Back in music school, I had the same thought that many a (possibly stoned) music student has had—what if we played famous music, but we played it... backwards ? How would harmony work if chord progressions ran backwards? What insight could we gain into melody, into harmony?
I ran this idea past some of my professors and fellow students, fully aware of how silly it sounded but also thinking that hey, what the hell, this could be interesting. Nothing really came of it—by the time I was a senior, I played a recital same as everyone else—with music that read from left to right, from the top of the score to the bottom.
The new video game Retro/Grade takes that same idea and runs with it. In this game, you read music from right to left. You also play the game backwards—not just from right to left, but rewinding through time.
It's just as cool as it sounds.
Retro/Grade comes to us from 24 Caret Games—it's been in development for a long time—it was a finalist in the 2009 IGF, and won the audience award at IndieCade in 2010. And next week, it finally comes out—next Tuesday, you can buy the game on the PlayStation Network for 10 bucks, or get it with its (very fun) soundtrack for $15.
The setup is as humorous as it is clever: You play as "Rick Rocket," a pilot who has just saved the universe. The game starts with that happening—you are taking on the final boss of the game, a big dumb spaceship. Before you have time to figure out what's going on, you've blown up the ship, and the credits start to roll.
And then suddenly…. a wormhole opens, ripped in the wake of the huge explosion. Rick flies back through time, and is forced to recreate the past note-for note, in reverse, to keep a space/time anomaly from throwing the entire universe out of whack.
24 Caret has done a fantastic job of turning this neat concept into a neat game. As Rick's rocket flies from right to left, he must move himself into the laser-blasts he fired, hitting a button on the controller in time with his shots to match up. He also has to reverse-dodge the laser blasts coming from "behind" (read: in front of, or to the left of) his ship. It's wonderfully disorienting, but once you get the hang of it, you'll get into a groove that feels unlike any other game. And the musical kicker, of course, is that the laser blasts and missiles line up with Skyler McGlothlin's synthy soundtrack.
Retro/Grade can also be played with a Guitar Hero or Rock Band controller, which is something I've yet to be able to do, since believe it or not, all of my plastic instruments are for the Xbox 360. Playing the game with a controller works just fine, though, and it's easy to see how well it would work with a guitar controller.
The rocket moves between a number of lines (or, guitar strings), and the notes come along at a steady rhythm. I still haven't adjusted to the fact that it's moving from right to left, but that's the idea—as enemies "de-explode" from the right, missiles fly back into my guns, and laser beams re-enter my gun, I can't help but laugh through my disorientation. This is a seriously cool game, and one that's absolutely worth your time.