One of the first games I can still clearly remember playing from when I was young wasn’t one of the all-time early arcade classics like Space Invaders or Donkey Kong.
It wasn’t even a clunky home version of these, like Pac-Man on the Atari 2600, even though I actually had an Atari 2600 and apparently also had the infamously duff 2600 port of Pac-Man as a photo exists of me playing it one Christmas (its shonky awfulness perhaps being the reason why I’ve blotted it out of my memory).
No, this was an obscure game on the 48k Speccy called Mutant Monty and the Temple of Doom, one of four games on an allegedly now rare (according to some dude on ebay trying to flog a copy) compilation tape called ‘ASSEMBLAGE’.
Because, of course, nothing says ‘great new game’ like bundling it on a tape with 3 other unrelated efforts and then giving it an uninspiring collective title that basically means ‘pile of stuff’.
It was also never clear why Monty was a mutant. Onscreen, he just looked like a normal bloke; well, as normal as you can make anyone look in monochrome 8-bit graphics about 1 cm high. Maybe he had a crippled spleen, or an extra buttock?
Anyway, despite it being mainly remarkable for simultaneously ripping off Monty Mole, Indiana Jones AND (for the game itself) Manic Miner, it lodged itself in my cerebellum for one specific reason – it was the first proper platformer I ever played.
It was also memorable to me as it was very, very hard, in that uniquely retro approach to longevity sense of ‘well we can’t make a long game, so we’ll make an unfairly tough one that takes ages to finish instead’.
Playing Horace reminded me of Mutant Monty in a number of ways. Some good. Some…less so.
Not so much steeped in nostalgia as absolutely sodden with it to the point it’s standing in a puddle of its own nostalgia and has yet more nostalgia running down its legs, Horace is an old-school pixel art platformer that will be utterly bewildering for anyone from outside of the UK and/or people who were born after about the year 2000, unless they’ve got a serious fetish for old British telly and games.
Observe: it even opens with the old ‘reflection’ Thames TV intro!
Playing as Horace, a robot butler, it’s your job to jump about platforms collecting rubbish. One million bits of rubbish to be precise. This might sound like an awful premise for a game, but wait! It’s also a game about family and belonging, dealing with bereavement, the horrors of war and learning the value of life. All this…in a darkly humorous retro-themed platform game about a brass bin man? Yes, really.
You see, like football Horace is a game of 2 halves – the actual ‘playing the game’ bit, which I’ll come onto in a minute, and the glorious, glorious cutscenes. (Also like football, it’s compulsory afterwards to have an awkward, nude group shower with 10 other people who’ve played the game!)
Horace’s story is imparted like a 2D computer-animated film, albeit if they’d animated it on a Mega Drive, all narrated by his slightly melancholy-sounding robotic voice. There are a lot of these exposition interludes interleaved through the game – so many in fact, it’s touch and go whether the game is really the interlude to the story segments. But they’re all beautifully written, and slowly reveal the larger plot through Horace’s somewhat naïve robotic eyes.
I won’t spoil these for you as they make up such a substantial part of the game’s appeal, but they’re by turns funny, sad, heartwarming, and always, always a reminder of days gone (that’s actual days gone, not the recent mediocre PS4 zomb-em-up).
Whether it’s from the games that get mentioned in passing, the pop culture references, or the spoofs and pastiches, you’re never far from a reminder of the developer’s clear love for the 80s era (give or take a few years either way).
This isn’t just a gimmick, either – you couldn’t pen a story like this without a genuine affection for the period, and that writing strength comes through in memorable characters you’ll develop a real affection for, and a strong desire to get to the next cutscene to see how the plot develops.
But to do that, you have to play the game. And at this point, I’ll give you a clue as to where this is going with three words: Super, Meat, Boy. Or, in case that means nothing to you, three more words: you, die, alot (yes, I know – shut up).
That’s right, Horace is hardcore. Seriously hardcore. Do you miss the pixel-perfect, start-the-level-again-bang-your-head-on-the-table-from-frustration style of early platformers? Well it’s here tonight, Matthew! All wrapped up in 2019 sheen with fancier abilities such as gravity-shifting boots and SNES mode 7-a-like rotating levels.
Don’t get me wrong – I like a challenge. But it’s fair to say the sort of twitch-reaction platformer where you have to be spot on *all* the time is a niche genre these days rather than the norm, and though Horace isn’t as brutal as some (you do get infinite lives, the odd shield, and the occasional mid-room restart point), it leans a lot more the way of being deliberately punishing for the sake of it than, say, the tough but fair latter levels of a Super Mario outing.
Style-wise, the levels also ooze nostalgia. Which is a polite way of saying if they remade a shiny new Jet Set Willy for the 21stcentury, it’d look like this. Almost EXACTLY like this, in fact. It even has ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King’ as background music for some areas, and similar baddies in the form of possessed machetes and power drills (albeit with a plot-fitting explanation as to why they’ve sprung to homicidal life).
Really, the whole game – with its uniquely British setting and callbacks, its unusual combination of seriousness and weirdly dark humour, and its rampant eccentricity – is as close to what you’d get if you gave a 1980s bedroom coder like Matt Smith (the Miner Willy guy, not the 11thDoctor Who – not least because in the 1980s he’d have been a toddler) access to modern hardware to make a game, then left it in a cranny for nearly 40 years.
You will absolutely get a huge sense of satisfaction in beating Horace’s jumping challenges. But as levels get harder, you’ll also have a growing sense of annoyance and frustration; how much you’ll get out of the game will thus depend on where the tipping point is for you.
And whether it’s because I’m approaching middle age and my reactions aren’t what they used to be, or I’m now just too used to the flabby, casual-oriented world of modern gaming to cut it, for me that tipping point came earlier than I would have liked.
I really, really wanted to like Horace more than I did – and to be fair, I did like it a lot. The voicework, writing, gallows humour and the obvious real love for the 8- and 16-bit era are all great. But oh, those painful jumps and repeat-o-starts just sucked the lifeblood out of it for me like a big, pixelated Dracula.
In choosing to go ‘full retro’ with a hardcore platformer replete with difficulty spikes, even with a few 21stcentury luxuries, the developers have made what could be a fun romp into something that only a particular type of modern gamer will see through. And I really wanted to see it through – I just couldn’t face death after death because of a jump being 1 pixel off.
In the end, I watched later levels on YouTube videos because I wanted to see what happened (which is a testament to the strength of the story, because you wouldn’t catch me bothering to do that with some limp second stringer like Spyro the Dragon). But I’d absolutely rather have played it myself like 1985 me who always finished games would have done – I’m just afraid to say 2019 me couldn’t be arsed.
If you like that sort of challenge AND you also have the dirty feels for times gone by, you’ll adore this. Genuinely adore it. I’d have been delighted to say I adored it too, but like Dark Souls, you can only do the gaming equivalent of punching yourself in the face so many times before having to consider whether being a punchbag is your cup of tea, or whether you’d rather just actually have a cup of tea.
It’s good to remember the past and where we’ve come from, but…things move on for a reason too, and down the line your mind can play tricks on you: like how enjoyable an experience slogging through the sturdy games of yesteryear really was.
Or how, for years, I thought the game I remembered playing as a kid was ‘Mutant Monty and the Temple of Doom’. But – M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN PLOT TWIST – when I looked it up when writing this review, it’s not the game I thought it was at all. It’s not even a bloody platformer!
To wit, I have no idea what the game is I was *actually* thinking of, which just goes to show you how confusing and rubbish getting older is. And why I’d have loved a ‘enjoy the story’ mode in Horace to help my decrepit reflexes see it through, so I could enjoy the reminiscing without having to worry about my blood pressure quite so much.
An absolute love letter of a game, but you have to be prepared to pay the hefty postage to read it.
SCORE: 48k out of C64