Groove your way backwards through time with Retro/Grade, the space-shooter rhythm-game funk spectacular you’ve always been waiting for. Come August 21st, dive into 24 Caret Studio’s Retro/Grade, the most fun you’ll have time traveling until Doc Brown shows up.
The premise of the game is thus: You are Rick Rocket, head-bobbing starfighter pilot with an ego just big enough to fit into his cockpit. In the final moments of his victorious war with alien invaders, as the (hilarious) credits roll, a massive explosions rocks the galaxy and sends Rick Rocket hurtling backward through time. The only way to save the galaxy from time-shattering paradox is to undo an entire war, in reverse.
The levels themselves go in reverse, starting with level 10 and working back to level 1, where the game informs us that Rick Rocket took out the most powerful enemies first, in order to make sure he didn’t run out of ammunition when he really needed it. What little plot the game has is entirely entertaining, giving you the sense of a well-traveled jerk pilot reluctantly forced to undo all of his actions. The implication that he might be forever stuck in an infinite time loop of chaos and war is cushioned somewhat by a protagonist who cares more about his condo than the planet it’s on.
Retro/Grade is an ambitious high-concept game with a surprisingly climbable learning curve. The game looks like a side-scrolling space shooter bullet-hell game of yore, in the style perfected by Ikaruga. Most of that, however, is just setting – you’re playing a rhythm music game. If you’re still not sure, consider this – the game can be played with the game pad or the Guitar Hero / Rock Band controller.
You fly backwards, dodging shots that haven’t been fired yet and steering into your own blasts to prevent paradox. Paradox basically represents your health bar, and if you screw up too much undoing your actions you’ll destroy the space/time continuum itself. So, uh, keep an eye on that. Please.
Depending on what difficulty setting you’re playing, your ship has either two, three, four, or five “lanes” of attack, navigated to by going up or down. You can pick up power-ups as you collect your blasts, which increase your score, provide multipliers, grant you a “temporal shield”, or heal space-time directly.
You also have the ability to reverse time if you screw up too badly, the length of which is determined by how much temporal energy you have. This technically unreverses time (what?), but let’s not quibble with semantics.
While you spend most of the game flying into your laser blasts, you also have alternate attacks that require a different input. Catching your normal blasts require a tap of the “X” button, but catching your plasma gun involves holding “X” down and navigating your ship up and down the lanes to catch the rainbow colored beam. Another attack, a sort of Macross missile barrage, demands rapid-fire tapping to catch them. Your enemies also have a bunch of varied attacks, including simple blasts, arc-waves, physical attacks, and gravity bombs. The game is at its finest when these are mixing into an orgy of bright lights and twitch-gaming, where your eyes unfocus and you enter a kind of fugue state of pure ass-kickery.
The main campaign is fairly short, but that’s only on a single difficulty setting. If you think of it like a Guitar Hero game, you’re going to want to progress up the difficulty chain. That would also be the chain that the Extreme difficulty setting beats you with, to paraphrase Joss Whedon.
There is also a Challenge Mode, which gives you a Mario-style map of nodes to progress through. Each node represents one of the campaign maps, but with a twist. One map gives you only 10% of your max health. Another speeds up the song and the gameplay by 120%. Another forces you to acquire a certain level of multiplier. One reverses the entire game, so while you’re still going backward, you’re going backward in the opposite direction and oh no I’ve gone cross-eyed.
The Challenge Mode unlocks new ships (like a Minecraft-style ship!), the ability to DJ the game’s music with turntables, and other difficulty modes for maps.
I’ve never piloted a rocket ship while high on ecstasy, but I imagine it would look a lot like Retro/Grade. The blasts you swing your ship into are bright flares of light swirling in a nimbus of cool effects. Ditto for the blasts flying out from behind you, the ones launched by your enemies that are now flying back toward them. Things get even more psychedelic when you trigger your ship’s overdrive, which turns the contrast up, darkening the background and making the laser blasts cornea-searing.
Everything is done with a retro, raygun gothic style that contrasts perfectly with the electro music. Rick Rocket’s ship is a bulbous shiny thing right out of Flash Gordon’s fever dreams. The enemies are up-jumped flying saucers, explosive starfighters, and enormous luscious bosses that fill up the entire screen.
As your ship flies backward through time, flaring engine leading the way, Rick’s tiny little helmet rocks out to the music. The background, be it Deathstar-like surfaces, space stations, or enormous enemy ships, are surprisingly well-crafted too with exquisite attention to detail. Many of the lights and windows in the background are actually bars that pulse to the beat of the music. Retro/Grade is the kind of game you just like staring at, the ultimate in stylistic eye-candy.
Bloody fantastic. If the soundtrack of Blade Runner made babies with a Daft Punk album, you’d get the sweet electronica tunes in Retro/Grade. The soundtrack itself is available separate from the game (or packaged with it if you pay a little extra), something I personally will be picking up.
The tunes are hand-crafted by Skyler McGothlin, aka Nautilis. They hit a wide range of moods, including faster pop numbers next to slow robo-heroin next to quirky tunes. The music is the heart of any rhythm game, and this heart is pumping gold. The game attracted a few spectators in my house after they heard the music and came to investigate.
OverallI can’t recommend Retro/Grade highly enough. For $9.99 or $14.99 (with bundled soundtrack), the game is a steal.
Retro/Grade is one of the finer downloadable games I’ve played. Available only on the PSN, Playstation owners have a must-play summer game in what amounts to the doldrums of gaming.
Enjoy your synesthetic trip backwards through time. Tell Rick Rocket I said hello.