall by the wayside on the PS1 due to timing. And given that Psygnosis had a track record to sweep under the carpet by this point (1999) led by the three gubbins game already mentioned, I fear that people might have been steering clear of it for that reason.

Or for the fact that it’s a shmup. And shmups on the PS1 weren’t actually de rigeur at the time. If anything, 3D didn’t help the genre as a whole. 2D was where it was at and if you were going to go 3D, then it had to be super special.

Retro Force… for all its effort… is not.

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To be honest, this game does a very good job at being quite a good shmup. Everything that you need to be a good game in this genre is here. You have some relatively good graphics, a handful of different weapon types, power-ups and smart bombs, etc, and you have a lot of frenetic bullet-hell like moments that are bound to keep you on your toes.

Graphically, the game isn’t by any means awful. It’s not setting the word alight but everything has a certain feel to it, particularly in the presentation of the stages. Everything feels as though there was care and attention put into it and there’s no tearing, no snagging and no pop-up to be seen. Some of the graphical effects are bit pixellated, truth be told, and for the most part, the ground textures are pretty bland because clearly the designers had more to think about than adding in a bit of grass or a few footprints in the snow here and there. But then again, too much stuff on screen could equal slow down and too much to look at could make your brain warp through your skull and into some sort of club rave. Because that sort of thing totally happens.

BAN THIS SICK FILTH.

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So what is Retro Force about then? Well it’s 2999 (BECAUSE NO ONE WILL KNOW IT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN!) and the world is going to the shitter again because the holy artefact is probably going to be stolen and a giant UFO have brought the millennial celebrations to a grinding halt. During your pursuit, your team – RETRO FORCE GO! – are pulled back through time to stop the evil menace:

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THIS GUY.

No, no. That is basically a mecha cat. Cats and robot cats are totally a thing in this game from start to finish. One of your team is a robot cat. Or a real cat. Who knows. They’re a cat. Fuck it.

So after being dragged through the city and then thrust backwards through time, it’s time to deal out the PAIN against the enemy. Flying in your ship, you can take the helm of one of four ships led by four characters: Hawtin, Paris, Pi and Sinclair. None of them handle differently and they all have the same weapon system so there’s no real necessity to spend an hour choosing anyone or agonise over who to play. Whichever of the characters you think looks the least creepy is the one you go for.

Or the first one on the list.

I dunno. They’re all as creepy as each other.

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But perhaps therein lies a problem for the game. Given that the game’s opening and box art features the titular team of characters prominently creeping you out from the very start, you’d be forgiven for being put off by that graphical undertone. Granted, it’s not there for long and you don’t have to deal with looking at their AWFUL, AWFUL FACES all of the time. But it certainly doesn’t do itself any favours with its artwork. And what’s also oddly disappointing with the game. Yeah OK, the characters looks phenomenally wince-inducing but there’s a set-up here that’s actually really good. The opening level gives a taster of what the game could end up being. It’s a neon-lit cityscape that bristles with intensity and excitement and already you can feel yourself strapping yourself in for a futuristic landscape full of brightly coloured fun. Even if you gave us seven levels of that and then a few levels on the outskirts of the city or something… I dunno. That would have been cool enough. I suppose we’ll have to settle for a single level of this glorious setting.

And then you’re whisked back in time to the ice age and it stops being quite so… exciting.

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After this, things get quite bland and inoffensive and textureless. Now, I’ve had this rant about time periods before (see Eternal Champions and then stamp on that game, please) and Retro Force could have had a bit of fun here. Instead of going for the safer options, they COULD have tried to do something different and could even have started in somewhere like 1999 and worked through ‘time periods’ from there. Instead, we’re getting swamps, volcanoes and ice levels as opposed to other more… inventive time periods. I mean… when you arrive closer to 2999, there’s so much you could have thrown in there to show the progress of technology and civilisation. Perhaps… things changed for the worse? I dunno. WHY DIDN’T YOU HAVE FUN WITH THAT BIT? YOU TOTALLY COULD HAVE DONE?

Developers need to be more brave with how games in the future ought to look. Be bold! Be brave! WE DON’T KNOW WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE. USE YOUR IMAGINATION TO TELL US YOUR STORY!

And for a game that wants to tell a story, they sure did go the boring route again. Psygnosis really loved this concept of TELL STORY THROUGH TEXT exposition. Psybadek had it. Rascal had it. This game, better than BOTH of those debacles, also tells the story through text during loading screens.

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AND AWFUL PUNS.

Let’s not beat around the bush here: this is actually pretty inexcusable. It’s actually lazier storytelling because you get NO sense of emotion or feel from any of this text. I know voice acting was hard to come by back in those days but they could have told this story through muffled speaker-style audio between characters in their ships. They could have done. I mean… they could have also set the whole game in the neon cityscape, but hey, what do I know? I like Ace of Base. What do I know?

Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that the game’s premise is actually really good but they execution, once again, feels a bit like a missed opportunity. The potential… THE POTENTIAL! It irks me how much better this game could have been with a bit of jiggery pokery. A bit more time, a bit more direction… a bit more oomph behind it.

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But again, I will say that this game has had a bit more love put into it than some of the developers’ other creations/abominations. Retro Force actually plays like a joy. The controls are solid throughout, the shooting feels frenetic and on-point. The fact that you can move you ship vertically up and down to avoid enemies or hit higher enemies is a really nice little feature and adds an element of depth to the game that usually isn’t there in these blind “SHOOT EVERYTHING” types of games. The weapons are decent, although the electro-beam weapon really serves very little purpose when you have a pulser shot that goes straight ahead anyway. The fanfare shot and the pulser make sense. Perhaps we could have gone with a homing weapon? A low-powered homing weapon? Maybe?

Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, right?

And yet for all that love and craft… it’s still… well…

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The thing is… what they do is… alright. But that’s it. It’s merely ‘alright’. It rarely goes above good and rarely goes below iffy. It is literally the shmup version of ‘fine’.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to see what’s going on and the darkness of the levels – particularly the GODDAMNED SWAMP LEVELS – can impede your progress somewhat. The bosses are mostly one-trick ponies and a bit too chaotic to be decent. The story is haphazardly told and there’s just… too much that’s not quite right about it.

And yet there’s nothing that it does wrong. And it falls unceremoniously between two stools because of this. It’s a decent shmup. It’s a badly-written (but actually potentially good) story housed around a fairly decent shmup that plays well, feels exciting at times and actually shows a lot of potential.

The creepy faces, the lack of drive to it… it just doesn’t quite hit the target. Which is a real shame as there is definite potential here. At least there was 17 years ago when the game came out.

Imagine a cartoony, HD version of this game on the PS4 or somethin-

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FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK NO. HD VERSION OUT. NO. DON’T DO IT.

DON’T PUT THAT THING ON THE SCREEN AGAIN!

NIGHTMARES!!!!

NIIIIIIIGHTMAAAAAAAARES!!!!!

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