Horace, the 8-bit home computer game character created by William Tang, has always had a bit of an underground cult following most likely stemming from his unusual appearance of looking like a two eyed armless blob with legs and an appendage flopping out the back of his head.
Featuring in titles such as Hungry Horace, Horace Goes Skiing and Horace and the Spider, Horace and the franchise has been more or less been lying dormant for a couple of decades until 2014 when Alessandro Grussu decided to pay tribute with his fan made multi-part title Cousin Horace for the ZX Spectrum.
Apparently the original Horace is from the UK and he has an American cousin named…Horace?? Ok, well regardless the backstory to Cousin Horace is(and you better hold on to your hats for this) that the two Horaces are helping local authorities in their respective countries with an investigation into an underground network formed by their ancient enemies, the Guardians (an evil secret society bent on world domination) who themselves have team up with the Spiders and the Flying Demons. USA Horace invites his UK cousin for a holiday in the States, however, while waiting for his cousin to arrive at the airport, a well presented cut scene depicts USA Horace receiving a phone call from UK Horace “They got me, cousin! Help!” and then an unknown voice takes over the call and instructs USA Horace to head immediately to a place at the edge of the city, otherwise his UK cousin won’t survive the day (seriously, if they were to slap a bikini on either of the Horaces, I would swear that this backstory was written by the Mojon Twins).
If you are still following this review after all that then what you will find is a game split out across five separate chapters, each of which offers a different style of game play.
Chapter 1 – The Tower
The first part of Cousin Horace is your typical ZX Spectrum platform game. USA Horace arrives at the Guardians’ tower and he must reach the top floor and get the key that opens the locker with the Great Power Pill inside which will then give him the power to knock out all of the enemies contained within the tower.
The game play on offer here is good and the USA Horace character looks good and far less freakish than his UK cousin (he has arms). The twist of having to eliminate enemies once you obtain the Power Pill is a good addition to the game. But beware, at times you will have to perform blind jumps which when mistimed can often have you result in a lot of backtracking and a little bit of frustration in doing so. At least the game avoids the ‘instant death’ trap as USA Horace has a somewhat generous energy count, making the game more accessible.
Chapter 2 – The Flight
This chapter is a horizontal scrolling shooter which sees you try to control a helicopter through myriads of drone all intent to destroy you in order to get to Sleepyville (which is where UK Horace has been moved to).
This is where any sense of visual continuity across the game ceases as the graphics revert to a monochrome style that change colour as your progress each of the four landscapes. The shooting action on offer here is cumbersome and unrewarding. Many of the enemy droids require multiple hits as your helicopter slowly crawl across the landscape (with limited sound mind you) praying that there are no more drone waves coming your way so that the misery can end. At some point, you can’t be bothered shooting at the enemy so you simply look for spots on the screen that the waves won’t get you, picking up Fuel icons every now and then.
Those of you with the patience to get through this chapter will be rewarded though.
Chapter 3 – Sleepyville
The third chapter of the game reverts to an exploration arcade adventure format where USA Horace must find a way to discover the Guardians’ base, where UK Horace is being held captive.
This level requires you to carefully navigate the labyrinth like layout of the town while avoiding motorcycle gangs, scorpions, tumbleweeds and vultures as each time you come in contact with them it will reduce your energy bar down by 1 or 2 units. The asthetic of this level is quite pleasing to the eye but again it is somewhat different to the previous two levels breaking the the illusion of this being one cohesive game. That being said, the Sleepyville level is quite enjoyable to play and I quite like the inclusion indoor environments, one of which is a hospital where you can replenish your energy (at a cost).
Chapter 4 – The Base
The Base chapter of the game is another maze like exploration level that requires USA Horace to locate five diskettes so that he can shut down the base’s security system and allow him to free UK Horace.
This is clearly the best chapter of the game as it is more cerebrally challenging and could be considered a fully fledged game in its own right. You can collect a nail gun that can then be used to shoot at Assassin Robots and Cyber-Guardians roaming across the base and you can strategically move barrels into a position to protect your way forward past deadly lasers.
Adding further depth to the game is that you will need to collect keys to unlock doors and thankfully, the chapter also avoids instant death by providing a energy health system. Overall its all quite enjoyable.
Chapter 5 – Together
The final chapter sees the two Horace cousins trying to escape the base from the chief bad guy called Eugene. This is a puzzle type game in that you control both Horaces in an effort to deactivate the switches located across 10 levels. However, each switch can be operated by only one of the Horaces but it is up to you to find out which one. You will have to deactivate each level before the timer runs out and you must avoid coming in contact with Eugene or between the two Horaces otherwise the level resets.
What makes this level quite interesting is that you control both cousins at the same time but UK Horace will move in the opposite direction to your controller. Trying to make your brain switch between normal movement and opposite movement is quite challenging but it is a whole lot of fun trying to work it all out. It takes quite a bit of getting used to but eventually you train your brain to control the cousins in an effective way.
The game overall
Cousin Horace is an epic adventure overall. Each chapter is connected together via cut scenes that progress the story arc and gives a sense of one continuous game. This succeeds to a degree as the sense of cohesiveness is stunted by the contrasting aesthetic across most chapters. Chapter 1 is an ok fare while Chapter 2 is abysmal but all is forgiven as the game play of the last three chapters is quite engaging with the last two being the most rewarding.
It is clear that Alessandro Grussu poured a lot of passion into the development of Cousin Horace and he is to be applauded for his effort here as you cannot accuse Cousin Horace as being your typical ZX Spectrum game.
Cousin Horace is about to get a physical release via Bitmap Soft and if you have any qualms about supporting the current holder of the Horace IP then don’t as their portion of the proceeds are being donated directly to a Multiple Sclerosis charity. So pick up your copy of Cousin Horace as a way of supporting the developer, a new established software house and the fight against MS.
An epic adventure that spans across 5 chapters and 4 different game play styles. Get passed the first two chapters and you are on your way to some rewarding gaming experiences.
Retro gaming journalist promoting NEW C64, Amiga, Amstrad CPC & ZX Spectrum games. Contributes to RetroGamerNation YouTube channel, RVG and Vintage is the New Old blog sites, Reset 64 Magazine, The 8-Bit Annual and various other publications.