Nostalgia is a term thrown around with relative ease these days. The bandwagon is full and yet people are still clamoring to get on. Often companies will use the power of nostalgia to garner a love for the product they’re trying to push. But when something is crafted from a loving place it becomes apparent at first glance. Done well, it can even transcend the idea of nostalgia itself in favor of something magical, and possibly musical.
For such a goofy game, it’s hard to really see why anyone would think any of that about Old School Musical. Believe me, I was skeptical at first; this is a very silly game. VERY silly. I know this, the developers know this and you should know it, too. And with that knowledge you’d be remiss if you didn’t at least check it out. It’s understandable if you don’t like rhythm games as a genre. I get that. If you have an adverse reaction to anything with a beat – and keeping to it – then this might not be your cup of tea.
Even still, what the game offers is a loving and thoughtful recollection of video game memories you never knew you had. Or maybe had forgotten. That’s the point of nostalgia, really.
Much of Old School Musical feels like an 8-bit fever dream in the best way possible. Rob and Tib are two square-shaped brothers who go on a journey through time, space and glitches. With each glitch comes a brand new game – well, brand new to them and very familiar to us. The humor is impressively funny and just as caring. While the wackiness is constantly on full blast, I was genuinely surprised to see ‘darker’ moments that, for some reason, had me caring for these two characters.
The fever dreams intensify with each level as they’re facsimiles of many popular games that we (i.e. the older gamer) has grown accustomed to over the years, often obsessively so. On my first playthrough I actually wrote down all the “levels” I encountered, initially intending to explore what they offer in the review and touch on a majority of them to illustrate how the game really hit me. But I got at a point about half-way through when I realized that’s where the magic comes from. It comes from discovery.
Incredibly, the first starting map seems heavily inspired by Pokémon. The level design, color palettes, the trees and even the music all touch on those pleasure points in the brain that whisper in your ear “Hey, remember this?” While some games rely on that cheat, it feels as if developer La Moutarde want you have those feelings but in a way that’s only slightly adjacent to those original nostalgia trips down memory lane. It’s an effective sleight of hand trick that works a lot better than it probably should. You’ll recognize many of the specific moments Old School Musical wants you to, or your brain thinks it does. There’s a possibility that copyright issues are largely at play, but the game is always careful to tread lightly enough to avoid potential litigation.
The biggest example of this is the music, which is all chiptunes and simply fantastic. It should go without saying that a great soundtrack is vitally important for a rhythm game, but here we are. I have a soft spot for chiptune music, but even I’ll admit to a little fatigue. Old School Musical knows this and does us a solid by injecting some brilliant chiptunes artists into the game to give us some insanely catchy and wonderful songs that infested my brain.
They’ve got dozens of tracks – over 50 – from artists like Dubmood, Zabutom, Hello World, Yponeko, and Le Plancton working on the music and it’s all just fantastic. Honestly, I’ve never heard of them before but after playing through some of the zanier levels and hearing them, I want to and I even want to buy the soundtrack for this game – something I normally never do. Take a listen for yourselves right now on Soundcloud – aren’t they great?
Unfortunately, the only real negative about the game is the actual gameplay itself. You’re basically watching the characters in the background as they run around and do the things they need to all while hitting button prompts to the beat of the song. It works, it’s exactly what it needs to be – and that’s kind of the problem. Sometimes the notes don’t feel like they should be there. That’s an inherent flaw, of course, to games like this. Even your Rock Band and Guitar Heroes have a limited amount of buttons to play intricate songs. Here there are four directions and two drum/bass buttons that you can hit and each of those segments alternate in the song. It’s simple and serviceable for its purposes, but I just wish it were a bit more on key.
I wasn’t ready for how much I enjoyed this game. I cannot remember the last time I sat in front of my screen grinning for that long. Old School Musical just hit me in that special place in my heart – the place that’s normally guarded from people trying to ruin my childhood by exploiting those things I love – or forgotten how much I loved. Instead of exploiting those memories, French developer La Moutarde has crafted a sensational new friend for those games to hang out with, play a few games, and maybe jam to some sweet chiptunes in the process.