We devoted an episode of The MoeGamer Podcast to the idea of “homage” — specifically, games that deliberately adopt both aesthetic and mechanical conventions of titles from the past in order to pay tribute to them.
There are other ways you can show your appreciation and respect for the influence old games continue to have, though, and a powerful means of doing that can be through the use of pastiche and parody.
Old School Musical, a rhythm game from indie developer La Moutarde, very much falls into this category; it may not play like the old-school games it’s paying tribute to — but few could say that it isn’t still a wonderful homage that demonstrates a comprehensive understanding of gaming history from the 8-bit home console era onwards.
“I loved how Space Channel 5 brought a story mode to a genre that is not used to tell stories,” explains developer Francois Bertrand in a post-mortem blog post after the game’s release. “So I started writing some ideas and drawing mockups of two heroes inspired by my brother and I.
“We had a terrible childhood but video games were kind of a shelter for me,” he explains. “I wanted to tell a story about escaping the reality of a small world into all those incredible video game universes I’ve travelled to in my mind. My intention wasn’t to make something really dark like Binding of Isaac. I wanted 8BTM [8-Bit: The Musical, the original name for the project] to be a love letter to retrogaming.”
Right from the outset of Old School Musical, it’s clear that the underlying narrative that drives the game’s structure has been something of an outlet for Bertrand to express himself. We learn early on that the game’s near-featureless white square protagonists known as Tib and Rob are locked in an abusive relationship with their mother, who has been putting them through gruelling “training” on a daily basis since their early childhood.
It’s clear that they despise the matriarch, who is depicted as a white square like them coupled with exaggerated features of over-the-top femininity: large red lips, heavily made-up eyes and, err, bright red knickers, from which she frequently produces various items. But at the same time they also exhibit an all-too-common trait of those who have been abused: an unwillingness or hesitation over letting their abuser go, perhaps out of fear for the consequences, or simply, as in Tib and Rob’s case, that they’ve never known anything else.
A couple of levels in, Tib and Rob find the top-down pixel art world they have known for their whole lives being destroyed by “glitches”, and to make matters worse — or possibly better — their mother has vanished, leaving only a note inviting them to meet her at a tower. Thus the pair finally realise their longstanding dream to flee this world in which they have been trapped, and from hereon begins an adventure through a variety of very different worlds — all of which are clearly inspired by various retro games — to track down their mother and discover the truth behind what is going on.
Thematically, the game’s name is apt; this game very much unfolds like a stage musical, with discrete, self-contained scenes and episodes that contribute to an overall, overarching narrative. It blends what could be quite heavy and emotional themes with an accessible touch of light-heartedness, and builds over its run time to a satisfying finale that wraps everything up neatly, leaving you feeling very much like you’ve had a complete experience.
In terms of gameplay, meanwhile, Old School Musical unfolds as a simple and straightforward single-player rhythm game. Bertrand notes in his post-mortem that the game was originally designed with Sega’s Hatsune Miku-fronted Project Diva in mind, and indeed the basic mechanics of the game bear a passing resemblance to the classic Vocaloid games.
Button icons move towards the centre of the screen from the outer edge, and the player must press them with appropriate timing. Like most modern rhythm games, you’re not simply tapping out the rhythm of the main melody or beating time; more often than not the rhythm of your tapping is actually a rhythmic component in its own right.
Sometimes you’ll find yourself banging out counter-rhythms to the main music; at others you’ll be performing in concert with a specific part of the overall mix. It all feels very natural, particularly if you’re already musically minded — and in the Switch’s handheld mode in particular it carries that wonderful feeling of direct connection to the music that the PSP and Vita versions of Project Diva had: your gaming device truly becomes a musical instrument, and you’re part of a performance.
Old School Musical occasionally shakes things up by shifting to an alternative display where left and right shoulder button indicators scroll up the screen, but beyond this, it doesn’t do anything particularly complicated. Tib and Rob lose hit points if you make a mistake, but gradually regain them if you play correctly, and a “Fury” meter tracks how many notes you have played with acceptable timing in succession. The game’s Arcade mode also keeps a constantly updated tally of your accuracy percentage as you play; in the main Story mode, however, you won’t find out how well you did until the track is complete.
“The idea was to make a rhythm game that is both fun to play and nice to watch, because rhythm games are usually boring if you’re just a spectator,” adds Bertrand. “I wanted to create a background that seems to be a classic game but that responds to the player’s rhythmic successes or failures. And of course, because I had no idea what I was doing, I thought it would be great if every level was a new game.”
Herein lies Old School Musical’s unique selling point: the fact that each and every level in the main story mode features as its background animation a beautifully realised pastiche of a classic computer, console or arcade title, ranging from Mega Man to Breath of Fire III via The Legend of Zelda (specifically A Link to the Past), OutRun, the original Metal Gear and Metal Slug. Rather ambitiously, Bertrand and the team he assembled to work on the game decided to code these background animations as if they were full-on games complete with logic, physics and interactive elements rather than simple static animations.
“The good thing is that it gave us the experience of multiple games creation,” Bertrand admits, somewhat humbly. “The major drawback is that it took us much more time than expected. It was somehow frustrating to work so hard for ten minutes of gameplay.”
The effort was very much worthwhile, though; while it’s tricky to watch exactly what’s happening while you’re playing, the huge variety in background animations make this a great game to watch as well as play — plus when playing in Story mode, there are numerous pauses during the action for dialogue sequences to unfold, allowing you the opportunity to engage with the on-screen action and to get to know Tib and Rob a bit better.
And Tib and Rob are great heroes to lead the game. They’re both highly flawed characters — who wouldn’t be after an upbringing like the one they had, completely devoid of normal socialisation? — but they remain consistently endearing, amusing and sympathetic. You’re really rooting for them by the end of the game, even if they’ve done a few questionable things along the way. This helps you develop a sense of attachment to the game as a whole, encouraging you to keep playing once the story is over and done with.
Which is good, because there’s effectively a whole other game in there once that happens. Dubbed “Chicken Republic”, this section of the game ostensibly expands on the game’s Breath of Fire III-inspired Story mode level, but is actually a largely narrative-free excuse to proceed through a series of tracks — many of which are exclusive to Chicken Republic mode, since Bertrand and company had too much music to put into the main game — and attempt to play while coping with numerous “curses”. These range from the directional symbols for the buttons appearing deliberately incorrectly, glitched-out screen effects or various weird happenings designed to distract you and break your concentration. It provides an interesting new twist on the basic mechanics that you can continue to enjoy long after the “main” game is over.
And if that won’t keep you coming back, the music will. Featuring a variety of chiptune music from artists including Dubmood, Zabutom, Hello World, LePlancton, Yponeko and Toriena, the soundtrack is as much of an homage to these classic games as the visuals are, taking in not only the distinctive sounds of classic chips such as the NES’ APU and the C64’s SID, but also later setups such as the Mega Drive’s YM2612 FM synth or the Super NES’ S-SMP and its wavetable synthesis capabilities. The Zelda-inspired levels are particularly noteworthy for featuring very authentic sounding instrumentation, most clearly heard in the string sections; at times it really does sound like a lost Koji Kondo track.
As a fairly straightforward and non-competitive music game, Old School Musical may be a little simplistic for the hardcore rhythm gamer, but despite originally drawing inspiration from Project Diva, this game has never really been intended to be a super-challenging title for pro players only.
Instead, it set out to be an accessible, universally enjoyable tribute to the classic games that Bertrand grew up with, and in that regard, it has succeeded admirably, providing a delightfully nostalgic experience for gamers of a certain age to immerse themselves in while providing the satisfaction of solid, rhythmic gameplay.
This is great stuff. And now I really, really want to see more from La Moutarde!
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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