What We Think
Retro/Grade is a rhythm game disguised as an old-school sidescrolling shooter from 24 Caret Games, an indie studio from California with a really cool-looking website. It’s their first and only title thus far, but you’d never guess based on the high quality of their first outing. From the original music (about an hour’s worth of electronica) to the polished graphics, to the cleverl self-deprecating storyline and level descriptions, it’s clear that this was a labor of love.
If I’ve learned anything from my experience with Retro/Grade, it’s that arcade shooters have a surprising amount in common with rhythm games. That, and I’m not prone to strobe-induced seizures.
To Be Continuum’d
All the way up to the beginning of the tutorial level you could swear you were looking at a new incarnation of Gradius. Without giving away any spoilers, you control a spaceship at a boss fight. Mash away at the buttons, and you win the game effortlessly. Around the middle of the credits rolling, you see the big “reveal”: having destroyed the alien menace, you’ve ripped a hole in the space-time continuum (honestly, though, who hasn’t?) and now must perform all your actions leading up to the (anti-)climactic final battle in reverse, exactly as it had occurred.
And this is how the game explains the rhythm mechanic. In time with the music, you sync up with your own shots by firing the right weapon at the right moment. Depending on the difficulty level, you move across two to five lanes, firing and dodging. In an apparent nod to the genre in which the game disguises itself, you collect power-ups and score multipliers, and you even “fight” bosses, although, true-to-form, the latter generally show up at the beginning of a level.
The more you diverge from time by missing cues, the more you damage the space-time continuum, with predictably terminal results. Happily, should you screw up a section, which you probably will at least once, you can push time forward (or backward, depending on your perspective) and fix what you missed.
Sure enough, Retro/Grade feels like a shooter. After all, it has all the hallmark elements. While you don’t have the same freedom of motion, most shooters, especially bullet-hell shmups, will curtail that anyway simply by filling the screen with so many things you have to avoid that there really is only one place to be. Timing is key, and keeping a cool head when you feel the pace of the game getting away from you is vital to recovering. And, of course, there are spaceships.
And lots of flashing, glittering lights. Lots.
My God, It’s Full of Conflicting Light Sources
The abundance of lights are a bit of an issue, actually; the game is very pleasing to the eye, and the amount of detail and color and light is absolutely mesmerizing. Which is great and all, except that it takes a fair bit of concentration to distinguish between your own shots and enemy projectiles, which are obviously to be avoided. Sometimes, you find yourself having to either ignore the flashing colorful lights and shapes dancing across the screen (good luck with that) and concentrate on your comparatively dull ship or pause every now and then to actually enjoy the graphics.
This is a pretty minor complaint, but for the first few levels I definitely found myself wondering if I was about to go all Pokemon and wind up foaming at the mouth on my floor. There’s a pretty enjoyable psychedelic quality that, nevertheless, can be an impediment to actually playing the game.
Rhythm is a
Although the campaign is a brief 10 levels, there are a larger number of challenge levels, several difficulty settings, and an online leaderboard. Taken as a whole, there’s a fair bit of replayability here. The approachability of the game along with the simple but compelling gameplay makes this pretty easy to recommend. It’s not going to scratch that bullet-hell shmup itch, but if you haven’t played a rhythm game in a while, Retro/Grade provides an intriguing new take on the genre.