Rick Rocket has valiantly saved the planet from an alien invasion, but in vanquishing the encroaching horde's space battalion our hero has unwittingly disrupted the space-time continuum. In Retro/Grade you are tasked with reenacting Rocket's deep space exploits, only in reverse, in order to undo the damage to the cosmos and restore balance to the universe.

Retro/Grade is a rhythm action game built around the visual cues of a horizontal space shooter, and involves lining up your ship with the bullets it has fired as time flows in reverse. In allowing players to use either the SIXAXIS or guitar peripheral, the title adds a dose of versatility to piloting your vessel. 24 Caret Games' debut title is headed to the Playstation Network, and PAX Prime attendees will be among the first to give it a test drive, care of indie game designer Matt Gilgenbach.

Swing by PAX booth 3008 and keep an eye out for the miner's cap. Those with the top five scores using the guitar peripheral and Dualshock 3 wireless controller will be mentioned in the game's credits.

How did you first get in contact with Retro/Grade’s composer Skyler McGlothlin?

Matt Gilgenbach, 24 Caret Games: I’ve been a huge fan of Nautilus, his electronic music project, for many years. A couple years ago he was selling CDs through his website and we started a correspondence. It turns out it has always been his dream to do videogame music, and so when 24 Caret Games got started, we began talking about what kind of tracks would work really well with this gameplay.

Was it difficult finding music that could function well within the framework of the reverse-time mechanic?

That was one of the big questions starting out. "How will his music fit within the context of a music game?" One big problem with a lot of music games is you encounter tracks on the medium difficulty setting that turn out to be a lot harder than others on difficult. We’ve successfully imposed limits on the tempo and beats in each track such that it will provide a nice difficulty curve as you progress.

How did the reverse time mechanic of Retro/Grade emerge?

The origin of Retro/Grade came from the debug mode of a demo I was putting together. It was a rail shooter, where you could back up to repeat sections, making it easier to design. My design partner said it would be neat if we had that as part of the game. That was around when the downturn hit and developers started reducing their publishing slate, which made us decide to take a step back and think about what we could publish ourselves. We wanted something doable that would also stand out in the marketplace. I was drawn to this idea of playing a shooter in reverse, with lots of effects and implosions. It gives the game a visual flair that I feel is lacking in a lot of rhythm titles.

At what point in the process did you decide to use the guitar peripheral?

That was actually an idea that came to me pretty early on. I realized we would probably have to time the game to music for it to work in reverse, so that you can push the absorb button at the right time when shots are re-entering your ship. To position your ship arbitrarily would be kind of difficult, so I thought we could constrain it to lanes. That worked really well and made it possible to keep the positioning to five lanes for use with guitar peripherals. We’re now working on making the guitar and SIXAXIS equally fun ways to control the game. It became clear showing the game off at IGF that there are people who want to use the guitar and people who are more comfortable with the gamepad.

The guitar ties in the musical properties of the rhythm action genre. How have you gone about making it fun to play with the SIXAXIS?

There are actually two ways of playing the game with the gamepad. You can play it so that the buttons are an analog to the functions of the guitar, where you can jump to any lane. My personal preference is more of a shooter scheme, where you move your ship up and down and can fire. A lot of thought and consideration has been given to how long it will take someone to move from one lane to another if they’re using the guitar versus the gamepad.

Now that the game is headed to Playstation Network, has that determined specific design decisions?

We're taking advantage of the graphical performance that the Playstation 3 provides. The game runs at full 1080p, 60 fps, with anti-aliasing.

As an independent developer capable of setting your own schedule, do you ever encounter difficulties imposing deadlines?

From a motivational standpoint, it can be difficult to work on something that is entirely self-financed and published. You are afforded freedoms that you wouldn’t have while working on a triple-A title. Retro/Grade will be released “when it’s done,” and I’ve never had that liberty on any of the retail titles I’ve worked on, which all had a drop-dead date. There was always a point where contractually we had to finish. That cut-off point has a detrimental effect on the quality of the project, but on the flip-side, here it’s difficult to call anything “done” or “good enough.” The greatest difficulty we’re encountering is calling things finished, which is an invitation for Duke Nukem Forever syndrome.

What would you say was the biggest factor in convincing you to move from triple-A game development to creating your own indie game studio?

I’m still not entirely convinced it was the right move to make! To some extent it was about following my dreams and being able to work on the kinds of games that I wanted to work on. There are a lot of great games out there, but I can’t really identify a developer that I would feel really passionate about joining. As an independent publisher, working on the game that I want to make inspires me. It makes the work a lot more fun and more fulfilling.

Images courtesy of 24 Caret Games. To find out more about Retro/Grade, visit the 24 Caret Games website. Photo by Jeriaska.