Aww yeah, baby, time for the Summer Spotlight.
Since the year of 2008, Microsoft have made summer a showcase for the cream of the crop to come out and wow the crowds. First came the XBLA Summer of Arcade, which spawned some brilliant titles like Braid, LIMBO, Bastion and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Now it’s simply called the Summer Spotlight, which sounds boring, but has the same goal in mind.
From now until the end of August, we’re going to be seeing more hits from the boys who don’t have Activision as a publisher and frankly, I cannot wait. Wuppo, Cyber Complex, Super Cloudbuilt, Tacoma, Circuit Breakers, >observer_, Dead Alliance, Life is Strange: Before The Storm and Killing Floor 2, are just a few that come to mind. But, let’s start at page one with GRIDD: Retroenhanced.
The first subject on the table is a bite-sized shoot ’em up/endless runner, coming to us from Antab Studio, an Italian studio of three who’ve made some perfectly niche treats as of late, with Smashell and GRIDD probably being their strongest releases. Here we have a straight up, no-frills retro blast of shoot ’em up joy with execution being the main objective here.
You play a hacker, hacking through the hacking hacks which hack the hacks that hack hackers through hacking hacks which hack hacks for hacking hackers. It’s 80s nostalgia meets a modern-day edge of searing quality, and it reminds me of the movie Hackers starring Angelina Jolie with a little taste of Far Cry: Blood Dragon coming from the aesthetic, which we’ll get to.
Your ship, the U.S.S. Hacker, is on an endless valley to victory, hacking everything from computers to TVs, I imagine. However, one rogue A.I. programme is hot on your heels, ready to zap your ship to pixels for disrupting his beauty sleep. Along the way, his A.I. minions and purple lasers will also be trying their best to thwart your efforts.
It’s a sub-standard story which doesn’t matter in the least, what matters here is how it plays, and it plays really smoothly, for the most part. Combat feels and sounds awesome, the upgrades are simplistic but to-the-point, with them feeling like they do cut a firefight in half the time it would usually take, and the enemy varies enough to employ different skills at different times.
There’s one thing I can really do without though, and that’s the screen shake. I wouldn’t mind it that much if we were on a 2D plane à la the Cave shooters of yesteryear, like DoDonPachi and Deathsmiles, for reference. But you’re practically playing a third-person shooter with these metallic black snakes rolling around the Internet highway, yelling loudly and blasting your ship. It’s a cluster of synthwave that’s a barrage on the eyes as well as the ears. But it’s what it offers for the senses that are its strongest quality.
The neon-tinged and smoky visual elements of GRIDD is what gives a lot of the charm for me, the beauty of the glitched environments and the battles that take place are so full of jaw-dropping spectacle and awe that it’s hard-pressing to find another title with the same look that provides just as much of a “goddamn, this looks great” moment.
The soundtrack also deserves high praise as well, courtesy of the SoundCloud user known as “Dream Fiend”, an Australian Synthwave artist who has created an audible treat. The bass-bumping intro of “Access” and the atmospheric “Awaken” are the highlights, making you bump your head and tap your feet along with the gameplay. However, the game seems to be built around the soundtrack instead of the other way around.
This radical theory of mine is boosted by the existence of Spectra, a 2015 twitch racing game which had little content but was bolstered by a sublime soundtrack by the chiptune artist Chipzel. The game itself was as dull as dishwater, but the album attached to it was one of the best of 2015. The title track, “Beyond The Cosmos”, “Veteran” and “Sunday” were the standouts that showed that Chipzel is master of the chiptune craft.
Spectra cost around $6, and that’s a bargain for an 11 track album. So the real question is “is GRIDD: Retroenhanced, with a price tag of $12, worth my time as an album as well as a game?” Well, no. There’s only four tracks Dream Fiend has created for this title, and while they’re solid bangers, they’re also rather short, with only one of them lasting longer than 3 minutes. This practically makes GRIDD a game that comes as a bonus to an electrifying EP.
Really, length is the blast to the virtual kneecap that keeps GRIDD at being a bite-sized bundle of fun for one playthrough rather than something I want to keep coming back to. The screen shaking battles with a computer god and lack of visual variety makes GRIDD come across as more of a snack, instead of the full course I believed it was going to be.
Aside from the main story mode, “Arcade”, there’s not much to dwell on. There’s an endless mode that you unlock upon completion of Arcade, but that’s more of the same with no arbitrary end. In the end, I won’t say the experience was wasted, since Antab have created a beautiful visual adventure through the ethernet cables and ADSL ports of old, but there’s a lot here that could’ve been improved upon, even moreso when you consider the price tag of $12.
So, if you’re looking for a quick neon blast of joy, then by all means, grab yourself GRIDD: Retroenhanced, and see what Dream Fiend hypnotic score takes you. The price tag might scare you off but that’s what sales are for.
This is a superbly crafted EP with infectious, head bouncing beats. It's a shame that the game that came with it offers nothing.