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One of the first games I ever got for my Commodore 64 was Jupiter Lander, a simple game which required you to carefully pilot a small spaceship onto landing pads before you ran out of fuel. It required skill, precision and patience; and I hated it. I was about 10 and as far as I was concerned, computer games were about blasting alien scum, not carefully manoeuvring some little blob across a screen.
With advancing age, come greater maturity (although Mrs SWSt will laugh at that) and I can now appreciate slower, more skilful games. This is what drew me to Retro X, a 21st century iPhone update of Jupiter Lander.
Retro X has a slight spin on this original formula. Rather than simply trying to land your craft, you have to explore the maze-like cave systems beneath the surface of a planet to locate and rescue trapped humans. Once you have rescued them, you have to take them back to the mothership.
As you would expect, graphics and sound have been given a major facelift for this 21st Century update, without going over the top and spoiling the simple game beneath. Everything about the game's presentation is spot on. From the green computer text which is used to brief you on your missions to the in-game graphics and level design, everything drips with attention to detail. The actual planets you navigate are rather plain (essentially different rock formations you have to navigate), there are still some nice graphical touches and backgrounds are often ablaze with colour (the Mars levels, for example, have a blistering red background). This does run the risk of colour-clash with your ship, but the colours have been well-chosen to ensure they blend well and nothing gets lost.
Your spaceship might be simple looking, but somehow it exudes character and even manages to look cute. This is again achieved through attention to detail. As you come into land on a platform, little legs are extended from the underside to allow a safe landing, for example. Nor is this just a simple graphical touch, but an integral part of the game. Try and land before the legs are fully extended and you will sustain damage.
The soundtrack is a thumping techno-style track which really gets the juices flowing. In some ways, the fast-paced nature of the soundtrack is in conflict with the more sedate pace of the game, almost as if it's goading you into going faster and making a mistake. As such, it becomes just as much a part of the game as the graphics or level design.
And what level design! Early levels are fairly simple with wide open spaces and easy to avoid objects allowing you to get to grips with the controls and the in-game physics. The difficulty starts to stack up quite quickly, however, and the levels become far more fiendish. The gaps between rocks get smaller the passageways you need to navigate increasingly twisty. Later levels introduce further hazards, such as wormholes which threaten to suck you in, or lasers which blink on an off and must be avoided.
It would be nice (particularly on the later levels) if some sort of map was provided, giving you the approximate location of the people you need to rescue. On the earlier levels, this is not too bad as the caverns are fairly small and the evacuees easily located. On some of the later, bigger levels, it does become a bit of an issue. I lost count of the number of times I explored small passageways (often using up vital fuel and sustaining damage in the process), only to find there was nothing there - a slightly frustrating element to the game.
The in-game physics and control system are what really make the game, however,. The controls are very straight forward to pick up. The ship is moved left or right by tilting the phone in the relevant direction, whilst a quick burst of thrust can be applied by tapping (or holding) your finger on the screen. The controls respond very precisely and if you hit an object it's always down to pilot error, not the fault of the well-tuned controls. Similarly, the small bursts of thrust enable you to guide your ship safely through the narrowest of gaps.
In conjunction with these controls, your ship handles perfectly. There is an element of inertia built in so that when you are flying, it takes the ship time to stop travelling in its current direction before you can move in a new one. This introduces a real element of skill, as you have to judge exactly how much thrust to apply to get you through a gap. Apply too much, and you'll zoom right past the hazard and into the wall beyond it; use too little, and you won't clear the obstacle. It takes a few games to get the hang of the in-game physics and some people will hate the precise control needed, but if you persevere, you will soon come to appreciate the beautifully calibrated physics which makes Retro X a real game of skill.
As if this wasn't enough, each level has a time limit, although in an unusual touch, failure to complete the level within this time doesn't result in death - you just don't get a big fat time bonus. Again, this increases the game's strategy element. If you want to go all out to get high scores, you can try and complete the levels as quickly as possible (risking hitting more obstacles); if you prefer to take things slow and steady and just get through the levels, you can do so.
The large number of levels and the intricate design of the planets mean that this is a game which offers quite a bit of long-term gameplay. Some of the level designs later in the game are truly fiendish and require real skill to complete. Once you have completed them all, there is always the attraction of going back to beat your high scores on each of the levels and get that elusive time bonus. This was one of the very first game's I downloaded for my iPhone and I'm still playing it almost four years on.
Of course, as hinted at in the opening paragraph, the relatively slow pace of the game and the precision and patience needed to get anywhere are going to put some gamers off. Some people will also hate the controls and the "real-world" physics and inertia.. However, if you enjoy games of skill, then this offers a great challenge. It's free to download an ad-supported version, and the perfectly reasonable sum of 69p will get rid of the ads.
© Copyright SWSt 2013