In Old School Adventure by Chris Hughes Games, players assume the role of Chris Unarmed. Chris is aptly named for having no arms, but he also has no neck or legs - he is a head attached to shoes. He runs and he jumps, and that’s all his anatomy will allow him to do. The game tasks you with defeating Mango, who is apparently en-route to destroying the world. First, though, we have to get to Mango, and that’s where things get challenging.
OSA can best be described as a puzzle platformer. Players run and jump and wall-jump, but each room presents a challenge beyond motor reflexes: you genuinely have to think to get from Point A to Point B. In virtually every screen, there will exist an intricate setup of spikes and enemies and traps that will push you past the standard sidescrolling habit of running and jumping. Instead, you will be planning out your actions, attempting failed experiments to see how things play out, sometimes questioning if getting to the room’s exit is even possible before having an “Aha” moment where the pieces click into place. Even then the solution is not complete, because you must now use those motor reflexes to execute your plan or face a quick end.
I died an awful lot. I died within five seconds of playing. I died ten seconds after that. I then got into a groove, finished the first room, and promptly died again.
That’s OK, though. There is virtually no penalty for dying. You reappear at the entrance to the room and start again. It’s less about staying alive in the long-term and more about solving an immediate puzzle. If you are a fan of Abe’s Odyssey, this style of play - this puzzling and experimentation and brutal death - will feel right at home.
The level design has another marvelous thing working for it: rooms tie together splendidly, and many things within a room are repurposed depending on Chris’s current power. Something like a moving spiked block that seriously impeded your path at one point in the game might become an essential stepping stone once Chris gains the ability to walk on spikes. Inaccessible rooms you see in the beginning of the game gradually open up, and it’s a great feeling realizing how a new ability you just earned will enable you to do something you wondered about earlier. These designs have some of the early Metroid spirit about them, and quite bluntly, it’s some of the best level craftsmanship I’ve seen in XBLIG.
… And now this review stops looking like a love letter, and I hammer on some of the bad…
A good portion of the platforming is hampered by loose controls, and this is where the biggest frustration of OSA resides. A platforming game needs a tight control scheme to be manageable, and OSA does not have this. I found myself drifting inadvertently into spikes more than once, not because I didn’t know exactly what to do, but because I expected Chris to stop and he just kept going. Wall jumping, especially off certain (for lack of a better word) escalators behaved erratically. In a not-insignificant number of instances, I would run to the edge of a platform and try to jump only to plummet to my death - and then I’d do the same thing a couple more times in a row before finding the ’sweet spot’ I needed to make the jump actually get me where I needed. These experiences were enough to make me angrily curse at the game more than once (yes, much like a seventh grader or a Halo player), spoiling an otherwise great time.
The graphics, music, and story are nothing to write home about. The game never looks bad, but it doesn’t look particularly good either. Minimalist styles can often work, but this game has a roughness to it. The music falls into the background; there are only a couple tracks, and if you played them for me I probably wouldn’t recognize them. The story goes all over the place, forming a halfway interesting narrative and then throwing it away for something simpler and more tongue-in-cheek near the end. This makes the last few sections of the game somewhat cute but also somewhat unfulfilling.
Finally, there was one show-stopping glitch: I managed to get stuck and couldn’t progress because I got a powerup at the wrong time. It’s a testament to the game’s quality that I came back and replayed the beginning to pass that point, but it’s obviously a black mark on the experience. Chris has told me he intends to fix that.
I had a lot of fun with Old School Adventure. There were a few times controls left me frustrated and cursing, and the aesthetics aren’t really there, but I don’t regret playing through the whole game (twice). Not even a little.