Retro/Grade is a side-scrolling rhythm game styled after the classic arcade shoot 'em ups of yore – played in reverse. Beginning with the climactic final boss battle, the game opens and closes before a temporal shift rocks the universe and sends the flow of time sprawling backwards. Events rewind, retracing the credit sequence to the beginning of each level, forcing Rick, your beat friendly pilot, to suck up his plasma blasts and launched missiles in perfect sync with the game's synth-heavy soundtrack. Featuring bombastic bursts of color more in line with Beat Hazard than Guitar Hero, Retro/Grade is an addictively fun romp through fresh yet familiar ground.
When researching Retro/Grade, one could be forgiven for missing its point entirely. The contrivance of the game is easily hidden in screenshots; the right-to-left, end-to-beginning movement must be seen to be appreciated, and the rhythmic cues comfortably fade into the background against its colored lines of assault. If another game has attempted exactly what Retro/Grade accomplishes, I haven't heard of it. 24 Caret Games has crafted a novel experience by melding two different types of games; or perhaps more accurately, setting one type of game inside the other. But lest you be confused, Retro/Grade is not a shooter. It just looks like one.
Low Score, High Score, My Score
Getting familiar with the game is gratifyingly simple. Each level begins at its end and moves backwards. Interestingly, the conceit of the game demands that each level begin with a high score while retracting shots lowers it. Your goal, then, is to earn as low a score as possible. This, by some black magic, is converted back into a new high score to be ranked on the leaderboards. It is convoluted, so for the sake of simplicity, let's just say doing well earns you points.
Using a keyboard, gamepad, or guitar controller, you navigate Rick vertically across two or more colored lanes avoiding enemy missiles and collecting spent fire (I took to calling these “notes” for simplicity's sake). Everything approaches along these lanes, so survival means glancing ahead and reacting quickly. It's easy to get overwhelmed on higher difficulties, but 24 Caret Games generously equipped Rick's ship with a limited rewind ability allowing you to replay sections without needing to restart. Later in the game, power-up notes appear and offer different bonuses, such as healing the ship, boosting the score multiple, or powering up the secondary ability, lightspeed. This boost slows down time with a triumphant burst of color. A tutorial introduces all of these mechanics through actual gameplay.
In a very real way, the game functions a lot like Guitar Hero. Collecting your fire is Retro/Grade's equivalent to hitting the correct note. Like yesterday's party favorite, timing button presses is important. The track system also means that your range of movement is limited. Rick can move up and down but not left or right. In Guitar Hero each lane would use its own finger-button, but in Retro/Grade, moving Rick pares this down to one.
A laser light show for your monitor.
Visual confusion, too samey towards the end.