Developer: 24 Caret Games / Publisher: 24 Caret Games / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $9.99 / ESRB: Everyone [Mild Fantasy Violence]
If I was on Supermarket Sweep and instead of grabbing jumbo packages of diapers I was grabbing gameplay elements off the shelves, I’d cross the finish line with Retro/Grade. The game tries to combine a shoot ‘em up with a rhythm game, and twists it even further by having you play the entire game backwards. It’s so quirky that I should love it, but instead Retro/Grade proves that despite hard work and intelligent design, some gameplay mechanics just don’t gel.
GAMEPLAY AND VISUALS
Put on your thinking hat because this is about to get weird. Retro/Grade is a shoot ‘em up that plays in reverse — in fact, the game begins with you defeating the final boss and watching the staff roll. However, halfway into the credits the game kicks in reverse and now you have to navigate backwards through ten side-scrolling stages. That means you have to weave through bullets that move from left to right and un-shoot all the lasers that you presumably fired in the past. If you get hit with a bullet or don’t un-fire a shot that you presumably did in the past, you weaken the integrity of space-time until you rupture and die. Your score even starts in the millions and ticks down every time you un-kill an enemy, with the “best” score for a stage being zero.
Good so far? There’s more — it’s also a rhythm game. All of the bullets travel along a series of discrete lanes similar to Guitar Hero. On top of that, all the bullets you have to un-shoot are timed with the music, meaning that you end up tapping out a rhythm of the song that scales in complexity with your chosen difficulty. There are even different kinds of weapons to un-shoot — extended lasers require you to hold down the button while missiles require you to tap as fast as possible.
The premise sounds great, but there’s a subtle contradiction that poisons the gameplay. Since the game is in reverse, that means that an enemy bullet can’t simultaneously be where you need to un-shoot a bullet. That means that 95% of the time, if you simply follow the path of the bullets you need to un-shoot, you’ll never hit enemy fire. This largely holds true even on the hardest difficulty. The real question is how quickly do you move to the appropriate lane to un-shoot the next note before it gets there which ultimately flattens Retro/Grade to a very basic rhythm game.
What does provide a challenge is that visually getting that info can be very hard. There are sparkles and colorful bloops all over the screen that look awesome, but they also cloud the screen with a ton of visual noise. Whenever I missed a note, it’s not because I didn’t have the dexterity to hit it or the mental capacity to process it… I just didn’t see it. It feels like the game has to trick you to provide any challenge, and that’s not a good feeling. This manifests in a few ways: the fuzzy filter that’s thrown on the screen during a multiplier-doubling overdrive, for instance, makes the shadows that precede a laser look like the lasers themselves making them unnecessarily difficult to dodge. Additionally, once you take damage these purple wavy lines start coming out of your ship, which look nearly identical to black holes that can hurt you. This results in a game that’s fun enough on lower difficulties but doesn’t scale well at all on the harder end of the spectrum. That’s unfortunate, because a lengthy challenge mode included with the game could’ve provided hours of extra play time if the gameplay itself had any staying power.
In addition to standard DualShock 3 controls, you can also plug in a Guitar Hero or Rock Band guitar. I initially thought this method of playing the game would be easier — after all, if you have to switch from the bottom to top lane on the controller, you have to hit down four times versus just one button on the guitar. However the guitar controller doesn’t work for an absurdly simple reason: in Guitar Hero, the lanes are vertical, and thus easy to mentally match to the horizontal buttons. The lanes in Retro/Grade are horizontal, which adds yet another mental translation step to the process when your brain will already be occupied with cutting through the visual clutter to see the notes you need to hit. Additionally most note patterns are tuned for the controller regardless, with notes never more than one or two lanes apart, so it makes any potential advantage of the guitar moot. I practiced with the guitar until I could beat songs on the hardest difficulty but I never had more fun with it than a simple controller.
Despite a few stumbles in gameplay, chiptune fans should check this game out for the soundtrack alone. The music in the game is written by Skyler “Nautilis” McGlothlin and stays true to his previous style: extremely fragmented, sketchy electronica with punchy breakbeat percussion. Perhaps owing to the retro stylings of the game, the soundtrack mixes in a lot of chiptune elements, and even include the distinct chirping of the Commodore 64-style SID chip.
I want to like Retro/Grade, I really do, but I can’t. 24 Carat did a great job building content on top of an original game concept, and I respect the hell out of them for that. Only problem is that novelty doesn’t make the game concept really workable, and thus you get a jumble of mechanics that partially invalidate themselves. If you’re a rhythm game beginner with a hunger for colorful visuals and glitchy chiptunes, you’ll get your money’s worth out of Retro/Grade. Otherwise, you’ll wind up more frustrated than challenged.