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Retro/Grade preview: Rock your brain off

Justin McElroy

I set down the guitar controller and start walking back through the layers.

I'm sitting at the PAX booth of 24 Caret Games, taking my first spin behind the frets of Retro/Grade, which has one of those great premises that only a video game could really do justice to. As ace spaceship pilot Rick Rocket, I've done it again: I've saved the galaxy by defeating the horrific final boss. The credits begin to roll and it's only then that I realize that, somehow, as a byproduct of this victory, all of space and time has come to an end. I do the only thing I know how to do, I reverse the flow of time, intercepting the shots I once fired and sucking them back up into my ship.

This is where I, the player, take over. Unfortunately, as the level unprogresses, I miss unfiring too many of my shots and get hit by too many enemy bullets I dodged the first time. I get a game over screen, but I don't see the end credits I saw at the beginning/end, but rather the real "Game Over." Only, it's not literally Game Over, since my ship is equipped with a Retro/Rocket that lets me unreverse the flow of time and unmiss the shots I originally made so I can unmake them correctly.

I notice my right temple has begun to throb.

Though the idea of the game is pretty far out there, the play is fairly simple, if unconventional. Using the colored fret buttons on the guitar, I leap Rick between different colored rows of shots, flipping the strum bar to suck bullets back up. The only other thing I have to worry about is dodging the shots coming at me from the left of the screen (I guess technically I'm re-dodging them, but we're trying to keep it simple). If I make too many mistakes, I depress the whammy bar, which lets me take another pass, even if my errors have resulted in a game over screen. Here, you probably just need to see it in action:

Though the shots are timed to the fantastic original soundtrack by Nautilus, it doesn't really feel like a "music game" or any genre I've played before, for that matter. In fact, 24 Caret co-founder Matt Gilgenbach informs me from beneath his miner's hat that the whole of the game can be played with a standard controller, which is good news for those who buy their instruments on the 360, since (for the moment) Retro/Grade is PSN exclusive.

Besides, the input method is really ancillary. The challenge (and I can think of very few games that accomplish this) is in conceptualizing the action as it happens on the screen. The third paragraph of this preview took me forever to write, and that was just to explain what was happening in the game. Imagine trying to both make your brain understand that and react to it on the fly.

I sit staring at Retro/Grade's pause screen and unravel the layers of what I just played, trying to remember if I'm going forward/back in time or back/forward. However, I'm surprised to find that the rigors my brain has been through feel good, not unlike the feeling of stretching out a sore muscle.

I strap the controller back on and notice that the throbbing has stopped, if only a little.

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