Classic home computer games from the 1980s made a real virtue out of the limitations of the hardware on which they were written. Hugely restricted colour palettes and limited memory meant that acts of coding wizardry were required to tease every last bit of content out. Looking back it’s easy to forget how complex these games were, even when compared to the photo realism and Hollywood budgets of today. What is also easy to forget is how much character developers managed to convey despite the blocky pixels at their disposal. Protagonists like Mario or Dizzy hark back to these humble origins, but had personalities that transcended their simple appearance.
Horace, a 6 year labour of love by solo developer Paul Helman (with some assistance), is a perfect homage to these classic games, using an impeccable pixel aesthetic to tell a truly emotional story of a robot’s rise to consciousness that just oozes with character.
The story of Horace escalates in a skilful fashion, beginning with a low-key and banal introduction that works excellently as a tutorial and then slowly building up to something apocalyptic and interplanetary. As a central mechanic, Horace sets out to clean up 1,000,000 pieces of junk from the world, but the story involves far more than this.
The evocative cutscenes that tell the story are well written and genuinely hilarious at times. Much of this humour revolves around the unexpected juxtaposition of celebrities from yesteryear, but Helman also cribs from true masters such as the incomparable Douglas Adams. The jokes come thick and fast but not as fast as the references and Easter Eggs which whistle by. The fact that two characters were called Preston and Logan completely passed me by until I finally twigged that they were Bill and Ted. Unlike much reference-based comedy, however, Horace doesn’t just rely on you recognising the origins of the joke, but uses the humour to construct a surreal world that feels like a fever dream after staying up watching grainy YouTube videos of 80s British TV.
There is far more to Horace than its retro graphics, but they are what really hit you as a first impression. Sitting somewhere between the styles of 80s home computer titles and the colour range of the SNES era, Paul Helman has created something that successfully combines old and new while still looking distinctive. Horace himself looks like Mr Chips from the wonderfully naff British gameshow Catchprase, while the world is populated by a veritable who’s-who of retro TV. Until I played Horace, I didn’t realise just how much I needed a game where you can go from screens featuring Pat Butcher and the cast of Are You Being Served to a town inhabited by the casts of Seinfeld and Friends. That Helman had the imagination to design these is one thing, but the quality of the pixel work takes everything to another level.
Music throughout is nicely evocative, featuring chiptune remixes of classical British tunes. The bombastic numbers suit the frenetic platforming perfectly whilst some of the more melodic and slower tracks contribute hugely to the surprising emotional heft of the storyline. The voiceover of Horace has a suitably robotic tone that can grate a little, but is clearly appropriate. Again, I was not expecting to be affected so much by this game, but there is something about Horace that presses all the right emotional buttons.
Helman has spoken of his love for gaming classics like Jet Set Willy, a game whose style and influence is clear once you begin exploring Horace’s central mansion. Horace moves beyond its obvious predecessor by combining it expertly with the twitch platforming of Super Meat Boy and the gravity defying mechanics of Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV. The result is a challenging and original feeling game that truly matches up to the quality of the pixel artwork.
Individual rooms are deviously designed with many appearing impossible until you slowly work your way through them. Lives are infinite, fortunately, thanks to the Lazarus Chip installed in Horace, but dying frequently in an area will make the game take pity on you and give you a shield (basically an extra hit) which will allow you to make a mistake. By the end of the game you can unlock five of these which may sound like overkill but will be necessary more than you might think. Bosses in particular are challenging and have a central puzzling aspect that must be worked out and then carried out in the face of overwhelming firepower.