I don't know what I expected from Horace before playing. I've played so many retro-inspired pixel platformers over the last 10 years, each scored by catchy throwback chiptune soundtracks, that I've lost count. Don't get me wrong: I love them. They're my bread and butter, and while I'll never tire of them, they do admittedly begin to roll into one after a while. I guess I went into Paul Helman and Sean Scapelhorn's love letter to the 8 and 16-bit eras of gaming, the very ones that I cut my teeth on 30 years ago, expecting more of the same.
What I didn't expect from Horace – the indie gem that launched on Steam in mid-2019, Nintendo Switch in October 2021, and PS4 and Xbox One just a few weeks ago – was for my jaw to hit the floor while getting to grips with its masterful perspective-shifting sidescrolling. I didn't expect to curse aloud when it killed me more times than Elden Ring in a flooded basement lined with malfunctioning electrics. I didn't expect to double over laughing at its effortlessly tongue-in-cheek references to bygone pop culture. And I sure as shit didn't expect to be on the verge of tears when reminded of playing Space Harrier on the Atari ST with my late uncle years before he passed.
Horace will undoubtedly mean more to players of a certain age, I realize this. But even if its nostalgic jabs go over your head, there's still so much here to fall in love with.
At its core, no matter your age or personal gaming lineage, Horace is a brilliantly thoughtful, challenging platformer in the same vein as Super Meat Boy or Terry Cavanagh's VVVVV. Some of its rapidly-unfolding conundrums reminded me of N++ in style and structure, whereas those first steps with the aforementioned gravity-twisting mechanic inspired awe in the same way Jonathan Blow's Braid did all those years ago.
Story-wise, Horace tells an emotional, often touching tale about a robot primarily designed to clean garbage who wants more from his existence. What follows is a rich and enlightening journey of self-discovery, supported by a cast of goodies, baddies and a ridiculous number of once high-profile celebrities – some from the vaults of British television, others from across the pond in the form of Jerry Seinfeld and the cast of Friends. In these moments, Horace is weird and wild and wonderful. For example, and I can't quite believe I'm writing this, but I especially enjoyed being chased by savage prehistoric cavemen while rubbing shoulders with an English professor and Bill and Ted in what is a clear, albeit abstract nod to Stanley Krubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey.
I loved the game's references to video game history by way of Horace playing the Magnavox, the Atari 2600, the SNES, the 3DO, and the PS2. I loved the game's old-school Final Fantasy references, its nods to Rockband, Street Fighter, Pac Man, Afterburner 2, and a catalog of other retro classics. Besides the aforementioned TV stars, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air cast is in there too, as is Wilson from Castaway, Disney's Herbie, Beauty and the Beast, and an entire level that's a playful rip-off of Donkey Kong. From the artistic works of Michelangelo, to an ode to Michael Jackson, Horace's penchant for parallel posturing runs deep, and is often hilarious along the way.
Of course, these references could be funny on their own, but in Horace they're never center stage. While humorous in support of telling the game's tale, the litany of cameos and throwbacks are secondary to its solid and intuitive platforming. With multiple ways to twist gravity, each level can be tackled in myriad ways, which leads to a fair bit of head-scratching before the penny drops. This process is the essence of any good puzzle-platformer, granted, but Horace is chock-full of perplexing situations that merit the most euphoric of eureka moments when you finally, finally, work them out. Horace's approximate 12 to 15-hour runtime means you'll find yourself in these situations time and time again, and makes it great value for money too.
Needless to say, Horace caught me by surprise for all the right reasons. My only complaint is a personal one: that it took me so long to discover it – now, as it arrives on PS4 and Xbox almost four years after its debut on PC. If you've been banging the drum since then (or since its arrival on Switch in 2020), then I can only apologize for not hearing you. I'm definitely listening now. And if you're yet to discover it, know that I think it's nothing short of a masterpiece that you should pick up and play today. If you do, maybe grab some tissues, because there's every chance you'll be sobbing tears of sadness and joy when the credits roll.
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