Lost in Translation
Well, I should qualify that statement. I love rhythm games in a conceptual sense, but there are only a few rhythm games that really seemed to catch my attention, bringing me clever and addicting gameplay that defy my fear of making a spectacle of myself. When I say a few, I mean that up to now, there have literally been only two: "PaRappa the Rapper", which required no public humiliation, and "Samba De Amigo", which practically sprayed humiliation from its pours. I am probably one of the few who hasn't caught onto the "Guitar Hero" craze, and my fear of public exposure has left me unwilling to dance up revolution in front of an audience, so it's safe to say that it has been a good long time since a rhythm game came on the scene that caught my interest.
Let's face it, the main reason for my aversion is my own hang-up. These games are usually party games, and I am no longer the life of the party. Now that I am well into my 30s, I just don't have the same supply of looks and charm to pull off looking like a fool in front of a group of my peers while simultaneously keeping my ego in tact. Yet it is precisely that foolish "let it all hang out" quality that makes rhythm games appealing to me in the first place. If there were just some way I could take part in that crazy humor without being the subject of it, I might be more apt to participate.
When I heard about the "Elite Beat Agents" game that was being released in the United States for the Nintendo DS, I quickly became educated on its history as an American version of a popular Japanese import game named "Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan". I decided that it might be a good idea to give good ol' Lik-Sang an order to continue my education before "Elite Beat Agents" was released to the public. Boy oh boy am I glad I did! I have never played a game like it, and I doubt I'll ever see too many games with this level of originality again. What's more, this game has single-handedly given me something many rhythm games couldn't -- the ability to do a silly dance (figuratively) in private or in public without looking the least bit foolish.
"Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan" translates roughly to "Go! Fight! Cheer Squad", and is based around a Japanese cultural concept of male cheerleading squads common at Japanese sporting events and even some traditional Japanese theater. The twist in this game is that these (mostly) male cheerleaders don't just act as motivators for their teams at sporting events or at theatrical performances, but rather as motivators in the theater of life. They are muses charged with helping pockets of humanity out of a variety of horrible situations, and they do it by -- dancing to popular but bewilderingly odd Japanese pop tunes. This feeds energy into the spirits of these needy humans, allowing them to overcome their catastrophes.
It is up to the quick-stepping Ouendan to intervene in these situations in a way that no other force of do-gooders can mimick. And just what are these situations that need their intervention? I can really only guess. The game is entirely in Japanese, thus all a Western gamer really has going for him is the visual presentation. Each story is told in manga-style picture boards with Japanese dialog bubbles that are incomprehensible to me. And though that might seem like a weakness, it is actually part of the game's charm for Western audiences. Having a go at interpreting some of the content myself, you'll be helping the Ouendan to handle a strange set of situations which include:
(1) Assisting a Japanese pottery artist lost in the pits of artist's block to gain inspiration in creating his drinking mug designs from a host of visual stimuli, including watching a beautiful bikini-clad woman emerge from a natural hot springs, and making awkward homoerotic eye contact with a male cross-dressing body builder.
(2) Helping a chubby Cleopatra motivate her slaves to build a new pyramid, so that she may use it to summon the gods' power to make her thin and beautiful again (avoiding the apparently much more difficult and less slavery-intensive alternate route of going on a crash diet), allowing her to win the heart of the approaching Marc Anthony.
(3) Helping an unexpectedly deceased loverboy's ghost spend his last few hours on Earth making contact with the girl he is leaving behind (with a plot built on references mirroring cirumstances from Western films like "Ghost").
(4) Motivating a middle-aged Japanese businessman to save a young girl from the clutches of an 80 ft. tall cousin of Chucky Cheese by doing battle with the godzilla-like rat variant using lightning, fisticuffs, and legal contracts.
(5) Assisting a diarrhea-ridden violinist's digestive system and internal defenses to rid his body of offending organisms before they cause him to pass gas (or something more solid) in the middle of the packed subway train taking him to his next live performance.
(6) Coming to the rescue of two coppers who handle donuts better than they do their own pistols, and who are caught in the middle of an alien invasion that would make H. G. Wells' copyright holders spin in their respective graves.
With crazy happenings in the world like these, it almost begins to make sense that an elite dancing and singing squad would be the key to success. While it's the Ouendan who dance, it is the team leader who takes charge. The dancer who stands in the center of the team for any particular difficulty mode *is* that leader, and you are the his conductor of sorts. It is immediately obvious that the leader is taking all of his dance cues from you and you alone. You will use the stylus to repeatedly do one of three things: (1) tap numbered circles, (2) trace lines, or (3) spin spinners. Each of these events instruct the Ouendan in the manner in which they are to dance. The clicks the player will be making are timed with the beat of the music and positioned to the direction of the dance, and though receding outer circles are shown to give you a visual cue on how to time your taps, listening to and identifying the beats of these Japanese pop tunes is essential to success, especially as the game gets harder.
And harder the game will get. There are four difficulty modes, including "Easy", "Normal", "Hard", and "Very Hard" (or what I like to call "Insane"). Initially only "Easy" and "Normal" are unlocked, but finishing those unlocks the other two levels. The truth is, even on "Easy" mode, the dances for each chapter/song combination will become progressively harder until they are hardly anything resembling easy. But as hard as the game gets, it never seems to get discouraging. Because each segment can eventually be won by memorizing the beat patterns over many tries, there is always present this internal drive that seems to keep the player going back for more and more, believing on each and every try that he will get it right this time.
Depending on how precise the player taps to the beat, points will be awarded in denominations of 50, 100, and 300. Each missed beat will trip the dancers on their own figurative left feat and simultaneously reduce your energy meter. If the energy meter is too low at the end of a subchapter, that subchapter will be marked with a failure. To make matters a little more challenging, if the meter reaches rock bottom, the entire chapter is abruptly ended with catastrophic failure. Whereas, if a chapter is successfully completed, it is graded on performance using letter grades from D to A, with S given for a near-perfect performance. At the end of each successful chapter, the player can also watch a replay of his performance throughout the song and enjoy the story presented more at his own uninterrupted leasure.
In the end, shy guys like me shouldn't be held back by our need not to look foolish in public, but as long as we are, it's nice that there are rhythm games out there which promise us a sheltered experience without sacrificing a bit of the solid and quirky gameplay that rhythm games provide. "Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan" makes such fitting use of the touch-screen control scheme available on the unique Nintendo DS hardware that a great experience can be had without having to tap your feet even once. The controls are so spot-on that it almost seems like the DS was made for it rather than the other way around. This game is a perfect example of how rhythm games can be tailored to the Paxil-crowd, and it manages this in spite of any language barrier. Touching on that for a moment, I would have never guessed that a game presented entirely in Japanese would have captivated me so completely, yet it has managed to do just that. Games like this rock the foundations of the Tower of Babel, leaving us all speaking in strange tongues, and even with the meaning of it all being hopelessly lost in translation, the languages of music, dance, and good, fun gameplay remain universal.