24 Caret Game’s Retro/Grade is finally ready for release, but it’s been a long time coming. While it originally began development way back in 2008, the time-travelling space-shooter hasn’t avoided bouts of delays and platform swaps, among other things. Still, before it even launched it has managed to grab several indie awards and plenty of media attention, and I’m sure the two guys behind the project are releasing the biggest sighs of their lives right now as it’s release on the PSN is imminent.
It’s kind of hard to summarize exactly what Retro/Grade is. I’d say that it’s an eclectic amalgamation of both the shmup and music genres into one addictive arcade-game shell, purported to be the first game ever to be played completely in reverse and utilizes both your typical controller and plastic guitar.
…But, that probably creates more questions than it answers. In other words? It’s a refreshing experiment on some seemingly tried and true staple mechanics of gaming. The results are roughly stylistic aesthetics, a perfectly-fitting, mesmerizing soundtrack, and, most importantly, a game that’s pretty damn fun.
The game puts you in the space ship of intergalactic hero Rick Rocket, one badass, devil-may-care pilot who destroys entire fleets of aliens just because he couldn’t find his favorite coffee joint. There really isn’t much of a story here at all, but the presentation has it’s charms: you’ll start off the game defeating your alien nemesis, find that you accidentally broke the space-time continuum, and have to play in reverse back to the “first” level of the game. The little text blurbs that accompany each level are pretty clever, if insubstantial, but I bet you’ll smile at at least one of them.
Other than this simplistic story, it’s pure gameplay, and that’s not a bad thing. The game is effectively an arcade shooter, and it’s got all the bells and whistles of a good one: tight controls, flashy graphics, an ever-active scoreboard, and some serious challenge. The best way to describe playing the game would be to imagine any shoot-em-up you know of, and picture it playing out in reverse. All the bullets fired are getting sucked into your turrets, enemies un-explode in front of you and fly away, etc.
If you’re using a DualShock, the game has you maneuver up and down between space lanes to line up with projectiles and “unfire” them with the x button. Triangle handles an overdrive-type mode, while circle allows you to normalize time– that is, go forward and undo any mistakes you might have made. The guitar controller is similar, having each fret button correspond to a lane, and the strum bar unfiring.
It really sounds confusing still, but it actually feels almost intuitive once you play. 24 Caret Games have stated that Retro/Grade has been developed with both control schemes in mind, and that’s drastically benefited the game: neither one is more beneficial than the other. Sure, I preferred using the controller, but plugging in my ol’ Rock Band guitar had me slaying space aliens in style. This is, for perhaps the first time, a perfect utilization of the plastic guitar peripheral outside of “actual” music games.
Either way, everything feels very natural, and the devs have enough tricks up their sleeves for each of the ten levels that it never really gets repetitive. Coupled with how smooth the gameplay itself is, and how brilliant it feels when you hit that special groove to the music, you might find yourself in one of those rare trances that only certain games manage to exude. It’s also bewildering to sit there and think if you’re playing a rhythm game with the appearance of a shooter, or a shooter timed to an evolutionary rhythm, and that’s a definite cool plus.
The game’s soundtrack is an electric-techno mix of pure auditory delight. I’m not exactly a fanatic of this type of music for the most part, but composer Nautilis has laid down some seriously addicting riffs and beautifully flowing compositions over the game’s ten tracks, and they fit the game perfectly. It’s exactly what I’d think a re-imagined retro-shooter’s soundtrack would sound like. Darting bullets flailing away from you to the beat of some electro-wizardry is almost one of the best feelings the game instills.
The graphics and presentation are similarly fitting. While not the greatest I’ve seen on the PSN or even of it’s genre, the graphics are still adequate and the game just oozes style. There’s one moment in the game where the music slows to a pulse and you start dodging sprays of bullets flying inward toward you, all the while collecting your bullets that you’d previously fired, and I couldn’t help but replay the level instantly just because of how unbelievably cool it was as it played out. Plus, you can’t really go wrong with a pilot that’s continually jamming on a goddamned guitar as he’s flying through the universe, decimating his Exnorian foes.
Oh, and one more thing of little relevance, but immense coolness: the return of the playable credits level. I can’t remember the last time I was able to enjoy myself during a credits sequence, but God help me, shooting people’s names into oblivion is a fun little addition to the otherwise mundane.
I keep proclaiming Retro/Grade to be old-school at it’s roots, and difficulty is something that goes hand-in-hand with this genre. Don’t fret: this game can get tough. I beat the campaign on “Pro” mode, the third-toughest out of 6 modes, and I had no difficulty flying through the game in two sittings. When I cranked it up to “X-treme,” though, I died twice on the first level, and had an even tougher time on the second.
I do have a complaint regarding the difficulty, and it’s not related to the campaign select modes. I noticed, on both playthroughs I did, that the levels just didn’t seem balanced enough in scaling difficulty. I’d personally rank one or two of the mid-game levels way harder than the final one, due to some complicated level-specific hazards and “bosses” with some tricky maneuvers. Of course, it might just be my playing style, and it certainly didn’t distract from the overall quality of the game– just a heads up for those of you suiting up for play.
If you’re concerned about the brevity of the game, though, and don’t give a damn about difficulty, you’ll be happy to know that the brief campaign isn’t really a deterrent to the amount of content it has. there’s a giant space-map of challenges that would likely take even dedicated gamers a long time to navigate through completely. If you’re willing to give it a go, there are some great unlockables, from cheats to music to extra space ships– including a Minecraft one, which became my defacto way to travel.
The PSN has been consistently releasing titles of unparalleled quality as of late, from the excellent Dyad to the ineffably charming Sound Shapes, both heavily-musically based games. It’s fitting that one of next great releases is also so fundamentally rooted as a rhythm title, but it’s also refreshing that it takes such a wholeheartedly unique approach to it, too. Sure, it’s not quite as mesmerizing as Sound Shapes, nor is it a literal mind-fuck like Dyad was, but it should be applauded for the fantastic technical liberties it makes to the basis of decade-old genres, just to emerge as such an original game.
If you’re still confused about Retro/Grade even after the torrent of explanatory praise above, don’t be afraid to download the demo. For how irritating it might be to actually describe the game, it comes together so well that its simplicity in action is notable as one of its greatest qualities. It might not be the longest game, the most profound, or the prettiest, but while you’re committing total alien genocide with Rick Rocket in a damaged space-time continuum, you’ll definitely be having fun.
Final Score: A-
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