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Retro/Grade review: Time machine music


Retro/Grade is a game about distraction. On a surface level, there's a complicated premise that has you playing a side-scrolling shmup in reverse, avoiding enemy bullets as they return to the back of your ship and rushing to catch the projectiles that your ship fired when time was moving forward. You know, because you don't want to damage the timeline by having a missile shoot out of nowhere.

In practice, however, all that complication belies a very easy to understand rhythm game. Those missiles return to your ship to the rhythm of the song, and you move up and down the screen and catch them. It's kind of Rock Band turned sideways, right down to color coding on the markers.

Gallery: Retro/Grade (7/27/12) | 8 Photos

Having a narrative justification for the rhythmic delivery of icons is something of a coup. It's not really something I would consider possible, but developer 24 Caret Games has created a frame tale for a rhythm game, and it's clever and creative.

The gameplay is easy to understand, but not simple, thanks to another, more mechanical method of distraction. Unlike other rhythm games, while you're watching notes come from one side of the screen and moving to hit them, you also have to watch out for things coming at you from the other side – specifically, enemy bullets that you dodged in linear time.

They come at you from the left of the screen in increasingly complex patterns – and sometimes in bullet-hell style curtains with one convenient blind spot – forcing you to dodge some objects, while deliberately putting others (the notes) in your path. As you might expect, this can very quickly become taxing.

Just how taxed you are depends on a few different things. For one, the difficulty level greatly affects the challenge. The easiest level gives you just two lines to jump between, while the hardest has five distinct rows and dense arrangements of enemy bullets that create a single, narrow path to navigate.

For another, you can choose to use your Guitar Hero/Rock Band guitar for an extra level of complication. Theoretically, this should be easier, since you can just push a fret button to warp to the appropriate vertical position, instead of scrolling down with the d-pad. Personally, I found it to be a lot harder to think about, and very quickly overwhelming. Maybe this calls my musicianship into question, but the guitar controller acted as a distraction from the mechanics. Not an unwelcome one, but a distraction nonetheless. Moving a ship up and down is just different enough from holding a virtual fret that the concept is difficult to grasp.

As a result of all this, I maintained my alertness in a way that I usually don't with music games. There's no sinking into a trance state here; I was constantly vigilant so I wouldn't miss a note sneaking its way through a trail of enemy missiles, occasionally having to use the rewind button – which, of course, in this game, makes time go forward temporarily – to undo a painful mistake, and planning the optimal path through all the obstacles.

Despite all the insanity around the concept – and aside from all the weird "challenge mode" variants, unlockable ships, cute level descriptions, and all the other quirk – Retro/Grade is a well-designed music game with a completely original soundtrack. And that's as rare as a backwards shmup these days.

This review is based on the final version of Retro/Grade for PSN, provided by 24 Caret Games.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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