I’ve always harbored this delusion belief that I would be pretty good at music if I ever picked up an instrument. I have no evidence to back this up. Back in the fifth grade when I played the recorder I wasn’t an instant pro and I didn’t pick up the drums in Rock Band without some struggles (I still can’t play expert). I just know two things that give me this notion: 1. I can keep a beat down fairly well and 2. Other people don’t seem to be able to.
Logically, this isn’t what separates Jimi Hendrix from the average Joe who picks up a guitar or we’d have unbelievable musicians coming out of our ears, but it seems to me that the most essential skill behind successful musicianship, rhythm, is in short supply among people I know. It would be a gross oversimplification (that’s 144 times as much oversimplification for those keeping score at home) to even presume that skill on the Rock Band drums translates into real, musical talent, but on the other hand, I find it hard to believe that someone who can’t hold a moderately easy beat on easy or medium difficulty in that game has any musical ability at all.
So now we’re back to me and how I think that the only thing keeping me from being a rock star is actually picking up an instrument, a hypothesis based almost exclusively on my ability to play Rhythm Heaven, it seems. Does that mean that people who can’t manage to play the game can’t play music? I think I’m finding more and more flaws in my argument by the minute…
Former-roommate Min Chen tried his hand at some Rhythm Heaven not long after I picked up the game and the esoteric and heavily Japanese-influenced game seemed to mystify him. This is a man who plays the piano, and pretty well, mind you, who can rock pretty hard on the drums in Rock Band (expert difficulty, thank you very much), but he can’t manage to beat the very first level in Rhythm Heaven. It’s not really all that complicated: you hold the stylus on the bottom screen to cock back the bolt launcher and when the two nuts intersect, you flick the stylus to launch the bolt to connect the nuts. The rhythmic catch to this mini-game is that you’ve got to hit the nuts with precise timing. They come in from opposing ends of the screen playing a scale as they come in: Do Re Mi Fa So. You launch at So. Cake, right? I beat it my first attempt and I think I got a perfect on my third. Not one pass from Min. It makes absolutely no sense to me, because I thought he’d be great at the game.
There’s a reason it’s called Rhythm Heaven, you know. The game supplies visual cues all the time, but in 99% of the games you honestly could close your eyes and still play quite effectively. Some games are actually harder if you’re watching what’s going on just because of how trippy and strange the visuals are. The controls seem intuitive enough, you really only ever have three things to do with the stylus and they’re about as fundamental as can be. You either tap, flick, or hold. It seems like child’s play, but if my boy Min can’t do it, I’m almost reluctant to recommend the game to friends of mine who don’t fall squarely into the gaming category. You know what, I’m gonna just say that practice will help you move past most challenges, meaning that even the most unpracticed of gamers can manage to successfully play this game, with a little bit of practice.
Nintendo is actually really keen to this part of the audience. A quick look at the ad-campaign surrounding this game proves that they are actively targeting the novice gamer for this title. Beyoncé Knowles headlines one ad while 16-year old girls are the focus of one of the others. Here’s the hidden genius behind Nintendo’s design, there exists, within the game, a café that the player can enter at any time to “take a break.” Fail a song three times and you’ll see a little speech bubble hovering out of the café. The owner is beckoning you inside. He’s concerned and he doesn’t know how to say it without offending you, but are you having trouble with the song you keep failing? If you want, he can unlock the next one for you and you don’t have to keep bashing your head against the wall. It’s entirely up to you, of course.
The first time you see this, if you’re a long-time gamer with way too much pride, like I am, you’ll scoff and ignore it. Who does the café guy think he is to tell you that you suck at a game and give you a free pass? You go back to the main menu and attempt to tackle that game some more. You probably beat it. You’re quite happy with yourself for your accomplishment. Screw the café guy for thinking that you couldn’t do this on your own. Later on in the game you’ve failed the same game for a half hour. You’re tired of the garbage that they localized the soundtrack with. You realize that, hey, no one will know if you move onto the next one. It’s not like the game is going to call up your Halo-playing buddies to tell them that you needed help. Just like that, you take the free pass, move onto the next challenge, and you’re having fun again. Just. Like. That.
There’s some serious hypocrisy at play here for me. I’m the same guy who was so annoyed with the ease of Super Mario Galaxy that I wrote a whole blog post about how games were too easy. How can I justify, nay, laud a game for easing games through its challenges. I honestly don’t have a good answer to that question. There’s something about rhythm/music games that annoys me when it comes to failure. I admit that it’s mega-frustrating to play the same level ad infinitum until you can master a specific jump or get its timing just right. Just today I was playing Bubble Bobble Plus! with Eric and he clearly reached the limit to his patience when the remake’s ridiculous level design managed to stonewall us at level 72. He was about ready to quit. If I hadn’t looked up the solution online to the busted game mechanics, we wouldn’t have beat the game’s hundredth level and I would have remained a freakish, bubble-blowing dinosaur. It’s not the fate I wanted.
Digressions aside, imagine playing the same goddamn song over and over and over again. Play it some more to really get to where every note in that song makes you want to hurt someone. This is why I don’t mind easy progression in music games. The genre is about listening to new songs and mastering their challenges, but I think music reaches an annoying threshold a lot faster than missing a jump in Super Mario World. When your content revolves solely on progression to experience it, does it make sense to hold the player’s hand and help him along? I admit that this is a question of game design that far exceeds my expertise, but it is much appreciated in this case.
Well, we’ve hit about 1200 words and I haven’t even really explained the game at all, so I’d say we’re about due. Most websites will tell you that Rhythm Heaven features 50 unique mini-games for you to complete. This is something of a lie. There are actually 51 challenges, but only 24 are unique challenges, 10 are remixes composed of compilations of the other mini-games to different music, one is a playable credit sequence, and 15 are harder versions of past stages. Each unique stage has you using the stylus (and one button in one case) in unique ways to the music to earn a passing grade at the level. The remixes are brilliant combinations of the mini-games, the most fantastic of which sometimes interrupt you and transition to the next game with such fantastic flow that you’re already completing the next task. Some of the later ones will play upon this tendency and do the opposite to trick and cause mistakes.
The stages combine to make for the most fantastically random collection of characters and locations ever seen in a non-WarioWare game. One second you’ll be controlling a dog ninja slicing vegetables, bones, tires, and frying pans, the next you’ll be a DJ messing around with a turntable. Word on the nets is that some of the WarioWare folks were actually behind this game and the strength of their design, which allows randomness to mesh into a surprisingly cohesive experience, truly shines through.
When you’re tired of the rhythm games, there are other rhythm toys, basically ideas that didn’t make the cut, for you to mess around with and that’s about it. Most people’s biggest complaint with this game is just that, there’s not a whole lot of game there when you get right down to it. If you’re the type who wants more than ten hours of relatively shallow game from your portable collection, this isn’t the right title for you. If you love music, love intelligent design (not the kind that opposes evolution, the type that means a fine game), and love fun, well this is the game for you. It will have legs because you love the music or the quirky games and there’s always the pursuit of perfect scores to hold your attention.
There are some issues with the game that mostly revolve around its localization. I understand that you can’t really bring a game like this to the states without translating the Japanese, but for some reason the vocal localization seems way lacking in comparison. Uninspired lame English vocals just don’t hold a candle to the Japanese tracks. I’ve said it before, but the Japanese could totally suck too, but my lack of understanding would prevent me from realizing it sucked. Keep it in Japanese.
I can’t really emphasize how truly awesome this game is. It’s hard to think of a DS game I’ve had this much fun with in a long time. The combination of quirky strangeness and razor sharp mechanics make for a well-spent $30.