Creating new games inspired by retro classics is tricky. Old School Musical, a rhythm game for the Nintendo Switch and Windows PC, goes all in by not only imitating the look of classic video games, but also the soundtracks that accompanied them.
Getting the visuals down is a simple enough, as 8- and 16-bit era games are relatively easy to mimic, but writing chiptune music that carries the same energy and feeling is another thing altogether. Developer La Moutarde enlisted the aid of modern chiptune artists to craft 50 tracks for Old School Musical to do exactly that, and it’s the best part of a very uneven game.
Playing through all those tracks does require you to get through Old School Musical’s story, which has a style of humor that is either cheeky or borderline offensive, depending on your taste. The tale involves two brothers, Tib and Rob, who are on a quest to discover why their video game world is glitching. The siblings must travel to different lands to find the source of the problem, which is a great excuse to take a tour through gaming history that has been changed just enough to evade copyright.
While the duo may be traveling through levels taking part in adventures that resemble action games like Mega Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as the player you witness their antics behind the game’s main attraction: a fast-paced rhythm game.
Pulsing along to the game’s retro rhythms are button prompts that fly across the screen to the beat of the music. If you’re playing on a controller, each prompt corresponds to either a direction or face button, allowing you to quickly hammer out consecutive hits with two possible buttons. Occasionally, you’ll also pound out beats using shoulder buttons to switch things up. On the harder difficulties, the screen can become a kaleidoscope of colors to match the frenetic pace of the chiptune music.
As you progress through the game, you’ll quickly bounce between brand new worlds that completely change the visual design and style of music you’ll come across. Your characters may look like Mega Man and his trusty partner Roll one minute, and the next you’re infiltrating a secret base as Solid Snake from the original NES Metal Gear with Quiet from Metal Gear Solid 5. The levels take visual cues and references from each world and accompany them with music that sounds like B-sides to the original soundtracks. The constant switching between worlds makes it feel like you’re playing through a greatest hits of chiptunes mixtape.
Between the stages, the action stops and the siblings exchange quips that seem either poorly translated or based on non-sequiturs that kinda reference each game. These animated adventures bring in so many references at once, across so many eras of gaming, that it can begin to feel a bit muddled. Which leads to questions like: Why are Half-Life’s headcrabs in what appears to be an isometric version of The Last of Us? Or why does the Metal Gear level reference Quiet’s skimpy outfit, a callback that’s too old to be new, and too new to fit in with the retro references?
Eventually, the mashups tend to lead to a handful of jokes that never really land. I often felt like references were being Frankensteined together just for the sake of being able to do so. The idea of mixing up classic references to tell a unique story is a compelling one, I just wish the execution matched the novelty of the idea.
If you can look past the strangeness of the story and the kitbashing of classic aesthetics — or if you see that as a strength — there’s a basic but fun rhythm game to be found. Getting to see all the references used throughout the game is reason enough to give the game a spin, on top of the stellar soundtrack that’s great enough to stand on its own.
Old School Musical is out on the Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam for $12.99.