A charming homage to 80s and 90s gaming, and the golden age of 2D platform games, makes Horace one of the best indie games of the year.
The platform game is one of the oldest and most revered genres – ever since Donkey Kong first hit the arcades in 1981, gamers have whiled away untold millions (more like billions) of hours leaping around virtual platforms, trying to avoid plummeting to an unseen doom. Horace is amongst the finest homages to the genre ever released.
That’s more of a turn-up than you might imagine, since this is a determinedly indie game created by just two people, Paul Helman and Sean Scaplehorn, with 2D pixelated graphics seemingly exhumed from the 1990s. As a love letter to platform games – both specific ones, which it in turn parodies and emulates, and the very principle of platformers – Horace pulls off the very neat trick of being hugely ambitious yet gloriously low-tech.
That description may inadvertently suggest that Horace is a serious, po-faced game but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It also functions as a wry and endlessly amusing tribute to a broad spectrum of 1980s and 1990s pop culture, and is shot through with quirky, very British humour.
Story-wise, it’s wacky but fascinating. Horace is a robot, designed to learn how to function like a human. Brought to life by a character known only as The Old Man, he enjoys an idyllic robot-childhood in a huge mansion populated by deliciously eccentric characters. One, for example, has a penchant for magic mushrooms which Horace, in his unwritten-book, child-like naivety inadvertently indulges.
Under the mentorship of The Old Man, Horace slowly learns what it means to be human and discovers his life’s purpose: to clear up trash (in itself, partly a nod to the sitcom Steptoe and Son). Plus, he hones platforming abilities including a jump, a run, and a dash jump. As the game progresses, he acquires a plethora of other helpful platforming objects, such as anti-gravity boots which let him walk up walls and across ceilings, and gloves that allow him to pick up objects and hurl them.
Those act as the cue for an increasingly inventive welter of not just platforming but fiendish boss battles and puzzle-solving sequences. While Horace eases you in gently, it soon becomes satisfyingly tricky – especially when it subjects you to time pressures, such as an onrushing wall of water in the sewers beneath The Old Man’s mansion.
The game even gets you thinking about the nature of gravity. For example, in one level in which Horace is carrying a heavy ball, which partially negates the effect of his anti-gravity boots, he can jump twice as high when upside-down. Brilliant level design and a restless desire to explore new platforming ideas in each self-contained sequence guard against the gameplay settling into even a vague semblance of repetitiveness.
Horace’s story is great, too, narrated from Horace’s endearingly naïve viewpoint and containing a constant stream of retro references and jokes delivered in a deadpan, underplayed style. There’s no shortage of poignancy among the humour though, as after one cataclysmic plot twist Horace is shut down for a number of years. He then seeks out his former friends and surrogate family, as his innocence is gradually stripped away.
The music is also great – another homage to the 8 and 16-bit eras in terms of general sound, along with familiar melodies from unlikely sources such as Chopin. Apparently, Horace’s tiny team spent six years slaving away over their labour of love, and it really shows.
Despite its brilliance, Horace isn’t necessarily a game that everyone must play. Its difficulty level will frustrate many (although it does eventually relent on that front, by awarding you shields that let you make the odd mistake without dying) and if you demand photorealistic modern graphics, you’ll find its visuals very bemusing. It wears its indie provenance with pride.
But for anyone with a special interest in platform games it’s a must-buy, constituting a clever, funny and extremely high-quality love letter to not just a genre but an entire era. And it doesn’t represent much of a punt either; for just over a tenner it provides roughly 15 hours of finely crafted gameplay. If you’ve ever worried that modern games are becoming too generic and identikit, Horace will restore your lost faith.
Horace review summary on Nintendo Switch
In Short: A labour of love that pays brilliantly inventive tribute to the platform genre and the 8 and 16-bit eras in general.
Pros: Consistently clever and very funny in its own gentle way. Often surprisingly poignant and with some innovative gameplay ideas despite the retro vibe.
Cons: High difficulty level will sometimes test your patience.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Paul Helman and Sean Scaplehorn
Release Date: 21st October 2020
Age Rating: 7
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