A story-led platformer spreading a bit of robot love
Old-school platformer takes Horace from humble cleaning robot to hero. A journey we can all applaud.
Paul Helman would like to think of his debut game as “a triple-A SNES title,” and to play it is to understand why. It’s an old-school platformer with plenty of contemporary bells and whistles that belie the fact it’s been assembled by just one man.
Despite the console influence, from the start it pays homage to a host of vintage games: there are blink-and-you’llmiss-them nods to Emlyn Hughes Soccer and The Last Ninja during the opening scenes, while there’s a (thankfully brief) Spectrum loading screen flash as the eponymous robot boots up. And its title screen music will be instantly familiar to players of a certain vintage: it’s Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, which Helman cheerfully admits is a direct lift from 1984 classic Jet Set Willy.
“One of the main reasons I wanted to do chiptunes of classical music is that everyone knows it,” he says. “Music is constantly used in films and TV shows, but obviously I can’t end a scene by fading up an Oasis song or whatever. But I can with anything over 70 years old, thanks to the public domain.”
One early sequence, for example, sees the music shift from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony to Boccherini’s Minuet (Google it, you’ll recognise the tune). It’s a useful shorthand, Helman explains. “It instantly tells you that we’re somewhere classy and a little bit old-fashioned. It’s kind of a cheat, but in the same way that a film cheats to set up a scene.” Indeed, the cutscenes aren’t like those in many games of this ilk, which tend to use a fairly static camera and text boxes to tell their stories. Horace’s tale is narrated (the robot’s deadpan tone is responsible for much of the humour) with camera cuts and zooms borrowing the visual language of TV and cinema.
Wot, no skiing?
Even given Helman’s experience as a digital artist, these story sequences have been a time-consuming process, and the developer concedes his ambitions have occasionally got the better of him. “If it’s two or three characters having a chat framed like a sitcom I can generally get about a minute done in a day,” he says.
“I didn’t want you to get halfway through and you’ve suddenly got flamethrowers”
“But with anything more action-based… there are several scenes where I’ve animated about a dozen characters, and that slows me down. In those cases, I’m lucky if I get ten seconds done.”
The game’s impressive demo suggests it’s been worth the effort, the context lending extra drama to your objectives. At first, Horace is put to use as a cleaning robot, collecting bits of scrap to tidy levels up, while avoiding collapsing platforms, moving sparks and circuit-frazzling water hazards. But in another section he’s tasked with rescuing a drug-addled man who’s about to jump off a roof as soon as he finishes a guitar solo; later, he’s asked to save a family from a burning mansion.
It’s here that his most important power-up comes into play. Gravity-defying boots let him walk on walls and ceilings, and they’re the only way to avoid the spreading flames. Helman says he initially planned for the boots to arrive much later in the game. “It was the last power-up you got, and gradually I kept bringing it further and further forward. Obviously it broke all of the gameplay design at that time but once I discovered that it was incredibly fun to stick to any surface while exploring, I realised that this was the game.” He tested the idea out by recreating World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros, and having realised how much it would fundamentally change the game, he essentially restarted work from scratch. It’s certainly not the only ability you’ll get your hands on, though Horace will never fire a weapon in anger. “As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the character is incredibly innocent,” Helman says. “I didn’t want you to get halfway through and you’ve suddenly got flamethrowers and bombs and you’re going around murdering people.” So instead you get a balloon that allows you to temporarily float, while a shoulder-barge lets you break through fragile walls.
Super Meat Bot
The game’s later stages ramp up the challenge, though Horace’s movement and inertia are just about perfect, and you’re acutely aware that any deaths are nobody’s fault but your own. It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Super Meat Boy is one of Helman’s influences – even though our robotic hero feels a good deal heavier than his fleshy counterpart. “If you’re good at Meat Boy you’ll get through a stage in ten seconds; if you’re bad at it it will take you ten minutes. I wanted to capture that kind of feeling.” Instant restarts certainly help alleviate any frustration, and you’re only ever reset to the start of a room when you die.
Helman has been forced to rely on his 11-year-old nephew for constructive feedback, since the rest of his friends seem impressed – and understandably so. “Everyone I’ve shown it to has said, ‘What are you doing? This looks like a real game made by a team of ten people!'” He laughs. “Well, that’s the idea!”
A Hallowe’en party offers light relief after a fraught rescue, though Horace is quickly called into action once more.
The game’s tutorial is baked into the plot, as Horace’s abilities are put through their paces by his owners. That reminds us of, er, Knack. But we like this game.
The game’s sense of humour is on full display in the newspaper headlines that document Horace’s more daring exploits, though we’re not sure we approve of print media being called ‘nearly dead.’ *hysterical sobbing from Team GM*
Horace’s tie lets you know which way is up (or down) when he’s wearing his anti-gravity shoes, in case inverted bathtubs weren’t clue enough.