Retro/Grade is one of the most clever games I’ve played. Disguised as a sidescrolling shmup, Retro/Grade is more Amplitude than it is R-Type, although it requires more specific screen recognition than either, which adds a tiny taste of Ikaruga.
Like most music games, Retro/Grade can essentially be boiled down to catching colored music notes to the beat. There are six difficulty levels and up to five lanes of notes that travel toward the player’s ship. Each note represents a shot that the hero Rick Rocket fired at the Exnorian armada (spoiler alert: he saved the galaxy before you picked up the controller). The catch is that the entire game happens in reverse: Rick’s shots travel from right to left back to his ship while Exnorian shots travel from left to right, returning to their ships of alien origin.
To the uninformed Retro/Grade will look like nothing more than a rainbow of colored gems and explosions, but there’s a singular method to its madness. To rewind Rick’s exploits, catching his shots is the single most, crucial aspect of Retro/Grade’s kaleidoscopic presentation to focus on. If you’re in position to hit each note at precisely the right time you’re safe from all other onscreen distractions because, theoretically, when Rick saved the universe, he dodged all the enemy fire while doing so.
Playing Retro/Grade is both exhilarating and satisfying in the same way that all great rhythm games are, and not so ironically, like most great shmups. The campaign can be finished in almost no time at all but the real meat of the experience crops up when you push yourself to tackle the harder difficulty modes and climb the leaderboards. Sticking with its backward approach, the leaderboards follow Rick’s example, ranking the lowest scores highest, since you’re erasing the points he accumulated being the hero.
At the heart of Retro/Grade is the original soundtrack that pulls players, head-bobbing, into its silly fiction. Most of the tracks are relaxed electronic arrangements, all of which fit the retro sci-fi aesthetic. Synths are layered on top of each track, creating a catchy baseline hook, allowing developer 24 Caret Games, to line up some seriously tricky, high-reflex strings of notes. The soundtrack is incredible, because it provides a calming effect to the sometimes chaotic action on-screen, creating an electronic trance of notes and color. It allows players to zone in on the beat and notes, and zone out from their surroundings.
Channeling a tiny bit of Treasure’s classic, Ikaruga, Retro/Grade requires more visual recognition than the average shmup or rhythm game. In Ikaruga bullets came in white and black, which dictated what ship polarity you wanted to be using at any given moment. Here each lane corresponds to a certain color, much like Rock Band or similar music games, but recognizing those colors is significantly more important because in addition to catching colored notes, you’ll have to avoid a steady stream of color-coded enemy fire and attacks.
Recognizing the colors and identifying the proper lanes can be challenging in the latter stages and on the hardest difficulty levels. Some of the larger, boss-like enemies will even fake players out by feigning attacks over the wrong lane while their weapon flashes a different corresponding color. These moments can be especially frustrating when you need to make split-second decisions and wind up losing your multiplier, but they serve their purpose. The overall importance of color recognition is paramount; see the colors, not the lanes.
Perhaps the most challenging – and thus vexing – part of Retro/Grade is learning to use your fuel, which lets you rewind mistakes (which would technically make it a fast-forward?). Generally fuel should be used as a last resort to salvage a run, meaning once your space time meter (health) has been completely depleted. But re-rewinding time can be remarkably tricky, especially in long sequences of tightly packed notes, because resuming a beat in the heat of the moment is incredibly difficult. This isn’t to say the mechanic is broken, but it’s balanced in a manner that requires its use to be just as precise as normal play.
Beyond the campaign, 24 Caret has done an excellent job maximizing the content on-hand. Though there are only ten tracks, there’s a huge challenge mode comprised of well over 100 stages that task players to complete stages with varying conditions and rule sets, such as 120% track speed or achieve a 10x multiplyer. What makes the challenge mode so compelling is the simple, intuitive galaxy map that players must navigate, complete with branching paths and loads of bonus content that can be unlocked based on stage rankings. The challenge mode offers a great reprieve from low-score chasing in the campaign and lets the developer showcase its sense of humor, which is punctuated with a collection of zany unlockable indie gaming ships.
Until now, Amplitude has been without a doubt my favorite music game, ever. Retro/Grade scratches that very same itch, but its unique marriage of high-concept premise and classic rhythm gameplay make it an all-around more satisfying experience. Its weird blend of influences coalesce into an experience that transcends its parts, creating a title that feels familiar enough for the average rhythm fan, but different enough to be considered on its own merits. Retro/Grade is a seamless mix of concept and execution, an essential entry into the music genre. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll be playing back Rick Rocket’s journey till you’ve gotten the lowest score possible.