Using a series of portals to hop through various spoofs of retro-games, Old School Musical has you tap to the beat of its original songs through riffs on familiar worlds and a story containing beats just as familiar. Each world offers an opportunity for something more than playing dress up that sadly pass by. Due to the reliance on following the music, you only get so much time in each world before you are off to the next one. Despite riffing on certain tropes, Old School Musical doesn’t offer much more than an apocalyptic tale where two pucky heroes foretold by prophecy must save everyone from certain doom.
This is the tale of two brothers, Rob (tall and dumb) and Tib (short and older), who live with their mom on a small island. They train underneath their abusive mother so that one day they can become heroes. Or, at least, that’s her excuse for throwing random objects at them daily. They awaken one day to find their mother gone and a note directing both brothers to find her at a communications tower. Glitches begin to consume their home and Rob and Tib realize this is the day they’ve been waiting for: to finally leave the island for other worlds. You then stumble onto a space station through a portal and use it to make your way through various other retro-genres, trying to outrun the glitches consuming everything.
Each world has different takes on classic games/genres from Pokemon to Mega Man, TMNT, Metal Gear, racers, familiar-but-pixelated post apocalypses, side-scrolling space fighters, and isometric RPGs. Each world you visit will see Tib and Rob adopt costumes to fit in, but the game doesn’t do much more than just adopt the skin of whatever its emulating for a brief period of time until the song is over and you move on towards the next one. At one point Rob dons Quiet’s outfit from MGSV and pokes fun at the ridiculousness of it, even commenting that it allows his skin to breath with a wink-wink nudge-nudge. Similarly, an older man at a gas station reveals his name as Cid and is wearing Cindy’s short shorts and busty top from Final Fantasy XV, with wrinkles and saggy skin all laid bare.
Despite adopting the skins of other genres, it remains a rhythm game throughout, requiring the player to match the arrows on-screen to the directional pad on your keyboard or d-pad on your controller. Sometimes a section will appear that has you tapping between the right and left arrow or L1 and R1. Its fairly simple and unfortunately does not introduce challenges until the post-game section. This separate mode introduces a few new tracks among older ones and adds filters on top of the rhythm gameplay to make things harder. Arrows will rotate in place, the UI will get larger or smaller, glitches will tear the screen, a gameboy filter reduces the colors to a few shades of green, and darkness envelopes the sides of the screen obscuring your view of oncoming notes. All are mixed and matched on every stage to mix things up. Sadly this isn’t done in the main story levels and only occurs during this additional Chicken Republic mode. Sadly they are the only stages that consistently caused slowdown, most likely because of the isometric visuals being replicated.
Much like the rapid pace of each individual stage, the overall story is quite short. You will eventually find your mother with a twist and make your way out of a Game Over screen. Upon finding remnants of civilization that recognize you as the two heroes of prophecy, you’ll be filled in on what exactly occurred to lead to worlds being attacked by glitches and their ultimate end. Sent on a fetch quest, you make your way through a knockoff Legend of Zelda stage and a detour into the Chicken Republic in order to confront the shadow, the one who nearly wiped everyone out long ago.
The Chicken Republic is an advanced race of chickens who discovered that chickens across the universe were being abused as if it was some kind of game and sought out chickens to give them sanctuary. As part of this they have taken Klin (Link) prisoner for his crimes against chickens forcing you to fight a chicken army to obtain his flute as part of the fetch quest. Ultimately you face off against the Big Bad, restore peace, and live peacefully. While the relationship between the brothers and their mother has a nice confrontation against abusive behavior from would-be guardians, the story itself is fairly unengaging.
An over-reliance on meta humor soils some of the game’s jokes, as it riffs knowingly on its own status as a game, especially when it points out and then attempts to cover up its own plot hole as well as the aforementioned Game Over screen escape. While jabs at Quiet and Cindy’s outfits are nice, I really didn’t need another “arrow to the knee” reference. I wish Rob and Tib were able to do more commentary or critiques on the games they are occupying, but their time in each world is dictated by the track being played which limits interactions to under five minutes at the most, a majority of which is spent fighting whatever enemies the world has to throw at them.
Midway through the story, the “heart of the internet,” which connects every world together, is infected and blown to pieces. I thought this might lead to some kind of larger metaphor, such as this threat representing the usage of copyright against preservation of older titles. Perhaps even the glitches would end up morphing the worlds into something different but still valid as an allegory for when ROM-hacks create things like the Link to the Past co-op mode. Instead the heart of the internet is destroyed, the infection of glitches spread, and you eventually topple the cause of it all as was foretold in a prophecy.
As you play you’ll unlock music to play in the arcade mode, and each track has an easy, normal, and hard setting. Playing on hard isn’t going to earn you points to spend on some in-game store, so mastering the timing is more for your own reward than to earn something. The tracks themselves are very rarely obvious riffs on classic tunes. The only track that I recognized as a remix was because it featured the tetris theme. Not even the Legend of Zelda stages dipped into familiar musical themes, although I’m always down for another version of Ocarina’s title theme. Otherwise the music is not something I find myself drawn to, but generally match the tone and mood of each stage.
There was a lot of potential afforded by the world jumping mechanic as well as its emulation of recognizable classics, but Old School Musical doesn’t do much with them. While the story, and especially the Chicken Republic post-game mode, can offer some challenging rhythm tapping, Rob and Tib’s tale stumbles to offer more than a textbook case of saving the world.