Retro/Grade review

Have you had your daily dose of exceptional indie games? If not, Retro/Grade (opens in new tab) is required playing – this rhythm/shoot-‘em-up hybrid is easily the most unique use of a plastic guitar peripheral that doesn’t involve licensed music. It might not be for everyone, but we’re certain that you’ve never played anything quite like this game in the past.

It might sound strange, but Retro/Grade starts at the end. Head-bobbing hero Rick Rocket has successfully destroyed the final boss, and the credits roll before you’ve even pressed a button. But the explosion wrought by the main villain’s death rattle causes a tear in the space/time continuum, leaving you with no choice but to reverse your actions and “undo” the events of the game. Unlike indie time-bender Braid (opens in new tab), Retro/Grade doesn’t take this outlandish plot too seriously, and you’ll appreciate the ways it has fun with the goofy narrative instead of foisting walls of prose on the player.

So how exactly does one play through a sidescrolling shooter in reverse? Rick’s ship acts as the base for the universe’s increasingly fragile space/time continuum; you’ll have to dodge incoming enemy lasers from the rear (which are playfully sucked back up into the cannons that shot them), while undoing your own attacks from the front of your ship. The twist is that you’ll be flying along five familiarly color-coded lanes a la popular guitar-centric music games, switching between them with an ordinary controller or a plastic guitar as you weave through incoming fire in tune to the thumping techno rhythms. Each missed “note” feels all the more costly when the very fabric of space and time hinges on your performance.

The graphics will give your eyes the same intense stimulation as games like Geometry Wars: Retro Evolve (opens in new tab)–on the hardest difficulty (aptly named “X-Treme”), a rainbow of pulsating colors fills the screen as you retinas futilely attempt to decide the proper ship placement to dodge incoming lasers and the metal prongs of giant boss robots. It’s these moments that make Retro/Grade feel like a traditional shoot-‘em-up: Training your eyes to parse through the sensory overload of the vibrant, eye-searing onscreen information is essential. But if you’re not one to flirt with giving yourself a seizure, the visual chaos of higher difficulties may completely turn you off.

That’s Retro/Grade’s main offense: once you hit your personal limits of dodging bullets in time to the music, you’ll feel as though your reverse-thrusting rocket has hit a brick wall. Luckily, a tap of Triangle or holding down the whammy bar will temporarily turn time backwards (forwards?), so you can undo mistakes or re-attempt tricky sections at the cost of combo points. You’ll feel like a chrono-god when you nab a “New Low Score!” on a particularly challenging song. Unfortunately, there are only 10 tracks total, none of which are licensed. But don’t let that be a deterrent: The heavy beats and hypnotic synth had us neck-bobbing like Rick himself.

There’s also a vast Challenge mode, laid out like a Mario map, as you tackle themed stages in the hopes of unlocking secret pathways and extras. The difficulty ranges from mundane to insane, and with 130 challenges to conquer, it’ll be awhile before you can safely say you’ve 100% completed the game. You’ll also unlock ships referencing other indie franchises; cruising through space is always improved when you’re piloting a Minecraft or Octodad spacecraft.

If you’re sick of the same old formulas and you’re open to some indie eccentricity, Retro/Grade is just the trippy time-sink you’ve been looking for – and it’ll finally give your dusty plastic guitars a use past Rock Band (opens in new tab) and Guitar Hero (opens in new tab). Fans of bass-heavy beats and slick space-age visuals will find a lot to love in this psychedelic rhythm gem – just make sure you don’t jump directly into the highest difficulty, lest you frustrate yourself beyond belief.

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