A rhythm game disguised as a side-scrolling shooter, or a side-scrolling shooter that plays like a rhythm game, Retro/Grade brings a refreshing twist to the Guitar Hero note catching gameplay that has long since worn thin for most people. As the cheeky Rick Rocket you begin the game at the end as you fire the last bullet into a formidable robot and save the galaxy from certain doom, only to plunge into a time vortex mere seconds later. Now you have to move backwards in time undoing your past deeds in order to keep the time continuum in tack (and more importantly Rick's reputation).
Lucky for you it seems Rick and the enemies he fought have a musical mind about them and have timed every shot and movement to the notes of songs, which is where you come in. For anyone who's played a Guitar Hero, Rock Band, or Dance Dance Revolution game this is going to feel right at home. Color coded bullets and obstacles come at you from the side of the screen, and you need to hit them in time with the beat and melody of the song to clear them. Where Retro/Grade differentiates itself is that while you are clearing your own notes (read: bullets) you also need to be dodging the enemies attacks as well, which range from lasers to giant robot legs to maze like bullet patterns and more. It's hard to truly understand just how it works until you've played it yourself, but it's the sort of idea that is so inherently brilliant that it makes you wonder how no one came up with it before.
Retro/Grade's soundtrack is atypical of the games it emulates,. A collection of electro tracks with a serious groove to them, full of catchy riffs and fantastic breakdowns, it's impossible not to bob your head to the beat along with Rick. And what music game is complete without flashy epilepsy inducing visuals? The presentation on the whole is top notch, and the little details like the way enemies reconstruct themselves as you fly backwards and bullets suck themselves back into the barrels they came from add a lot of character.
I do have one major problem, and that is there is both too much and too little here. There are only ten tracks to play, which while I wouldn't say any are bad, even the best songs become tiresome after you have heard it twenty times over a few hours. I also felt that the actual tracks dragged on longer than I would have liked, which is made worse by the repeating backgrounds going on behind you.
Going through story mode will likely take you under an hour to complete, but what is irritating is that you can't raise your difficulty without starting over from the first stage. There are challenge levels which unlock after you have completed the campaign, but here the repetition of the soundtrack becomes hard to ignore as there are dozens of challenges to complete all utilizing the same pool of songs. Had the existing tracks been cut short and a few more added I would have likely completed a lot more of them, but after a while I began to resent the game for making me replay what felt like the same stage again and again.
Because of the short tracklist it is a bit hard to recommend Retro/Grade at full price, but at a discount it is definitely something worth checking out. The basic ideas are very clever and I found it a lot of fun despite lacking much staying power. Although my preferred way to play was with an old guitar controller, you can certainly manage with either a controller or keyboard (albeit on lower difficulty settings), and each provides an interesting dynamic. If you were among the many who lamented the decreased innovation and change in the Guitar Hero games but never quite got sick of basic gameplay you will likely find Retro/Grade to be a very pleasant surprise.