Retro/Grade is a rhythm game that’s cleverly disguised as a bullet-hell style shoot ‘em up. It puts you in the role of Rick Rocket, an ace pilot who single-handedly defeats an alien invasion. Unfortunately, the time/space continuum rips apart just after Rick pulled off his stunning victory, and time has begun flowing backward. In order to fix the problem, Rick needs to redo all his feats, but in reverse.
Don’t worry if my explanation of the story doesn’t make sense. It’s paper thin and exists only to provide a justification for the space-shooter aesthetic. Even the developers acknowledge this given the absurd and hilarious text through which the story is told.
Retro/Grade’s heart lies entirely in its rhythm mechanics, which plays almost exactly as you’d expect. You’ll find yourself presented with two to five lanes, depending on the difficulty setting. Beats, representing Rick’s laser fire, travel along these lanes from the right side of the screen in time with the music. Your job is to switch between lanes and press the spacebar when the beat reaches the Rick’s gun. The more accurate you are, the better your score. As with other rhythm games, there’ll also be times when you’ll have to either mash the spacebar repeatedly or hold it down for a length of time.
That’s standard music game mechanics, but Retro/Grade uses its SHMUP aesthetic to provide a twist: while you’re trying to hit your beats, you’ll also have to dodge enemy fire that flies in from the left. On easier difficulties this isn’t too hard, but it gets hectic once you start playing on harder settings. You’ll find yourself dodging between enemy bullets while taking split-second risks in order to get your beats. Playing at Pro difficulty or higher starts to feel just like a bullet-hell SHMUP, with an emphasis on accuracy and reflex, with the added necessity of zoning out and simply feeling the music.
Miss a beat or collide with an enemy bullet and the space-time continuum gets damaged. Too much damage ends the level, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost. Rick’s ship is equipped with a Retro/Rocket, which lets you undo mistakes with the press of a button as long as you have fuel remaining. You can activate the Retro/Rocket at any time, but it’s best to save it for when you need it.
Of course, the core of any rhythm game is the music, which plays a large role in your enjoyment. Retro/Grade offers ten original compositions that fall squarely into the electronic genre. It’s probably safe to say that if you’re not a fan of that kind of music, you’ll want to stay away. However, I strongly suggest that you listen to the game’s soundtrack on Bandcamp to see if you can stand it, because Retro/Grade really is a game worth playing. It’s unique, frantic, and there were times when I experienced sheer bliss while playing.
Story mode is short, being composed of ten levels that can be completed in an hour. The six difficulty settings extend that playtime to six hours, but the real meat of the game is Challenge Mode. Here you’ll play the tracks with one or more special conditions attached. One challenge might require you to attain a specific score multiplier. Another might have the level mirrored so it scrolls left to right instead of right to left. A third might have the song playing at 120% speed.
These special conditions made Challenge Mode my favorite part of the game. They added variety to the proceedings, and that variety kept me coming back for more. What’s more, unlockables are granted after every few levels, which made playing through the challenges even more compelling. Potential unlockables include music for the music player, concept art, cheat modes, and new ships. Normally these kinds of bonuses don’t appeal to me, but in Retro/Grade’s case they add value to the game as a whole. The music player lets you toy around with tracks by mixing two together on a virtual turntable. The concept art is really well-done, and shows how the visual style of the game morphed over time. Finally, the cheat modes can add variety to the story levels when they get stale.
What’s more, the Challenge Mode has a “just one more” element of addictiveness. Because challenges are short, and the rewards get unlocked every few levels, I found it easy to convince myself to keep playing. “Just one more to get this unlock,” I’d think to myself. “This challenge seems interesting, maybe I’ll just play this last one.” But then that last one led into another.
Unfortunately, that addictive quality is also Retro/Grade’s weakest aspect, because the game gets tiring in long doses. Playing for an hour at a time felt right, but I started to burn out during sessions lasting longer than that. The problem is, I frequently felt compelled to play for longer than I wanted to, because “just one more.” I don’t personally hold this against the game, but feel it should be noted anyway.
Retro/Grade is one of the few cross-platform games where I preferred the keyboard over the Xbox controller, simply because I could react faster using the keyboard. Often with the controller, I couldn’t push the stick fast enough to dodge a bullet or get to where I needed to be. This isn’t a fault of the game, mind you, it’s purely an issue with my reflexes when using the controller.
There are two different control styles: Rhythm and Shooter. Rhythm has you selecting lanes with the 1-5 number keys, while Shooter has you using the arrows to move from one lane to another. I personally preferred Shooter over Rhythm, but the harder difficulty levels—where you have to move between four or five lanes—are slightly easier with Rhythm controls. If you have a guitar peripheral connected to your computer you can also play with that, but I don’t own one, so couldn’t test it.
Conclusion—Is It Worth The Money?
Retro/Grade costs $10 and, yes, it is very much worth the money. The rhythm gameplay is solid and, on higher difficulty levels, nicely captures the frantic split-second decision feel of a SHMUP. The story is flimsy, yes, but funny and well-written. The Challenge Mode is robust and offers many hours of enjoyment for your gaming dollar.