Review: Retro/Grade

RetroGrade

Looking at a few screenshots, and possibly even a trailer, for this PSN downloadable, one might think to themselves that it is a modern take on traditional side-scrolling shooters like R-Type or Gradius.  After all, there is a little ship with a guy in it and he is blasting away at enemy ships, avoiding fire and dodging out of the way of bullets and laser beams.  Typically anyone who has played a lot of games can peg a genre from one image, but not always. 

Let me be as clear and succinct as I can possibly be on this: this is not a shooter.  Retro/Grade takes the trappings of these kinds of games and throws them onto a new music game.

Retro/Grade is exactly like R-Type or any other side-scroller from a setting perspective: a little ship kills the big boss and then the credits roll.  Except here, that all happens in the first ten seconds of the game and then a space time distortion causes time to reverse, the credits unroll and the final shots destroying the evil robot overlord emerge from his pitted metal shell and the bullets are sucked up by the little ship. (Thankfully all of this intro is skippable should you decide to replay the first level as it is not as clever the second time around.) Things progress in this fashion, backwards, until the start of the journey is reached.

The goal of the game is to get the lowest score by absorbing fire and avoiding enemy shots.  The soundtrack provides a beat and the shots come along distinct, color-coded track lines, and it is your job to put the ship on the correct track and unfire the bullet when it comes back from where it would have been shot had time been going forward.  The easiest way to envision this in the context of another music game is to imagine the note tracks in Guitar Hero or Rock Band (or even the earlier Frequency).  Make all the gems that come down the line into colored bullets and the single fret that needs to be pushed down is the ship, and you’re there. 

All while moving along the tracks absorbing the myriad notes/shots, the tiny ship will reverse its way to the beginning of the level and the level’s trippy song will play. Enemy carriers, fighters and other alien space craft will all unexplode as the shots that lead to their doom before the Big Crunch began are unfired.  All of this is window dressing as the thing that matters the most is watching for bullets/notes that come from the right side of the screen and adapting to the pattern.  It is the opposite of horizontal shooters as here you actually want to be in the path of the bullets coming from the right.

If it wasn’t enough to have to play along with the music from the right, the enemies are absorbing their own shots.  This means that from the left side of the screen the traditional spreads and random shots from starfighters will come on the same tracks the music–bullets are on.  When time was running forward, these shots missed the player ship (if they hadn’t, it would have been shot down before it got the chance to kill the final boss at the beginning of the game) and so when time is reversed, they have to be avoided.  Whenever something conflicts with the space time continuum and players allow something to happen that clearly did not –  a shot/note missed, enemy fire not dodged – the ship’s health will decrease until the universe just can’t take the little aberration any more and winks it out of existence.  If this should happen, the little space boat can hit its Retro Rockets, if it has the fuel, to briefly move forward in time to undo the inconsistencies.  This is all a tad complicated to explain, and probably to read, but it is fairly intuitive once you have a controller in hand.

There are six difficulty settings and as is the case with most music games, the higher the setting, the more tracks that must be covered and the more notes that must be “played”.  While playing this game in no way feels like playing an instrument, even less so than those that come with plastic facsimiles, it does seem like there is a bullet for every note on the scale of tracks at the highest setting. Unfortunately, it is not a very fun game to play when the anti-time epic is at its hardest.  It is expected that the game throws a lot of notes out to hit and even more enemy fire to avoid, and it would also be expected that this would mean that you have to enter commands with a high degree of precision and practice to get through a level, but the controls show their shortcomings the more note tracks there are.  The ship can only move up and down the parallel note tracks, but it cannot go around from highest to lowest or warp from one track to another.  Meaning that if you just unfired a bullet at the bottom of the screen, it is going to be difficult to quickly get to the top. 

This is not like a game with a toy guitar in which your fingers can hit any combination of the buttons they want, effectively teleporting all over the place.  The inability to skip around is complicated by the way the ship switches on the tracks.  The game is easiest to play with the d-pad, tapping up or down to switch lines, and if you are not precisely hitting the minimum number of taps to go one way or the other, then you’ll likely run into shots that were avoided before the game began.  When the tracks multiply to fill the screen, this means that you will be tapping up and down a lot.  Way more than is comfortable or fun.  Answering the pinnacle of this game’s challenge is a draining and thumb-straining experience.

To be fair, Retro/Grade does support guitar controllers.  But this is not clear from the menus.  Equally unclear is a message that this is the better way to go through the game when you amp up the challenge.  If you have a novelty controller cluttering up your life, certainly break it out for this game.  If you don’t, just be aware there might be some problems down the line.

At the higher settings it is difficult to notice the backgrounds and enemies because you will be so focused on the bullet notes and getting the patterns rights.  This is unfortunate because the game looks great.  All of the levels are variations on classic space shooters of yore, containing asteroid fields, alien bases, and A New Hope style trench runs, and they are highly detailed and colorful.  When pausing the game everything looks less sculpted, but when it is all blasting past at a third of the speed of light, in reverse, it is hard not to be impressed.  There is not a great variety in the enemies, but as they almost always merely unexplode and move off screen, you will not have time to get bored with the rank and file.  The ones that hang around are distinct and colorfully telegraph their moves so that you can keep the mix going.

The music is a mix between chiptunes and electronica.  The major themes and melodies are repetitive and clearly inspired by the sounds of gaming yore, but there is enough variety and beat alteration to make things sound modern.  Some might put this entirely within the chiptune camp, music that emulates the sounds that the NES would have made, but as there are synthesizers and multiple channels/layers going on, I’d say that “chiptune inspired” would be more accurate.  There are only ten full-length songs and, as one could expect with any album, some of them are particularly catchy and others are forgettable.  Most of the songs I liked the best happened to be easier from a gameplay perspective.  This is a disappointment as this means that replaying them, even on the highest setting, is not very challenging.  On the other hand, maybe I only liked them more because they kicked my ass less.  It is hard to be objective about such a subjective experience.

When each level is completed the game will automatically tell you just where you stack up in terms of having the lowest score (it’s all backwards, so that is the goal).  I don’t know if it is possible to get a score of zero if you play perfectly on a level at its hardest, mostly because I am not that good at this game.  Eventually with only ten tracks it is likely that even the most diehard, trippin’ spacer would get bored.  Thankfully, there is a Challenge mode that takes these levels and offers over 100 challenges.  All of these are the same levels as featured in the “campaign”, but there is some variation on the gameplay thrown in.  Maybe the game displays a mirror image, maybe none of the tracks are color coded, or maybe you have to complete the level perfectly.  Different rule variations and all of the difficulty levels will add up to playing the same songs over and over again.  How much someone might want to do that will greatly depend on how much they like the sounds coming out of their television.

A lot of people love Earl Gray tea. Not as many like chai. As great as a particular brew of chai might be, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. If you’ve never played a music game, or never played one without licensed music, you may need to sip a taste of this brew before buying a whole box. Fortunately a demo version is available for this very reason. But with the challenge mode and multiple levels of difficulty, anyone into music games should have plenty to do whilst unsaving the galaxy. The game has a neat concept and it is well executed. It probably would have been simpler to go with less detailed visuals, but the developer clearly put in a lot of effort to create something amazing from both a visual and sound perspective. If you are the type of player that likes the idea of playing through songs, then Retro/Grade is definitely a game that you should travel back in time to when you were in the PlayStation Store and didn’t buy this game. Enough Retro Rocket fuel will allow you to correct the mistake of not playing it sooner.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Treat for the eyes and ears
+ Fun use of time to change up an old standard

Cons:
- Limited number of songs
- Controller-only interface limitations become clear at higher levels

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation 3 via PSN
Publisher: 24 Carat Games
Developer: 24 Carat Games
Release Date: 8/21/2012
Genre: Music/Rhythm
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by developer

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.