Dancing, playing guitar, piloting a ship through alien gunfire, etc. Sometimes you just need to put a little faith into rhythm if you want to succeed.
I have a love for both shoot-em-ups and rhythm games. While they occupy different spectra of a player's skill set, both genres share some things in common. Once you lock into the pattern presented to you, it's easy to get lost in the rhythm of combat or the more literal rhythm of a beat.
Retro/Grade is an ingenious rhythm game that blurs the line between these two genres, demanding players to rely on their sight as much as their sense of rhythm. As long as you have one, you can get by without the other, but you're going to need both if you want to place high on the leaderboards in this original debut from 24 Caret Games.
Retro/Grade (PlayStation Network)
Retro/Grade may be a slight and brief rhythm title, but it's a very clever one that will leave you smiling as you make your way through its ten levels. The game starts with the obligatory tutorial sequence, but this familiar scenario is oddly paired with the game's end credits. After pilot/slacker Rick Rocket defeats the game's final boss, a space anomaly reverses the flow of time. The following 90 minutes is a long trek back to the start of Rick's journey, and along the way, he needs to absorb every bullet he fired and once again dodge every enemy.
Mind-bending -- that's the word that best summarizes Retro/Grade. It's at its best when you stop thinking about what you are doing and just give in to the rhythm. Forgoing the stilted presentation of most other rhythm games, the visuals are always busy and unique to the stage, as are the music tracks that sound like a cross between '80s Depeche Mode and audio from Amiga games. It's not a soundtrack I'd listen to on my iPod -- in fact, I got so sick of it that I was turned off from replaying stages -- but it has its charms and pairs wonderfully with the retro sci-fi aesthetic and backgrounds that complement the songs.
As eye-catching as the backdrops are, you'll be too busy trying to survive to fully appreciate them. There is a lot going on in Retro/Grade, but it thankfully takes its time unveiling new enemy types. Like Rock Band and so many other rhythm games, you play notes (read: absorb laser fire) on tracks that you navigate through via your ship. You can even play with a guitar peripheral -- I haven't tried this out, but I imagine your ship must automatically shift tracks as you play the notes. Depending on what difficulty you play, you will have two to five lanes to switch between.
The laser fire always lines up with the beat, but you'll also have to rely on your hand-eye coordination when it comes to dodging walls of bullets and enemy mines from behind. Tapping the button to fire is simple enough, but you'll eventually have to rapidly press to absorb missiles, dodge black holes, and trace long lasers across multiple tracks. If you do well, you'll be rewarded with score multipliers and an oscillator that makes your score go up while turning the background into a psychedelic field that's easy to get lost in. If you don't do well, you can use fuel which reverses time, though you are penalized for his when you receive your "new low score" at the end of the stage.
Once you beat the main mode, you can play again on Extreme difficulty or jump into Challenge mode. Extreme difficulty is just not fun. I love a challenge but only when it's a well designed one. Instead of testing your ability to keep up with complex rhythms and timing, this difficulty keeps you busy by forcing you to constantly change tracks, and I do mean constantly!
Challenge mode, on the other hand, is just too damn easy to be all that engaging. It takes place on a Star Fox-like mission grid, where you progress forward by beating levels from the main mode in altered form. Some missions will present the stage at 120% speed while others present mirrored versions. It's an interesting idea, but given the length of these stages and the repetitive music, it gets old fast. It also takes a long time to get challenging, since you start on Easy and work your way up. The mode may be worth it for some players, since you unlock ships (including a Minecraft-inspired one) and artwork.
If you are a rhythm game fanatic, you owe it to yourself to check out Retro/Grade. It doesn't have the charm of PaRappa, the hummable tracklist of Gitaroo Man, or the addictive quality of Elite Beat Agents, but it's a nice shot in the arm for a genre that has grown stagnant. 24 Caret Games tried its best to give the game some longevity, but that's never been what this genre is about. It's about becoming transfixed and lost somewhere between the music and game, and Retro/Grade does a fine job of achieving this.
THE VERDICT - Retrograde
Reviewed by Allistair Pinsof