Kickin’ it Old School
Different people enjoy retro games for different reasons. Some people enjoy re-living their childhood. Others think that they represented the pinnacle of gaming culture. And others still might just think that they’re kind of cool. But me? That’s easy; I love me some old-school music. Well, okay, to be fair, I guess music isn’t the only thing that I like about retro gaming. But it’s definitely up there on the list. As much as I love modern-day video game music (and, oh man, do I ever), there will always be a special place in my heart dedicated to the lovingly crafted chiptunes genre and the many beeps and bops that have gone into it. Of course, I’m not the only one out there capable of appreciating this kind of music. There are chiptunes fans all around the world, some of whom love it so much that they’ve dedicated themselves to keeping the genre alive in our current year — and it’s exactly because of people like that that we have a game like Old School Musical.
Old School Musical, simply put, is a love letter to video games past. It attempts — successfully so, might I add — to traverse the history of video games in both sound and spirit by taking players on an interactive journey through the realm of retro. While I’ll admit that it isn’t perfect, it does a good job overall. It’s fun, it’s simple, and, best of all, it will constantly have you shouting (either in your head out or out loud) “oh, I get that reference!” — and isn’t that all that matters at the end of the day, anyway?
A Glitch in Time (It’s Actually Space, But Whatever)
Old School Musical may be all about cool beats and slick tunes, but that doesn’t mean that it’s sans story. OSM features a narrative which follows Tib and Rob — two… I don’t know, sentient quadrilaterals? — who have spent their lives living on a quiet, peaceful island where they are “trained” (it’s more like borderline torture, really) daily by their mother who claims that they heroes destined to save the world — and, what do you know, she was right. One day, Tib and Rob wake up to find their island literally being attacked by glitches, and their loving mother nowhere to be found. Armed with only a cryptic note from mommy dearest and a remote which allows them to jump through dimensions, the pair of four-angled brothers embark on an epic journey through multiple worlds — completely unaware of the evil lurking just around the corner.
I’ll be honest; I wasn’t expecting Old School Musical to have much of a story. And I was expecting it to be a highlight of the game even less. As it turns out, OSM isn’t only a musical journey through gaming history; it’s a narrative one, too! From the frequent and familiar-looking costume changes for Tib and Rob, to the abundance of gaming references — both subtle and overt — OSM‘s narrative ends up being both a humorous and Easter egg-packed one, almost to the point of overshadowing the gameplay itself. That might sound a little backhanded, but I promise you that it’s not. Seriously, the writing was really enjoyable.
Up, Up, Down, Down…
Working in a way that I can only accurately (and very professionally) describe as being “sort of like DDR for your thumbs”, Old School Musical‘s gameplay revolves around the same thing that every other rhythm game revolves around; pressing buttons to the beat of a song. Of course, as any rhythm game vet out there can tell you, it’s a lot harder than it looks. In terms of buttons, OSM doesn’t actually ask of its players all that much. There are only two distinct “input modes” in the game — which focus on either the directional or shoulder buttons — with the two very rarely overlapping, and the game’s UI generally makes it very difficult to mix up which buttons you’re supposed to hit. Personally, I really appreciated this. While I love a challenging rhythm games, it always bothers me when they artificially inflate difficulty by tricking players. The fact that OSM‘s interface is so simplified and direct was definitely nice.
Despite how simplified it looks and feels, Old School Musical, as I’ve already stated, has the potential to become anything but simple. Truthfully, my first run through the entire game (on normal) wasn’t much of a challenge. I was easily landing in the high 90th percentile in terms of accuracy on first playthroughs of each level, and never found myself getting even remotely close to the dreaded “Game Over”. Things started to change once I upped the ante on hard mode, though. OSM‘s harder difficulty provides a nice challenge that, while still a comfortable distance from being the most difficult rhythm game that I’ve ever played, undoubtedly put my rhythmic button-mashing skills to the test. Unfortunately, although an enjoyable run for my money, I did find hard mode to be a little hard (hah!) on my thumbs — a problem which I normally don’t run into with games like this. But hey, that could just be me. We can’t all have thumbs of steel!
Sights and Sounds Abound
“Does it have any music that I would want to listen to on its own?” That’s the first — and most important — question that I ask myself whenever I begin judging a rhythm game. I love music. A lot. And I’m also very, very picky about what kinds of music that I listen to. If a game can throw out a few good tracks that are so good that I just have to have to hunt down the soundtrack, that’s great. But it’s a must for a rhythm game — or at least for a rhythm game trying to wrestle a high review score out of me. Old School Musical was close. But it didn’t quite do it for me. To its credit, OSM‘s music is nice. Its 50+ song playlist is rife with jammin’ chiptune tracks that, while mostly “strictly old-school”, also have a distinctly Anamanaguci vibe about them at times, and are a lot of fun to play through. Still, I never found myself entirely enthralled. There were no levels whose music seduced me like a siren would a sailor, trapping me into a blissfully endless cycle of playing it over, and over, and over again. And that’s really too bad, because it definitely had the potential to do that.
While OSM‘s music may not have entirely made me feel like I was in a re-creation of some of the most iconic old-school games around, the art sure did. Each and every world that Tib and Rob find themselves thrown into are wildly different in terms of aesthetics, and pay an incredible amount of respect to the game that’s being parodied. From side-scrollers like Mega Man and Metal Slug, to isometric JRPGs like Breath of Fire, and even to shooters like Gradius, OSM not only tries to emulate a breadth of iconic retro games, but wildly succeeds. In fact, the art is so good that it’s sometimes hard to stay focused on the actual rhythm-based gameplay. Seriously, I dare you not to look at what’s going on during each level.
What are Ya, Chicken?
Coming standard with the Switch version of Old School Musical is an additional mode known as “Chicken Republic” — and if you ask me, this is where the real challenge begins. For the most part, Chicken Republic works in the same way as its story and arcade mode counterparts and serves up players a heaping helping of entirely new levels (and even some new tracks!) for players to bust a move to. There is one thing that sets Chicken Republic apart from the rest of the game, however (aside from the fact that it revolves entirely around killing chickens). Remember when I complimented OSM for having a clean interface that doesn’t mess with players? Yeah, well, that was thrown out the window. The entire point of Chicken Republic is to mess with players. As you venture through this mode’s poultry-filled world, you’ll come across a number of gimmicks ranging from rotating notes, to a “drunk filter”, to the screen becoming so pixilated that you can’t tell what’s going on at all. Based on my praise of OSM‘s clarity from before, you might think that I’d end up frustrated with Chicken Republic’s shenanigans; but I’m not. This isn’t an artificial inflation of difficulty; this is a mode, made to be played by people who have already beaten the game, that is dedicated to messing with you. It’s silly, it’s fun, and it makes a great (and very lengthy) addition to the game.
Old School Musical the kind of game that knows what it’s going for — and to whom it’s catering — and tries its hardest to deliver the best possible experience that it can. And, while it might not be the next genre-defining rhythm game, but that doesn’t stop it from being good overall. Featuring a generous amount of retro-sounding songs, lovingly crafted nostalgic scenery, and simple, fun, gameplay (and also a lot of chickens), Old School Musical might just be music to your ears if you’re in the market for a quick, musical trip down memory lane.
FINAL VERDICT: 3.5/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC ; Publisher: Playdius, Plug in Digital ; Developer: La Moutarde ; Players: 1 – 4 ; Released: September 13, 2018 ; ESRB: E10+ for Ages 10+ ; MSRP: $12.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Old School Musical given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.