In Depth Review: Elite Beat Agents [NDS]
I am definitely one of those shy types who couldn't play a performance rhythm game in front of anyone -- well, at least, never again. The last time I played a performance rhythm game, I was at a 4th of July party, and the game of choice was "Samba De Amigo". When I woke up the next day, I can politely say that I never wanted to see any of those people again, and that feeling hasn't went away in the five years since. I looked like a fool, and I knew it. It's such a traumatic experience, I doubt I'll ever completely recover my ego.
Mind you, it's not that I have no rhythm. Quite the contrary, actually. I play piano, and I do so pretty well. I can strum some fast and heavy Mozart or Beethoven across the keys with precise accuracy, especially when I'm inspired. The problem is rather that I am just not cut out for being in the limelight. Put me in front of an audience for a piano recital, and I'll likely make more mistakes than I ever would alone. Yet that is precisely the audience that most rhythm games target -- the audience at the party scene. I couldn't take part in something like that again if my life literally depended on it. For instance, I do believe that if an asteroid were falling to the earth at lightning speed, threatening to wipe out all of humanity, and the only way to save it were to sing and dance to the beat of a pop song, I would just assume crash-kiss the asteroid.
Lately, a slew of rhythm games have come out which attempt to be more accessible to the socially impaired, targeting not just the party audience, but the hermit as well. Games like "Guitar Hero" are introducing a whole group of individuals never before interested in rhythm games to the goodness of the genre, and they are doing it without requiring them to leave their homes.
Last year, a Japanese rhythm game came out in this vein for the NIntendo DS, and it quickly became one of the hottest import items available. It was called "Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan", and it took a lot of Western gamers by complete surprise. I am one of those. I haven't played a game more addicting on my DS, and I can say with certainty that no game on any system has become as addicting to me personally as that game has become. Built on the concept of Japanese male cheerleaders, who come to the rescue of individuals caught in various dilemmas by dancing to the beat of Japanese pop tunes, it was one of the quirkiest games I have ever played in my life. The goal is to lead the ouendan (translated: cheer squad) in a given choreographed dance number by tapping circles, dragging circular objects, and spinning a wheel of fortune, to the tune of a given song.
The fact that the game was entirely in Japanese, and thus virtually incomprehensible to a Western audience, was immaterial. Part of the fun of the game is not knowing precisely what is going on in the manga storyboards, and not really understanding the lyrics of the pop songs accompanying the dances you tap your way through. Given that game's success in the West, It was announced that while a port would not be released, a new game would be made based on the same addicting gameplay and game engine, only Americanized. Instead of cheerleaders dancing kung-foo style to J-pop, it would feature elite American Government agents dancing disco style to a variety of classic and recent American pop favorites to solve a set of problems we would better identify with. The news was met with thrills and chills. Many were excited about the possibilities. More than few others were concerned that a game they could actually understand would take away some of the mystery behind it.
Now that that game, titled "Elite Beat Agents", has been released, I can say with some certainty that those concerns were unfounded. Let me put this bluntly: "Elite Beat Agents" is not just one of the best rhythm games you will ever have the privilege of playing, nor is it just one of the best games available on the Nintendo DS -- it is without a doubt a game that meets almost all of the expectations that follow from its Japanese predecessor's exacting standards. It isn't merely successful in attempting to bring the same gameplay to a wider audience in terms they will understand, it is also successful in giving "Ouendan" fans like me more of what we want.
As previously noted, the game is built on directing a three-member group of usually male dancers to accomplish their smooth moves as flawlessly as possible. This is done by tapping, dragging, and spinning specific markers timed with the beat of a given song. The more precise, the better the dancing. Miss a beat, and it sends the dancers toppling backwards followed by a danceless period of confused daze. An "Elite-O-Meter" hangs above the dancers like a Sword of Damocles. It is energized by perfect hits, and loses steam over time as less than perfect hits or outright misses are encountered. As each story chapter is divided up into three or four subchapters, each of which correspond to a given song section (such as the beginning or end of a chorus), the goal is to finish those subchapters with the "Elite-O-Meter" above the point required for success. This will mark a particular subchapter as successful (with an "O") or as a failure (with an "X"). Make it all the way through the chapter, and a resolution follows bringing a happy end to the story's dilema, and satisfaction to the gamer for a job well done. However, allow your "Elite-O-Meter" to drop to zero at any point in the game, and you will be left with a humiliating scene of abject failure.
It sounds easy enough, and it certainly does start off simply. But over time, the beats you must drive will become increasingly more exacting. And unlike "Ouendan's" mostly regular and logical cheerleading moves, these dance moves are associated with irregular beats more often than not. There is a lot more syncopation. This is groove dancing, not cheerleading, and the difference really shows. The game has four difficulty modes: "Breezin", "Cruisin", "Sweatin", and "Hard Rock". These correspond to easy, normal, hard, and insanely hard, respectively. "Breezin" and "Cruisin" are initially available. "Sweatin" is unlocked after completing "Cruisin", and presents some challenge even to gamers with extreme tapping skills. "Hard Rock", which is unlocked on completing "Sweatin" mode, will leave all but the most determined gamers in the dust. Even on the easiest gameplay mode, chapters will increase in difficulty over time, leading to some real challenges. Much of the difficulty will come from the fact that many of the beat markers appearing on the touch screen can appear in spots which are covered by your hand while you're trying to hit markers on the opposite side of the screen. While this can be perplexing, it is overcome over time through memorization of the beat patterns as the gamer repeats a stage over and over again. This repetition could ruin almost any other type of game, but in "Elite Beat Agents", there is little feeling of frustration to be had in the experience. As daunting as any given chapter can be, none of them are impossible. In fact, many will find themselves returning to chapters they have already mastered just to enjoy the experience again and again.
The storylines take place on the top screen while your dancing gameplay takes place on the bottom touch-screen. Trying to watch the storylines taking place at the top while hitting the beats below is a near impossible venture. Luckily, the game gives the option to view performances in successful chapters which have been completed, allowing the gamer to see not only how he did, but to see exactly what was going on in the story board while he was doing it.. In addition, a great new feature has been added to the game which allows the player to actually save those performances for future viewing. This improvement on the original game is limited to one save per chapter on any difficulty setting, but as starting new chapters no longer has to cost you your option to view or showcase your best performances at a later time, this new option provides for a significantly better overall experience.
"Ouendan" fans might be a bit put off by the fact that they can actually understand the music coming their way this time around, but the mix of music is so eclectic and usually so fitting to their relative story chapters that it defies most criticism. The game now has at least nineteen songs coming from a wide selection made up of several musical eras. There are songs for most of the generations that comprise the gaming community: flower children who still have hangovers from the '60s, those '70s cool cats who dream of dressing up like American Indians or construction workers and dancing disco at Studio 54, and even 80's-ophiles who still wear their boy-toy belts, zipper-jackets, and/or parachute pants while moonwalking and/or break-dancing. Songs from the '90s and the pop scene since the start of the new millennium are also represented. Throw in a little speed metal from Deep Purple, some bubble gum music from teenybopper superstars like Ashlee Simpson, and some Generation X alternative tracks from bands like Good Charlotte, and you end up with a mix that will fit most every taste.
The agents themselves are individually packaged slices of pure American "cheese". The first background dancer is a mix of Shaft and Tubbs from "Miami Vice". The second one is a strange combination of Napolean Dynamite and the only white member of the Harlem Globe Trotters, with a huge mushroom cloud of red-orange hair to boot. Like "Ouendan", a different team leader is included in each of the first three modes to make each game mode a little more interesting. These include "Spin", a hip dawg with earphones and smooth moves, "J", a slick '80s yuppie type with a feathered pompadour hairdo, and "Chieftain", an aging hippie who looks like those evil Texas sheriff types from all those car chasing '70s films, complete with cowboy hat and shaggy facial hair. Also similar to "Ouendan's" female cheerleading team introduced at its hardest level, "Hard Rock" mode in "Elite Beat Agents" features a full female team of sexy "Elite Beat Divas" taking center-stage, replacing the male dancers entirely. These ladies are nothing like "Ouendan's" wholesome squad made up of girl-next-door types, as they resemble exotic dancers more than they do High School cheerleaders. The change is welcome to anyone who celebrates the female form as I do.
Story boards in "Elite Beat Agents" have been given a similar quirky flavor to those featured in "Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan". One scenario has you assisting a part-time mother, part-time meteorologist, who wants to take her child out on her only weekend off but is hindered by forecasts for rain. A little rain dance (with various wildlife participating), and a little help from her trusty vacuum cleaner and the US Air Force while flying through the clouds on a hanglider, and the heroine's weekend (and job, and reputation) are saved. A second story has you helping an abandoned diver to find treasure 20,000 leagues under the sea, only to find an unexpected threat from some razor-toothed sharks and a long-armed giant octopus, as well as the animated skeleton of a long-dead pirate protecting the booty. At one point you will assist a babysitter at getting her jock love interest to agree to go steady with her by inspiring him to use his mad football skills to solve the various problems she's having with her temporary wards. There are even some episodes that somewhat mirror those found in "Ouendan", such as a scenario with the agents assisting a performer with his internal bodily processes, a scenario with an adult saving a child from an enormous creature, and a touching love story involving Christmas wishes and a ghost. There's plenty for fans of "Ouendan" to like as well as those experiencing this for the first time.
Multiplayer mode has been expanded well beyond "Ouendan's" already excellent multiplayer features. In addition to the "Vs. Player" mode, which allows you to play against up to four friends at a time competitively, there is also a "Vs. Ghost" mode. This allows you to play against your own saved games to improve your performance over time, but with the added ability to transfer saved performances back and forth from other game owners, it also allows you to play against the saved files of others. A "Co-op" mode is also provided, allowing you to play cooperatively by sharing beats, with beats that your opponent is supposed to hit colored grey and yours colored normally. Multiplayer has new story scenarios to accompany the available games, including a competition among hard rock guitarists, a cooking contest among competitive chefs from the Renaissance, and a "Star Wars"-esque spaceship battle between Coq, the interstellar chicken warrior of Novia, and Skwid, the space-travelling squid warrior of Agos. To sweeten the pot even more, a single-card multiplayer mode has been added. Though the song selection is limited, and download times can be lengthy, this is a great improvement on "Ouendan's" multicard-only features.
This game will reach a broader audience than "Ouendan" ever could. That much is almost certain. I feel that if anyone is going to rationalize ignoring the game, it's likely to be the very ones who discovered said predecessor first and who just can't accept the fact that the only Japanese left in the game is the manga-style of storytelling. That's unfair in many ways, but ultimately will constitute more of a loss to those who have closed their minds to the game for that reason than to those the game was developed for. The fact has to be faced that "Osu! Tatake! Ouendan", while a fantastic rhythm game that almost anyone could pick up and play, only ever had the potential to garner a niche market in the West. "Elite Beat Agents" is the developers' answer to bringing this awesome gameplay to a wider audience, and the result is incredible. There's no doubt that some of the charm of "Ouendan" was tied to its Japanese presentation. Having said that, this game is everything that "Ouedan" was except for incomprehensible. And for gamers like me who need the entertainment behind rhythm gaming in a setting less saturated with the potential for public humility, that's a very good thing.