It's funny how games can sneak up on you out of nowhere, after lingering so long in development hell that you wonder if they'll ever find a release. Not only did we get the much anticipated (but nearly forgotten about) Xbox Live Arcade game Dust: An Elysian Tail (by the way, read our review, it's fantastic), but next week, we'll finally be getting the oft-delayed Retro/Grade, which has made numerous appearances at game conventions, but has been given a general shrug by its developer, 24 Caret Games, when it came to release info. So now that it's hitting the finish line, how is it? Very good, actually…provided you have the mettle to tackle its challenges.
The game takes an interesting approach. At first glance, it resembles a side scrolling shooter, not unlike R-Type Dimensions or Gradius V. However, it actually starts at the end of the game, when you destroy the final boss and get ready to ride into the sunset. Out of nowhere, a time warp hits, and you find yourself going backwards, needing to absorb the bullets you fired – while watching out for enemy attacks that are incoming rather than slipping past you the other way – in order to complete the level. Screw up too much, or get hit way too often, and you'll fail the level.
Retro/Grade plays more like a music/rhythm game than a shooter, though it does have "shmup" elements that will be a draw for fans of that genre. You move along a series of tracks, absorbing bullets from the right hand side while dodging incoming fire from the left hand side, which returns to the alien ships that fired them. Starting off on an easy level, you'll notice only two tracks to choose from, but bump up the difficulty and you'll see more lanes, as well as a lot more gunfire and even a few black holes, which take a bit of skill to avoid.
We won't lie, the gameplay does really ramp up in later stages, requiring you to be at your Sunday best to get through them. However, the controls you can choose from are two-fold, and both options are superb. Using the PlayStation Dual Shock 3 controller, you can move around your ship with ease and tap buttons to absorb bullets and lasers, while occasionally activating a score booster or backing up time (given you have the right amount of fuel) to forego a mistake. However, the real fun comes with using a guitar peripheral – Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Retro/Grade supports 'em all – and hitting buttons as you play along with the music. This is surprisingly addictive, and a great reason to drag your old controllers out of the closet.
Once you beat the main mode (which will only take a bit of time, depending on difficulty), you'll unlock a Challenge Mode, where you can play the stages again with certain rules that apply. And while that's not the most extensive replay add-on we've seen, it'll keep players coming back for more, trying to snag every power-up and get a perfect backwards score as they can. Retro/Grade also supports online leaderboards, so you can see where you stand with fellow players. Very cool.
This game does have a limited soundtrack, consisting of only 14 songs (and no support for other ones, like Rock Band Blitz will provide), but it's a really cool get-together of tunes, consisting of techno and rock beats that really motivate you to keep playing. There aren't many sound effects, but that just means more room for the music to flow. Fine by us.
As for the graphics, they're delightful. The lighting effects provided by each of the tracks and shots are splendid to watch, even if the screen does overflow with them. The ships and backgrounds are well-fitted for the "shmup" genre, and we kind of like how the pilot of your craft bobs his head back and forth to the music. Rock on, dude.
Even if you've kind of gotten over the music/rhythm genre – or you don't think you have the chops to take on the hardest difficulty – Retro/Grade is a game that's sure to change your mind. The idea is genuine and novel, the gameplay addictive (and, if it gets too tough, you can tone down the difficulty to an easier level), the leaderboards filled with participants, and the presentation alive and kicking. It may have taken its sweet time to graduate, but there's no question this batch of Retro deserves a passing Grade.