A driving electronic soundtrack and solid gameplay support – but don't quite bolster – the extremely short-lived Retro/Grade, now available for ten bones on the Playstation Network. A high concept and catchy music make for a simple, solid joy, but a mere handful of tracks repeat through the game's campaign and challenge mode endlessly, and it's not long before this colourful, high-energy game starts to feel a bit boring.
Retro/Grade's key gimmick is that its setup mimics a traditional side-scrolling shooter – not unlike Gradius – played in reverse. The game begins with a credits sequence and the grandiose destruction of the final boss and begins to rewind to the beginning of hero Rick Rocket's daring space adventure. Within that framework is a rhythm game, through and through. You can position Rick's spaceship on two to five different 'lanes,' depending on what difficulty you choose, and it's your job to intercept your own bullets coming down these lanes and press the 'X' button at the right time to swallow them up into your ship, essentially undoing his progress.
You also need to dodge enemy projectiles, which adds a bit of challenge to getting to the right lane in time to snatch your bullets – essentially notes that are always tied to the beat of the song. The explanation is that to keep the space-time continuum in tact, you need to undo your actions exactly as they happened. Basically, you need to time your presses to the rhythm; deviate from the continuum too much, and it's game over.
Outside of this unique conceptual framework, playing Retro/Grade is a familiar and solid rhythm game experience. Weaving through enemy attacks perfectly is pretty rewarding, and sometimes densely spread attacks require you to move your ship in syncopation to the usually simple rhythms you're required to hit. It's all pretty light and breezy, and the focus seems to lie more on enjoying the audiovisual spectacle more than actually challenging you rhythmically, and mostly that was fine by me.
The kaleidoscopic visuals mesh well with the driving electronic tunes, with tons of neon colours and trippy backgrounds permeating the game. The visual trick of enemies reforming themselves as the level rewinds looks good, too. Charge up and use your overthrusters to earn more points, and the visuals amp up to a whole other level of madness. Sadly, the psychedelic presentation can often obfuscate the notes and lanes in such a way that makes seeing your next moves pretty tricky. This is a definite issue, especially in a rhythm game, and pretty well every failure or close call I had with surviving a song came from the graphics' hyperactivity.
Retro/Grade is a good bit of fun during the first couple hours you play it; its problem lies in longevity. There's only ten songs, and after you finish your first playthrough, these songs are used over and over again in the dozens and dozens of challenges that focus on short, increasingly tough goals like playing a song at a faster tempo or hitting a string of notes without missing any. The challenges add some appreciated difficulty to the easy campaign, but the whole endeavour is bottle-necked by such a small selection of music. It wasn't long into the challenge mode that I started to become weary of the same old tunes, and beyond that, there's just not much to do in Retro/Grade. Shame.
Lovingly assembled and enjoyable while it lasts, Retro/Grade is ultimately too meagre a package to be fully recommended. Rhythm game fans will get some mileage out of its solid gameplay and its unique wrapper helps the basic rhythm gameplay feel new, but unless you really fall in love with the presentation, it's tough to see anyone playing it more than a couple hours and essentially playing (and hearing) everything it truly has to offer long before the challenges end.