Headed by brothers John and Steve Rowlands, Apex Computer Productions was responsible for some of the best, most polished and greatest titles to grace the Commodore 64 computer. Although probably best known for their Creatures and Mayhem in Monsterland (scoring a controversial 100% in Commodore Format magazine), it's actually Retrograde that is my favourite of all their games, developed in conjunction with Rob Ellis.
The game was published in 1989 by Thalamus and was, for the time, a genuinely unique blend of horizontal shoot 'em up action, platforming, all wrapped up with an innovative progression system that allowed the player to progressively upgrade their equipment as they played; it was an experience quite unlike anything else I'd played at the time.
In terms of plot, seven alien dictators are locked in a competition to capture as many planets in the solar system as possible and yours happens to be next on the list. As defender of the people of the planet Choom, your task is to take the fight to each of the dictator's home worlds and to destroy them. If it all sounds a tad cheesy then you'd be right, it is, but the story really doesn't matter when you have a game that's as addictive as this.
The game is set across 7 different planets where the objective is to ultimately destroy the planet itself. To destroy the planet, you must locate and destroy enemies that carry a planet buster and to then take this to the shop located on the level and get it primed. Once primed, you must find the entrance to a subterranean bunker and descend to the very bottom and destroy the enemies located there.
|Title screen with some awesome tunes!|
Of course, it wouldn't be much of a game if things were so simple. The catch is, the shop charges you money to arm the device and the only way to earn money is to take the fight to the skies above the planet and harvest mineral crystals from the aliens inhabiting the atmosphere. There crystals act as the game's currency, enabling you to purchase bigger and better guns from the shop, which makes you more efficient and killing baddies to earn more money. Eventually, you'll earn enough cash to prime the planet buster that will allow you to destroy the planet, progressing to the next level.
It is the shop and weapon progression system that makes the game so successful, not to mention addictive. Your space suit has a number of hard-points that can be outfitted with weapons, but each weapon consumes a certain number of these points, so you have to plan exactly which weapons you want to take and the direction you want them to fire. Picking out the perfect arsenal is great fun and there's plenty of fun to be had in coming up with different combinations and trying them out. Once you've saved up the cash for bigger weapons (or simply don't like your load-out) then it's possible to sell your gear back to the shop, recouping some space-bucks and freeing up slots for some new toys.
|Armed to the teeth!|
The power of the enemies that you face increases steadily across each of the 7 worlds, ensuring that you're never overpowered for too long, giving purpose to the near-endless arms race you find yourself in. It's this progression system that makes the game so damned addictive thanks to the simple feedback loop of earning cash, buying new gear and seeing tangible increases in destructive power with each purchase. It's this same progression loop and drip-feeding of loot that would be used to great effect in action RPGs, such as Diablo and many other genres - just about every major title has some kind of progression/unlock system these days (even if they are locked behind pay-wall micro-transactions).
It's not just the progression system that made Retrograde special either, implementing a novel health/lives system that ensured that the game remained challenging, but was not too punitive. Given the progression system, it wouldn't make sense to simply kill the player when they ran out of energy, nor would it be fair to rob them of their hard-earned upgrades. Instead of killing a player when their health is depleted, the game decrements the total number of lives and recharges the player's health in the process, allowing players to continue playing without the action being interrupted. Extra lives are earned every 20,000 points, plus certain enemies will drop an over-shield that prevents you from taking damage until it is depleted, not to mention refilling your health bar when the shield does eventually expire - brilliant!
|Purchasing new toys in the shop|
Once you've primed your planet buster, it's time to head underground. These platforming sections help change up the pace, requiring careful timing as you avoid enemies and all manner of traps as you attempt to reach the base of the planet. You can't use any of your guns here, sadly, but you are equipped with a Power Fist (another nod to WH40K) that allows you to project force beams at adversaries that you encounter. Just as with other weapons, the fist can be upgraded in the shop and is highly advised since it increases both it's range and damage.
On a technical level, the game is nothing short of phenomenal. The game has fantastic graphics for the time and boasts super-smooth scrolling that never skips a beat, parallax backgrounds, as well as a huge number of enemies and projectiles on screen simultaneously. I especially liked the Warhammer 40K-inspired design for main player sprite, looking uncannily like one of Games Workshop's iconic Space Marines (probably an Ultramarine given his blue colouring).
I also want to give a special mention to Steve Rowlands for producing some of my favourite SID tunes for this particular game, especially the rocking tune that accompanies the loader screen at the start of the game. I think Steve is one of the more underrated SID musicians, which is a shame because his music and effects are definitely top-tier.
If I have one criticism of the game, it has to be the end-of-level boss fights. These are pretty standard as shooters go, requiring the player to shoot the boss's weak spots until dead, but they can be incredibly difficult to beat if you don't have the right weapons equipped. For example, the final boss is near-impossible to defeat unless you purchased a weapon that can shoot diagonally; I didn't realise this on my first attempt and ended up having to replay the final level in order to equip a suitable set of guns. Even then, the collision detection for the weak spots could be particularly picky about whether it registered a hit or not and I found it quite problematic in finding the best angle to damage the boss.
Gripes aside, Retrograde is a thoroughly excellent shoot 'em up that I would have no hesitation in recommending. From the fantastic cover art (Oliver Frey) to addictive gameplay, everything about this game feels like a premium quality title - be sure to go and try it out!