In deep space and in the far future, only you can save mankind. Aliens have invaded, as aliens tend to do, and after a frankly embarrasing failure by the regular space navy, you're it. Unfortunately for you, you have at your disposal only a decades-old low-tech junker of a ship and your background as a backwater spaceracer.
However duty calls, so with a lowly ion cannon and a shield you set out to destroy the alien scum, save humanity, and hopefully not die in the process!
While shooting aliens in their stupid alien faces is quite an important part of the game, the real challenge comes from controlling your ship. Thrust is provided by front and rear boosters and you have the ability to twist your ship quickly, providing full 360º control of the little rustbucket. Acceleration and braking (either by firing the opposite facing boosters or twisting your ship around) take effect with some delay, and firing weapons or taking hits will also move the ship around.
Thus, firing the appropriate boosters, angling the ship to fire upon enemies and avoiding walls, bullets, asteroids and the burning wreckage of your fallen foes while busting a move through a narrow cave system to get through a portal that only stays open for a few seconds is the order of the day. You didn't ask for this job, but someone's got to do it.
To add a little extra spice to an already tough proposition you can pick up stranded spaceminers to earn extra points and the occasional power-up. Think Choplifter in space, with the extra realistic bonus that activating thrusters while close will consume your little spacefriends in a roiling cloud of smoke and flame (complete with tiny Wilhelm scream) and a botched landing or falling enemy debris will squash them dead.
It's not all doom and gloom though. There are various consumable power-ups for your ship, some of which are temporary and others which last as long as you have ammo. Thermite rounds will tear a hole in most enemy types much faster than your standard ion cannon, and guided missiles can get you out of a tough spot. My personal favourite, the electric charge, allows you to get up close and personal, sacrificing safe distance for massive doses of electro-damage.
Lots of press about Retrobooster talks about the difficulty of the game. I won't lie, the game is as hard as your favourite hard thing (stop sniggering in the back) but apart from a few absolute bullet-hell moments it is fair. Reckless flying will kill you faster than the alien weapons, although you do get a 2x multiplier for smashing an enemy to death with your ship. A large part of the difficulty lies in getting to grips with the thrust controls, and once you have this down you'll feel like a veritable space ace. Cheap deaths are very few and far between, and losing a life starts you in the same area as your last death so there are no long hauls back to a tough fight. That said, I found it to be a tough experience on the lowest difficulty setting (of 4) meaning that there's plenty of challenge for the more masochistic gamer.
Graphically the game is pretty stunning. While enemy types and your humble vessel are quite basic, the backgrounds and effects are really something to behold. The level of detail that has gone into the smoke and fire effects is impressive, and there are lots of subtle details such as context sensitive lights on your ship and fossils buried in the rocks that bring the game to life.
All in all, Retrobooster is a triumph. Terry Welsh has done a great solo job on this game, and deserves to get some recognition for it. Some people will bounce off the unforgiving difficulty, but for those seeking a real old-school challenge with plenty of depth, this game is perfect. The game also includes split-screen multiplayer for up to four people, which should provide lots of swearing/friend losing opportunities!