Every now and then there’s a part in Old School Musical that seems like it’s about to blow the game up and turn it into something wilder and more involved than it actually is. Moments where you’re suddenly in an RPG battle against some enemies, complete with a menu to select attacks, or platforming around and talking to villagers, where suddenly it seems like the game might open up and be an adventure of some kind. But these are just the story bits – you can pause and skip them if you just want to get back to the real gameplay, which is all about that rhythm.
In keeping up with the title, Old School Musical is a classic Dance Dance Revolution-style rhythm game with the face and shoulder buttons acting as your inputs. The songs are all chiptunes-like, often in the style of whatever game happens to be getting parodied in the background (except the space shooter which just sounds like Tetris music). Behind all this, some kind of game is happening – your characters, Tib and Rob, are going through NES-style platforming levels, epic chicken-bashing RPGs, isometric post-apocalyptic journeys and such.
But of course, you don’t exactly play those. You just play the tappa-tappa-tappa, and the game happens in the background. I was first a little bummed out by this, not because I didn’t enjoy the rhythm parts, but because I thought the background was going to be more dynamic. When I was able to sneak a peek, it was actually kind of repetitive, so don’t worry about paying attention to that.
In many of the levels you really can’t be paying attention to the background anyway because the game gets real rough in some points. The notes come at you fast, but luckily the game has a kind of wide window for what counts as at least a good input – heck, even perfect had a lot of wiggle room. The best thing about this being on the Switch too is that it guarantees how much lag there’s going to be in handheld mode, and it can be calibrated for that. There’s also a tool to make sure that if you’re playing on your TV, you can calibrate for lag yourself, too.
So, Old School Musical is based around references and parodies of other games. My problem with a lot of those is that they lean into it super hard, and are generally just focused on the same handful of games. How many parodies of the Mega Man 2 opening scene, with its 20xx and figure on a building that it pans up to, I have seen? How many jokes about Link breaking vases and attacking chickens have I sat through? Do I really ever need to see “arrow to the knee” again? I know that when you make a game based on references you don’t want to go so obscure that no one gets it because that would be no fun. Still, we’ve had decades of games, famous ones, that can also be mined for reference. It doesn’t always have to be the same ones.
Luckily, while the game do hit those cliched ones (twice arrow to the knee!), it goes for some that aren’t too obvious, and in a lot of cases either don’t super-lean on it, or use it as a way to expand into something further. Like, yeah, we make fun of Link for attacking chickens, but it leads to an RPG adventure through a world inhabited by chickens, who’ve fled there because the main world is too dangerous for them and they needed to escape. There’s similarly a gag of the first area looking like a Pokémon overworld, but it doesn’t keep going on about catching little monsters and making them fight each other or anything like that.
Referential humor is very difficult to pull off right, and I feel like I’m especially allergic to it. References don’t do much if you’re not doing anything with them, just feeling like they’re trying to earn your good will based entirely on the affection you have for something else. “Oh, Pokémon!” you might say, “I love that, and it’s making me like this game a little more because it’s talking about it!”. But luckily, Old School Musical is a little more than just a reference factory, doing extra work with some of them and not always leaning super hard on them either, and I’m pretty thankful for that. It can still be a little groany, but not so much it made me want to stop playing.
For all the pizazz the game puts in the background and the ways the genres your characters are going through change, the gameplay itself is surprisingly static. It’s not until after the credits roll and a new mode is unlocked that the game starts to add in extra wrinkles, playing with the speed, size, and look of the inputs as they come to the center of the screen. It creates a little more visual challenge. I’d hoped there might be something more like Elite Beat Agents, combinations of movement and buttons or more dynamic motions for the player, but no such luck.
Even if it’s static, the game is still pretty enjoyable, and while all the music is good, the biggest problem is that none of it is really that memorable. I couldn’t hum you a single bit of it, except the one that samples Tetris music. The music is all really good in the moment, but after the fact, this isn’t really a soundtrack I can particularly see myself going back to.
The game is, in almost all ways possible, an old school musical, with a chiptunes score, references to classics from the past, and a sort of tried-and-true gameplay that isn’t so different from what we’ve seen from the rhythm genre before. It comes together in a unique little package that I had a pretty good time with as I was playing through it, telling a decent enough story through to the end credits. With 50 songs and multiple skill levels to test yourself in, there’s definitely a good bit here to dig into. I wish the game was a little more involved and the soundtrack was more memorable, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless and has enough charm to make it worth finishing.