Retrograde motion is defined as “the motion in the direction opposite to the movement of something else.” If you were to implement this into a rhythm game, how would you do it? Should you ask a room full of developers, you would be bound to get a room filled with varying results, but perhaps one of the most unique approaches would be that of the LA-based developer 24 Caret Games.
Rhythm-based games were all the rage a few years ago, but recently have seen a decline in popularity, which can largely be attributed to the oversaturation of the market in such a brief period of time. Along comes Retro/Grade, which promises to shake things up by implementing a pleasant blend of gameplay elements and meshing together genres to create an enjoyable experience, and one that completely caught us by surprise at PAX East.
I played with the Playstation 3 controller, using the D-pad to move up and down, and the X button to gather my projectiles. Armless Octopus EIC, Mike Wall chose the guitar peripheral which seemed to work just as well.
My initial impression of this game led me to believe that it was a shmup, as it opened with the ending portion of a boss battle in which I only needed to fire a few shots before the ship catapulted off screen and burst into an assortment of exploding parts. A faux list of credits quickly descended across the screen before coming to a halt, violently reversing direction, and undoing everything I had just witnessed.
My ship began to fly backwards and enemies appeared on screen occupying one-of-four distinct horizontal tracks, each representing a different button on the controller or guitar peripheral (should you prefer to use that). At its core, Retro/Grade is a rhythm game played in reverse. Enemies I previously destroyed are being drawn on screen and my projectiles are returning to my ship. The catch, however, is that I have to precisely time my button presses so that they align with the moment they were fired from my own vessel.
As if that wasn’t enough, I soon had to deal with attacks coming from behind me that were the enemies’ missed shots returning to their ships. With my spider sense tingling, I dodged along the four horizontal planes to simultaneously avoid my attackers while collecting my own rounds. It would be an understatement to say that the screen was covered in chaos on several occasions. At times I found this to be distracting, but fortunately 24 Caret Games saw to this and implemented a time reverse (forward?) mechanic to alleviate some of my mistakes. At any time I could hit the square button to undo time, thereby playing the game forward, in order to attempt the area again. In total, I was limited 10 seconds of time, or 10 presses of the button (whichever came first).
The attention paid to the detailed environments is staggering, as I commonly found myself staring into the background [Ed. note: maybe you wouldn't have to rewind so much if you weren't staring into the backgrounds] watching trains progress over a monorail system, or lighting within buildings bump to the bass of the techno soundtrack. A brilliant assortment of particles imploded (it’s in reverse, remember?) both in front of, and behind me, all the while maintaining a silky smooth 60 frames per second at 1080p with anti-aliasing enabled: a first on the PlayStation 3 according to studio co-founder Matt Gilgenbach.
Retro/Grade’s story begins way back in 2008 when its founders left High Impact Games and started up their own company. “After the economic crash in 2008, publishers were wiping their slates clean, and we figured we wanted to do our own thing,” said Gilgenbach. While working on a debug version of a standard rail shooter, they implemented a way for players to move backward for testing. “One of the programmers said ‘It would be cool if there was something you could do when time was in reverse,’” said Gilgenbach, “[We] figured it wouldn’t works as a rail shooter, so [we] came out with a rhythm game. ”
In the end, Gilgenbach’s statement “Everything is the opposite of what you would expect,” holds true. My initial impressions were thrown through a loop by the time I set the controller down, as I had never witnessed such a distinct combination of genres, especially one with the grace and fluidity of Retro/Grade. You too, can become familiar with this rhythmic experience, and all 10 of its stages, when it hits PSN this summer.