Take everything you know about playing video games and throw it out of the window, because everything about Retro/Grade is backwards. Literally.
While developer 24 Caret Games calls it a shooter in reverse, at its core Retro/Grade is a rhythm game and a darn fine one at that. Innovative mechanics wrapped up snugly in an envelope of head-bopping music and mind-bendingly colourful graphics are the order of the day, defining it as a game that needs a spot on your download queue.
You jump into the cockpit of Rick Rocket, the spaceman who just saved the universe. Unfortunately his heroism caused a temporal anomaly that messed with spacetime, and as a result time is flowing backwards. You’ll be dodging enemy attacks coming from the left of the screen while getting in the way of your own coming from the right to make sure they’re “fired” correctly.
It all sounds very confusing, but in practice it’s much easier to understand. Imagine turning Rock Band sideways, then adding notes coming from the other direction that you don’t want to hit. You’ll be swapping between different “tracks” to manoeuvre around a dazzling lightshow of lasers and missiles, and tapping along with the shots you've fired in the past, which is technically the, er, future. For a genre as cookie-cutter as this, it really helps to make Retro/Grade something memorable and worth checking out.
Having things coming from both directions certainly increases the difficulty. Unlike other rhythm games where you can get comfortable and set your mind to auto-pilot, Retro/Grade will have you white-knuckling your DualShock 3 as you desperately try to keep track of everything going on onscreen. There are six difficulty settings to choose from, and while lower difficulties only have three tracks and are easily manageable, higher difficulties up the number of tracks to five and will have your head spinning. While the difficulty can be frustrating, it’s never cheap – it just requires you to adapt your way of thinking about what the game puts in front of you. There are only ten levels to choose from, so the longevity of the game comes from tackling each level multiple times, improving your skills and familiarity with each attempt.
If you fancy yourself too tough to play with a DualShock 3, guitar controllers are supported as well. While we didn’t feel they enhanced the experience much at all, they add an interesting flavour to the game and it’s always nice to have an excuse to drag out the dusty toy guitars sitting in the closet.
Rhythm games are never praised for their graphical prowess, but Retro/Grade boasts some pretty impressive visuals. The glowing particle effects running rampant are the equivalent of eating Fruity Pebbles cereal with your eyes, and with everything pulsing like an equalizer, it all gets very hypnotic. It’s a great game to play with the lights off and let yourself get lost in. Our favourite little touch is Rick’s head nodding to the music the entire time.
The only real complaint is a very minor one: the black hole obstacles. Occasionally there will be black holes that form around your ship that you must escape, which break the flow of the entire game. Every other movement takes you a fixed distance with one tap, but having to hold a direction to escape the obstacles feels very sloppy and ill-conceived. They don’t show up often, thankfully, so while they are annoying it’s not enough to detract from the experience as a whole.
Retro/Grade is an odd bird, but it’s absolutely something you’ll want to play. Playing the entire game in reverse (and we do mean entire game; your score goes down as you play so you’re literally trying to earn the lowest score possible) is enough to grab your attention initially, but the complex and addictive rhythm mechanics will rope you in for the long haul. Ten levels and six stages of difficulty, including the option to tackle them with a guitar controller, gives you a lot to challenge yourself with. If you’re looking for an innovative take on the rhythm genre, Retro/Grade is your jam.