To get into the mood, it’s best to read this entry with this tune in the background.
About time I showcased something from one of my favourite video game genres, rhythm games. Given that I’ve dedicated a whole chapter of Fake Geek Girl Adventures to these quirky Japanese creations, I may as well go ahead and say why I love them so much.
Rhythm games, at heart, distill video games to their simplest mechanics. The screen puts up a prompt, and you press a button to react. It’s a testament to designers’ skill at audio and visual sleight-of-hand, with incredibly catchy and often surreal tunes and art styles, that this imitation game manages to be as fun and addictive as it is. People often talk of interactive novel games. Well, rhythm games are like interactive MP3 Players or juke boxes.
Rhythm Heaven looks unassuming at first, with a cover like this. But it is a good example of looks being deceiving. Like its sister series, WarioWare, its simplistic art style is used to portray an outrageously wacky world with a variegated cast of characters. Throughout the game, you’ll take on roles from relatively normal (e.g. Naive chorus kid, Idol singer, Karate man), to the surreal (Cephalopod-faced DJ trainee, frog dancer with large, sexy hips, singing Moai). The whole thing plays out like some bizarre slice-of-life variety show (hence the awesome, awesome theme I mentioned at the beginning). It’s weird to say a game with no explicit plot and simple characters has clever writing, but really, these oddballs are surprisingly endearing due to the direction the music and scenarios take in the sequel games and remixes. Also, by getting Perfects on certain games, you unlock reading material that gives you additional insight into the characters’ backgrounds and what goes on in their heads. Particularly cute are the scientists in love, which touches me on a personal level, and also goes to show just how much the game gives the impression of being for everyone.
But what makes Rhythm Heaven in particular stand out from the crowd gameplay-wise? Well, from the producer Tsunku himself,
In Japan, with games that use rhythm and sound, it’s long been the case that the placement of accents and the timing of button-presses has had nothing to do with music. For someone like myself, whose work revolves around music, this has never seemed right, and I wrote up my proposal in hopes of doing away with this.
The cleverness of the writing extends to the gameplay mechanics themselves. Sure, it’s not as intense as the highest levels of Bemani (though Rhythm Rally 2 comes close), but it comes with its own tricks not commonly found in other rhythm games. The second game, the Glee Club with the adorable Chorus Kids, makes you match the timing and duration of the other two singers’ voices, a common mechanic throughout the game. Without any button cues, I admit, it took me a while to get Superb on that game despite being a veteran of the genre. Later notable games include Big Rock Finish, in which you are given one fixed pattern, but need to match it to the tempo of various ending motifs, and Lockstep, which makes you switch between on and offbeats (the sequel making it even trickier by using a rarely heard swing beat; 1 _ 3 1 _ 3 instead of 1 2 1 2). Both of them are a pain in the butt at first, but satisfying once you get used to them (well, for me at least, my musical background made me appreciate these obscure mechanics).
Perfect mechanics are also handled in an interesting way. One game is randomly selected at a time, and if a game you achieved Superb on is that game, you have three shots at a Perfect before the cursor moves to another game. This discourages simply brute force practicing your way through a game, and encourages developing a sense of rhythm in general. The system sounds tedious and stressful, but in practice, I found it kept me moving forward through the games rather than getting stuck trying to get the Perfect so I didn’t get burned out as fast. Ironically, the way Perfects are recorded isn’t actually perfect or intuitive,* but it’s still a satisfying feat to get them all, especially because of the neat reading material I mentioned earlier that you can win.
Even if rhythm games seem to fundamentally play the same way, this game still manages to be an experience like no other. Why do I consider it a reminder of why I love video games? Because, aside from loving music in general, it’s because of its simplicity. It’s proof that you don’t need an AAA budget, just a lot of cleverness, charm, and heart. Rhythm Heaven‘s cute characters and unique gameplay, heck, even the cheesy idol songs, resonate close to my heart just as much as an epic RPG (in many cases, even more so), and it has that slice-of-life optimism that just makes me see the world in a better light.
Another thing that makes the game special? You can literally play the game with your eyes closed because the main cues are all auditory, and the visual cues are primarily for show (heck, a few games have such confusing visuals that not paying attention to them may actually be beneficial). Remember what I said about the game being for everyone? Well, Nintendo actually responded to a blind Japanese boy who loved that it was one of the few games he could play. That’s as good an endorsement of the game as any.
*Some games can be incredibly forgiving (the aforementioned Lockstep, for instance, has a very wide timing window for Perfect, while for Rockers, you can constantly stop your guitar too early and still get Perfect), while others have tight and awkward timing windows (usually that tapping even a millisecond before the beat is considered a failure, but you can tap slightly later and still count, but this is notably reversed for Rhythm Rally).