Keeping Score: Floor Kids

This is Keeping Score, a series about games and their soundtracks. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Unlike most games, my interest in Floor Kids began with its soundtrack. Composed and performed by Kid Koala, who is my favorite DJ (and, apparently, also Your Mom’s Favorite DJ), I heard about the game through his social media posts about the soundtrack he was making. If the new music didn’t have me excited enough, the game looked great too: a hand-drawn animated game about breakdancing, made by actual breakdancers with great love and respect for the scene. Promotional clips looked fantastic, and the game earned praise when it released as a Nintendo Switch exclusive. After a few months of exclusivity were over, it came to PC via Steam and I picked it up, along with the soundtrack.

Floor Kids is a rhythm game, but it sets itself apart from the likes of Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero by eschewing their focus on following on-screen instructions as precisely as possible. Instead, Floor Kids encourages creativity and player expression. This is accomplished with a smartly designed control scheme and a wide array of scoring criteria — with names such as Funk, Flyness, and Flavor — that reward players for experimenting and creating their own dance routines. Not only is this true to the spirit of breakdancing, in which each dancer mixes up their moves on the fly as part of their performance, it’s a refreshing twist on the usual rhythm game formula that made me wonder why no one else had thought of it before.

I need to provide a brief description of the control scheme for this to make sense. Floor Kids requires a gamepad, and unfortunately did not recognize my ancient, third-party model. It’s programmable, but with no keyboard controls to map to, I was unable to fix the problem myself. Instead I turned to the free utility program x360ce, which set up my pad to emulate an Xbox 360 controller. This was actually quite easy to do; I just copied the x360ce executable into the game folder (which can be sussed out of some Steam menus), ran it once to assign buttons (although the defaults were nearly perfect anyway), and then it automatically kicked in every time I launched the game, working perfectly. The only issue was inputs from clicking the analogue sticks inward like buttons, which are used occasionally for the advanced “strobe” moves in Floor Kids. My pad seemed to physically have this capability but it’s not recognized as an input in Windows at all. Fortunately I could use x360ce to remap this function to a spare bumper button, and all was well.

So: the controls. Each of Floor Kids’ eight unlockable dancers has sixteen moves in total, divided into four categories. Toprock moves are done standing up, and are chosen with the four face buttons on the pad. Tapping a button to the beat will get the dancer going, and it’s simple to start tapping different buttons to switch to different moves. Downrock moves are similar, but send the dancer to the floor, using hands and feet in equal measure. A simple downward flick of the left analogue stick and the dancer will switch to downrock moves, also mapped to the four face buttons (an upward flick of the stick returns to toprock). Keep tapping the toprock and downrock buttons in time with the beat and you’ll be rocking a sweet routine in no time. For a little extra Flyness, players can flick their stick left or right to reverse many of these moves, or insert some cool poses with judicious taps of shoulder buttons. Power moves are activated by spinning the analogue stick, and include famous and gif-friendly acrobatics like flares and headspins. Keep spinning faster and faster to accelerate for extra points, but don’t go for too long or the dancer will wipe out. Freeze moves are similar, accessed by holding the stick and a face button in a specific direction. Dancers will strike a difficult pose and hold it as long as they can, but they’ll have to switch to another move before they tire out.

Most of the time, players are free to mix and match these moves as they see fit. Their Funk score depends on tapping buttons to the beat, but it doesn’t matter which moves they are. In fact, their Flavor score encourages using many different moves, rather than sticking to a few, so there’s an advantage in changing things up. Keeping the dance going without pauses or wipeouts results in a high Flow score. Flyness rewards a player for spicing things up with little flourishes like poses, hops and reversals, which can be interjected into routines whenever feels right. While each track’s two chorus sections do ask players to match beats from an on-screen prompt — getting much trickier as one progresses in the game — most of the time is spent in these free-form segments, which are a blast to play.

There is some structure introduced in the form of combos. Each dancer has four combos, each of which is a set sequence of moves. Pulling them off provides a big score bonus, but they can be tricky to fit into each of the two ~90 second stretches between choruses. Plus, the audience has a habit of calling out requests for specific types of moves, which can be fulfilled within a short time window. It sucks to be in the middle of a difficult transition between two power moves as part of a combo, only to have the audience suddenly ask for some toprock. But, filling those requests confers another score bonus and feeds into one’s Fire score.

Taken all together, a dance routine in Floor Kids can get pretty intense. Getting the highest rating for a track requires hitting all four combos, using all sixteen moves, and hitting most if not all audience requests, plus throwing in some extra poses and hops, all while keeping time. It really gets the heart pumping, and I don’t recommend playing Floor Kids just before bedtime. But it’s hugely satisfying to pull it off. I learned to plan out my routines somewhat in advance, deciding when to unleash each combo and embellishing them with a few extras, but also to give myself enough space to modify things based on audience requests. If, after my first combo, I got a downrock request, that might mean it was time to change plans and start a combo that begins with some downrock moves, and postpone my other combos until later. And while the controls for the eight dancers’ moves are the same, their combos are unique, which meant there was a good deal of variety in my dance routines as I tried them all out.

Floor Kids’ presentation is also excellent. Kid Koala used to DJ breakdance battles, and animator Jonathan “JonJon” Ng is a dancer himself, even rocking some moves in the promotional materials for the game. They’ve created a love letter to breakdancing, with comic-book style cutscenes delivering philosophical musings on the beat and the dance as players work their way through the City and recruit new dancers into their crew. Those dancers form a diverse cast, each lovingly animated for their unique move sets, including transition animations for each combination of moves. Every move has an authentic name, and each dancer’s collection of moves fits their overall style, with particular strengths in certain types of moves. These can all be accessed from the Breakdeck, a repository of everyone’s dance moves that’s reminiscent of move lists in fighting games. Presented as a set of collectible cards, it lets players check out each dancer’s repertoire and learn their specific combos.

It looks fantastic in motion, fast and fluid just like the real thing, with a pencil art style that makes even still frames look like they’re in motion. A few carefully thought out visual effects act as feedback to accentuate particularly spectacular feats, providing just enough prompting to follow the action without distracting too much from the impressive acrobatics on display. Background details are great too, with distinctive audience members forming a ring around the dance floor and cheering the dancers along. Players work through different locations, from humble beginnings on the Corner and in the Metro, to more mainstream arenas like the Art Space, the Venue, and finally the Peace Summit. Each of these locations has lavish background art and its own audience to impress, as well as three records (complete with cover art) to rock to. If one of the recruitable dancers is there, you’ll see them in the crowd checking out your skills. Given the freeform nature of the game, increasing difficulty comes primarily from more complicated chorus sections, which ask players to mimic the same drum machine or sampler rhythm that Kid Koala tapped in real time when making the track. The time window for audience requests also gets shorter. And since players keep unlocking new dancers, they have new moves to play with as they progress. I tried them all, but was partial to Scribbles early on as I liked her style. Later, however, I gravitated towards Raquette, who uses her height to pull off some awesome high flares and mills. Plus she can do the Super Worm!

The story mode in Floor Kids is not particularly long, but it’s a ton of fun. For those who want to keep playing — or simply wish for some more low-key dancing without worrying about getting a high score — there’s an Infinity Mode too. This lets players pick any dancer and any record from the game and just dance as long as they want. No chorus sections and no interruptions. It’s nice, but my one complaint is that it happens against a blank background. This is cool for highlighting the animation on all the moves, but I’d welcome the option to pick one of the dance venues as well, so as to enjoy the crowd and ambience.

Overall, I had a great time with Floor Kids, and I hope to see the developers add more to it, or otherwise continue with the concept. If you’ve ever seen some breakdancing videos and thought it looked cool, give Floor Kids a try. At the time of writing, you can get it on Nintendo Switch, or on Steam for PC. You’ll be a master dancer yourself before you know it.

The Score:

It’s no surprise that I love the music in Floor Kids. Kid Koala’s albums tend towards the quirky, using records and scratches in unusual and inventive ways to make music that’s quite different from what you’d expect when you hear “DJ”. I was going to point to a specific album as an example, but honestly they’re all odd; try Some of My Best Friends Are DJs, or the turntable blues of 12 Bit Blues. For the Floor Kids soundtrack, however, Kid Koala opted for an authentic old-school party vibe, full of funky jams that just beg for some sweet dance moves. Still, his signature style comes through, in details like the pitched-up kids’ voices shouting out and counting down to the beat, and his trademark attention to detail makes the tracks rise above your standard party music.

In an informative interview, Kid Koala explains some of his process for making the soundtrack. Each of the tracks that players dance to is necessarily the same length –around two minutes and twenty seconds — so that dance routines can be comparable no matter which record is playing. But within these constraints, Kid Koala worked to match the sound to the artwork JonJon made for each venue, and to have the music move through different eras of breaking music. Early tracks have a ’70s funk sound, reproduced by recording live instruments with ribbon microphones, cutting to vinyl, and then scratching them together to make the final tracks. Later tracks move through the electro pop sound of the ’80s, into ’90s 12-bit samplers, and modern modular synthesizers for some futuristic jams. New elements are deftly introduced as tracks progress, creating lovely multi-layer funk. Given the limitations on the compositions, the level of imagination and consistently high quality across the tracks is impressive.

And it’s not just the dance tracks. Music pervades everything about Floor Kids. Navigating between options in menus is accompanied by a musical tone which harmonizes with the (decidedly more mellow) background music. There are tons of incidental bits of music for the various menu screens, and even a separate track for the “calibrate” section of the options menu, which lets players check the synchronization of the audio and video (that one comes complete with a robot voice chanting “calibrate” along with the jam). When browsing the breakdeck to look at moves and combos, switching between the various cards produces a record scratch, which lets players actually make their own little scratch solos to the beat. It’s lovely.

Naturally, Kid Koala released the soundtrack on double vinyl as well as digitally. The vinyl version is designed to be usable as a DJ tool, so aspiring DJs can take it and run their own breakdance events. Featuring 42 tracks clocking in at 71 minutes, there’s a ton of stuff here, and the tracks hold up surprisingly well when just listening, as opposed to playing. But I was disappointed to discover that not all of the music in the game is included. Several of the dance tracks — specifically, Strutters (from the Metro), Beets and Pieces (from the Grocery), 1-Up and 10-Bit Warrior (from the Arcade), Space and Symmetry (from the Venue), and The Future Past (from the Peace Summit) — are absent. I can’t help but wonder if the space limitations of the double vinyl format led to these omissions. On the other hand, some bonus tracks make an appearance, including a dance track called Virtual Field, and (I believe) some of the slower pieces as well. Still, I wish the rest of the music was available, even if only in digital form.

Another interesting choice for the soundtrack release is the inclusion of narration. The soundtrack alternates between the dance tracks and various downtempo pieces used in menus and cutscenes, which makes for nice flow while listening. For the musical numbers that accompany the comic-style cutscenes in the game, we’re treated to a voiceover that narrates the text from those scenes, which are not voiced in the game itself. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, it means I don’t actually get a “clean” version of those musical tracks, which would have worked better when shuffled together with other music. On the other hand, it’s nice to be reminded of those cutscenes, which are really well done but can get lost amidst the repeated experimentation and score chasing in the game. My first reaction to the narration was annoyance, but I’m warming up to it on repeated listens.

But these are minor gripes, and I still highly recommend the soundtrack to anyone who enjoyed the game, or even to those who haven’t played it. Even before I’d heard it, it was the reason I was interested in Floor Kids, so I encourage others to check it out and see if it piques their interest too. As is usual with Kid Koala, this music will put a smile on your face, and the dance-ready jams are a great way to get motivated for whatever is coming your way. You can get the soundtrack on double vinyl or from various digital / streaming services here. As the narrator reminds us: Trust the funk. It is connected to everything.

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