PAX Prime 2010: Retro/Grade
Retro/Grade as a concept isn’t something easily described. Think of the flawless run through any side-scrolling shooter stage, only you’re playing that perfect run in reverse, and it’s a rhythm game. Essentially you pilot your ship to the origin points of shots your ship fired during that perfect run, which are now scrolling from right to left toward you, since the level is played in reverse. Now, throw in the shots fired by your enemies, which advance from left to right returning to their origin points, and you have a rough blueprint of how Retro/Grade operates.
Despite the shmup exterior, Retro/Grade is a rhythm game through and through. Every shot you catch arrives on one of five lanes that the screen is divided into, which you can freely scroll between. Each row has a color association and every shot is timed to the games beat. When the shot arrives at the front of the ship you press a button to ‘un-fire’ it. Successful chains of undos lead to combos and multipliers like many rhythm games, while failed notes deal damage and reset your combo. Once you’ve wrapped your head around this intentionally backwards premise you’ll realize Retro/Grade has more in common with Amplitude than it does R-Type.
During my time with Retrograde I had no trouble adjusting to the idea of catching my own projectiles, but once the enemy shots started to return from the left I was thrown for a loop. I can’t think of a single game where I’ve ever had to dodge attacks advancing exclusively from the left, as games have always traditionally moved from left to right, but Retrograde throws that all out the window as you rewind from right to left. The combination of chaining notes from one direction and avoiding obstacles from the other requires a high level of alertness but is extremely rewarding.
If a particular section screws you up, you can rewind a small portion of the stage, which would technically be a fast-forward – think Prince of Persia. Essentially it equates to a do over, which you can only use so many times as it depletes a meter. It’s a handy tool as Retrograde, like many other rhythm games is built for perfect runs and high-scores, and the rewind should alleviate some of the frustrations associated with the occasional missed note. Additionally it should help ease newer players into the higher difficulties, which is where games of this nature usually tend to shine.
Probably the most surprising – or ingenious – feature is the ability to play with one of those infernal plastic guitars we all seem to own. The rows have been cleverly color coded to match the iconic fret buttons of both Guitar Hero and Rock Band fame. I chose to play on a pad as I tend to swing towards Harmonix’s earlier work, but developer 24 Caret seemed to have an internal struggle among employees over which control scheme was better. Either way, another reason to actually put those silly peripherals to use is a welcome one.
By the time I had rewound my way through Retro/Grade’s demo I had undone 92% of the havoc committed and felt wholly satisfied; there aren’t many games like it and no game dares to wrap the same simple, addictive gameplay into such a wholly original premise. Retro/Grade is a game to watch and a bright spot on the PlayStation Network’s calendar for early 2011.