I have a weird obsession with rhythm games. I’ve even betrayed my next-gen video game consoles by threatening to become completely guitar-rock game-centric. They’ve since convinced me that I would feel very lonely without them but my passion remains (as does my weird talking relationship with my consoles).
I’ve decided to talk about a few of the more experimental music games because everyone knows about Guitar Hero (and it’s soul-saving capabilities) and if you’ve never heard about Dance Dance Revolution then you probably just figured out how the wheel works. The games in this review are all available for the Nintendo DS, the most innovative handheld video game system since Simon. If you’ve never heard of Simon, then you probably don’t even know what a wheel is.
Electroplankton is a random yet, perfectly controlled, video game music maker and that’s the easiest way to describe it. Its creator, Toshio Iwai, is some crazy genius. He’s created musical art installations (one called Piano – As Image Media in which audience members control a grand piano by using a trackball to "write" lighted dots projected onto a sheet of fabric that lead to the keys of the piano), TV shows (UgoUgoLhuga is a show from the 90s that had kids sending in drawings of sumo wrestlers that Iwai scanned in – audiences would then call in for their pick and the louder they screamed, the stronger their sumo drawing became), music machines (Tenori-On is a sixteen-by-sixteen grid of illuminated LED switches which can be activated in a variety of ways to create a changing musical soundscape) and various other video games. If that doesn’t give you an idea of the creativity involved in Electroplankton, then you need to get into the accounting field.
In Electroplankton, players interact with different types of "plankton" and create music through one of ten different playing methods. For instance, the Tracy plankton makes music moving along lines that you’ve drawn with the stylus. If you draw a line from left to right, the sound will start in the left speaker and end in the right. If you draw from top to bottom, the pitch will go down as the Tracy follows it. The plankton will move at the speed that your line is drawn. When the plankton gets to the end of the line, it will start over and continue looping until you stop the process. There are 6 different Tracies that work at the same time so this leads to a lot of musical possibilities.
The other plankton all use different methods to create music or sounds. Rec-Rec is basically a 4-track looper that records through the microphone. Volvoice records your voice and then plays back the sound in different ways based on its shape. Beatnes let’s you reconfigure original Nintendo theme music. There’s plenty here to keep you digital music freaks busy. It’s also a great way to get your hipster friends to play with your DS.
Daigasso! Band Brothers is the next game in my list of three experimental music games. I’m kind of cheating on this one because there’s nothing experimental about the music you play or the way you play it. It’s basically your average notes-come-down-the-line rhythm game (although the notes stay in place as a line moves over them in this one). What makes this one so special is the difficulty it throws at you about halfway through the songs. It’s not that you have to have musical experience to be able to master this game. No, you have to have octopus fingers.
The notes in this game aren’t signified by arrows or gems but by icons that correspond with the DS buttons. In the Beginner Mode there are only 3 icons. A D-pad icon, a face button icon and a touch screen icon. The D-pad icon allows you to hit any direction to make the note. The face button icon allows you to hit any face button (A,B,X, or Y) to hit the note and the touch screen icon requires you to touch the screen to make the music happen. In Amateur Mode, things kick up a notch. You no longer get generic icons. You’re now forced to hit Up, A, Down, X, etc. in order to make the music happen. Pro Mode is where your butt gets musically kicked. Not only do you have to hit all of the buttons to make music but sometimes you have to hold L or R in order to turn your notes sharp or raise the note one octave. You also have combinations of notes. For instance, you might have to hit Up for one note, A to complete the chord, L to make it sharp and R to raise it an octave. All of this happens regardless of the speed of the song and your fingers have to twist around each other, all while being able to hold the system in your hands.
What makes this game innovative is that it basically turns your DS into an instrument. If you get a note wrong, it doesn’t just miss it, you actually play the wrong note, something Guitar Hero lacks. Also, each song can have up to 8 instruments that you have to play so there are plenty of reasons to keep coming back.
The best part of Daigasso! is its multiplayer mode. You can have up to 8 people playing at once, everyone using a different instrument. It’s an amazing little piece of software and unfortunately it looks like it’s staying in Japan so you’ll have to import it.
Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan also falls under that non-experimental music banner but the way this game is played (and its story) is an interesting take on the music genre. Instead of icons falling from the screen, or a line moving across notes, you have numbered circles that must be hit in time to the beat and in sequential order. You also have circles with tracks extending from them. A rolling ball moves from one side of the track to the other and you have to follow it with your stylus. Lastly, you have a spinner that you have to rotate in time to the song to fill a gauge to a certain level. It sounds complicated and when you first start playing it’s hard to tell how the movements correlate with the rhythm of the song. After you get the hang of it though, you really start to enjoy its process and are impressed by its originality.
The fun part of the game is its storyline. You are part of a team of male cheerleaders who are posed with the challenge of cheering up people with music so that they can accomplish their goals. One person is having trouble studying for a big exam. One person has lost the inspiration to make pottery. There’s even a love story you have to work through. These people cry out for help and Ouendan shows up to scream out crazy words (Japanese) to lift these spirits. It’s very funny, mostly in that, "Hey, aren’t other cultures weird?" way but also because its fits the tone of the music perfectly. There are some other music games with stories, but some are so ridiculous it hurts to even wonder why they tried to add one (I’m looking at you Donkey Konga).
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