Rhythm games have had a great run over the past decade. A good chunk of the gaming audience experienced adolescence, spent their college days, or bonded with family and friends over rhythm games, like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Their heyday has passed, but they still pushed this genre forward in ways previously thought unimaginable. But while those games focused on licensed music that can be appreciated by legions of fans, there's a unique type of music that is best enjoyed solo: chiptune music.
Those who grew up in the early days of gaming may have an affinity for the 8-bit retro style of gaming music. And developer La Moutarde has put together a stellar love letter to both classic chiptunes and rhythm games with Old School Musical. It's a game filled with infectious beats that are worth wading through a mediocre story to reach.
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
Unlocking a bulk of Old School Musical's setlist involves trudging through the game's Story Mode, which isn't an easy task. Not because the game is hard, though. The Old School Musical formula involves well-timed taps of the control pad (or face buttons) with occasional prompts to hit the L and R buttons. It's not always precise, but it's a nice challenge that goes along with some intricately-crafted chiptune tracks.
No, the Story Mode isn't easy to get through because the script and its dialogue can get downright cringeworthy. The humor often misses its mark, the characters are downright forgettable, and I couldn't find myself caring about the overarching narrative. The idea is that glitches have infested the world and main characters Rob and Tib, two block-like kids, must find the source of the problem and save their overbearing stage mother. The story started off with a painful Pokemon parody and never really got me back from there.
However, the story isn't a total loss. Rob and Tib's journey takes them across satirizations of 8-bit gaming's most memorable games, including Mega Man and Metal Gear. Seeing these parodies implemented helped add to the atmosphere of the overall game, with each stage's track sounding like it could have come from any of these NES-era classics. In fact, some of the tracks are outright remixes of the original songs and they're a lot of fun.
Getting through the story also has its rewards, like an unlockable Chicken Republic mode that goes further into one of the longer stretches of the story. This acts as more of an engaging parody of turn-based RPGs, with Rob and Tib taking their swords and shields and battling it out with flocks of chickens in the background as each song's notes fly across the screen. More on this mode in a moment.
Tap Tap Revolution
Old School Musical's song selection is solid and the multiple difficulties make them worth running through one-by-one. If there's a complaint with the formula, it's that after a prolonged playthrough, it does start to feel too simplistic and straightforward.
Score chasers won't really have too much to work with here. Success ultimately comes down to "Did you hit the notes? Yes or no?" There are no real multipliers or bonuses to speak of, as one would expect to find in other rhythm games, outside of a "Fury" meter up top that doesn't add much to the overall presentation. The lack of any real feedback also makes every stretch of the song feel too similar. There's no tangible way to prepare for a song's climax or breakdown, because everything is presented so similarly.
In terms of pure challenge, getting full combos is more of an eye test than an ear test. While each song's note tracks will place notes to go along with the beat, there are times when the song will get a little too busy and it'll feel like there are button prompts for the sake of button prompts. For someone who likes getting lost in the music, that doesn't always feel possible, just because I'd sometimes see a note prompt pop up at a seemingly random moment.
Where Old School Musical really starts to ramp up the challenge is with the aforementioned Chicken Republic mode. This will introduce modifiers, such as screen distortions, to the mix and challenges players to truly grasp the track's rhythm. This is what I feel like Old School Musical should have been from the outset, with more challenges like this sprinkled into the main story. As it is, there's some work to be done before getting to the really good stuff.
Old School Musical does an admiral job of packing 50 chiptune tracks onto a single package. Unfortunately, I can't say I'm a fan of how the game went about implementing them. If it had solely been the Arcade Mode with a lot of the 8-bit homages in the background, that would have been fine. But having to plow through the clumsy Story Mode took some of the joy out of the game for me.
But story aside, Old School Musical as a full package is an unexpected treat. The post-story challenges, along with the replayable Arcade Mode puts together the best of what this game can offer. It's a solid foundation to hopefully build something more solid in the future.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch digital code provided by the developer. Old School Musical is available now on the Nintendo eShop and Steam for $12.99. The game is rated E10+.
Old School Musical
- Great chiptune soundtrack
- Engaging post-story content
- Solid formula
- Some parodies and homages are cute or funny
- Story mode is not good
- Occasional moments where notes don't follow the rhythm
- Lack of feedback/bonuses for playing well is a downer