Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Elite Beat Agents

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to get through life's difficulties when there's a trio of secret agents dressed in black suits and sunglasses singing and dancing along to licensed pop music to urge you on to victory? Well, now it's your turn to be that trio of secret agents in the most phenomenal music game to ever, ever exist.

From Ouendan to Agents

Perhaps even more interesting than the game itself is the story of its conception as I've pieced it together from GameFAQs users who describe themselves as "very reliable". The game design began in Japan under the title Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan (Go! Fight! Cheer Squad) or just Ouendan to its friends. It was a happy little story about a squad of male cheerleaders who would help people through their difficulties with the power of positive thinking and Japanese pop music. According to the original plan, Japan would go nuts over its crazy sense of humor and popular music, and it would never be localized for the Western world because, y'know, no one outside of Japan could possibly enjoy a concept like this one.

But a strange thing happened. The game bombed in Japan. Hard. It seemed like most Japanese gamers were turned off by the songlist -- songs that were so popular that nobody actually liked them anymore. It just wasn't cool to rock out with Ouendan.

And yet, the game found a cult following in the Western world. It became one of the most popular import titles for the Nintendo DS. Western DS owners fell in love with the fun, addictive gameplay and the outrageous humor.

Nintendo and iNiS took notice.

In a nearly unprecedented and no short of miraculous turn of events, Ouendan was given a total overhaul for its proper Western release. Entirely new characters were created -- in place of a male cheer squad, we got Men in Black style secret agents who just happen to have a penchant for the boogie fever. The track list was filled with songs that might appeal a bit more to the Western pallatte. And, as the game scenarios were designed to match the music, entirely new scenarios were created to go along with them. And for good measure, the game was stuffed with a bunch of little upgrades and perks that they just didn't manage to fit into Ouendan.

The end result is a thing of beauty -- the single best music game ever created, the lovechild of Samba de Amigo and Space Channel 5. From Space Channel 5 comes engaging storylines and characters. From Samba comes high-energy licensed music and frantic, ferociously addictive gameplay. It's a dynamo of fun, an irresistible bag of brain candy, and quite possibly the reason that I bought a Nintendo DS. (Sorry Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2 -- you're off the top 5 list.)

Tap Dancing

The rules are simple. Every level starts with a comic book style introduction sequence that explains your mission. Maybe you'll have to help a babysitter keep a trio of troublemaking kids under countrol. Maybe you'll have to help an insane taxi driver get a woman to the hospital before she goes into labor. Maybe you'll have to help a washed-up baseball star get his confidence back by battling a fifty-foot fire-breathing rock golem.

The Agents fly into action as the music starts. Beat markers appear on the lower screen with numbers to indicate the order that they have to be tapped. To indicate the timing, each beat marker has a circle surrounding it that slowly contracts toward it. The idea is to tap just as the circle overlaps the marker, and you gain points based on accuracy according to the typical rules of music games.

Most songs also feature "sliders", long bars that stretch across the screen in various shapes. When you tap the start of a slider, a ball appears, and you have to follow it with the stylus held down until it reaches the end. Some sliders end with a "boomerang" symbol, which means you'll have to trace it back the way you came. Many songs have sliders that have you boomerang back and forth several times. It sounds like an odd sort of thing to put in a music game, but it makes a certain amount of sense when you're playing it, like the held arrows in DDR or the hustle motions in Samba de Amigo.

And, of course, then there's the spinners. The entire screen turns into a giant circle with a power meter behind it, and one huge timing circle starts to slowly close in on the center of the screen. The object is to use the stylus to spin the spinner as rapidly as possible to power up the power meter before the timing circle closes. This is perhaps even more perplexing as a musical element, but it feels roughly analogous to the "rapid shake" sequences in Samba de Amigo.

Like the mechanics in most music games, it doesn't really sound like much until you play it. And even when you play it, you don't really appreciate it until you start to get good at the harder difficulty levels. When your stylus is stomping along to the rapid beats in "The Anthem" on Hard Rock difficulty, it really feels like your DS is a percussion instrument. The patterns that the beats make -- both musical and spatial -- is surprisingly satisfying, leaving you with that powerful "just one more time" compulsion every time you play it. By the time you get to the end of a song, you'll really feel like you've just pulled off an amazing feat of choreography.

Your status is tracked by the "Elite-o-Meter". Unlike in most music games, this energy bar begins full and constantly depletes. Missing beats will carve huge chunks out of it, while hit beats will slowly and steadily bring it back up. The rate at which the bar depletes varies from level to level, and in some levels (particularly the last), the bar will go down faster than you can heal it unless you have a lot of very accurate beats. Moreover, your meter comes in two colors -- yellow for the high end, red for the low end. The game pauses a number of times during each song to display a cutscene that shows how well your dance is inspiring your client. If your bar is up to the yellow level at the cutscene points, you'll get a successful outcome. If it's down in the red area, you'll get an unsuccessful outcome. You don't need to get successful outcomes to finish a scenario, but depending on how many successes you have, you get one of three endings for the scenario. Of course, if you lose your entire life bar, the scenario ends with a very distressing conclusion.

And, of course, you're not just tapping circles on the lower screen. The Agents themselves appear on the bottom screen, performing a dance as you play. Every beat that you touch corresponds to a dance move. The vast majority of the beats just give generic dance moves -- tap a beat near the right side of the screen and they'll dance right, tap one near the bottom of the screen and they'll crouch down -- but every song also has some unique dance steps thrown into the mix. In particular, the Agents will do the YMCA dance at the appropriate part of the song. When you miss a beat, the Agents will all fall down as if they'd been hit by a sandbag. Unfortunately, you won't have time to appreciate the virtual choreography as you're actually playing, but they were nice enough to give us a replay feature. Not only can you get an instant replay of any performance, but you can save one replay for each of the game's 19 songs.

Golden Oldies

There have been a lot of complaints about the song choices for this game. The people who make these complaints are missing the point: every single one of these songs is fantastic. Sure, some are more memorable than others, but the magic of a good music game is that it can transform songs that you've never heard of and songs that you never really cared for into the most addictive drug imaginable. I don't care how you feel about The Village People -- watching a pirate swordfight with a skeleton to the tune of YMCA is fantastic. Too much of a music snob to allow your ears near Avril Lavigne? Fine, go ahead and miss out on a high speed taxi race to the tune of Sk8r Boi. Got something against Chicago? Okay, but you're passing up one of the most touching video game moments ever.

Ouendan was lost on its target audience because they couldn't get over themselves. And now, I go into the Elite Beat Agents board on GameFAQs and see people whining because there's Good Charlotte and Cher songs on the soundtrack. I just don't get people.

Polished to Perfection

Everything about the game sparkles. The title frame sequence, with its rock music and voiceover, reminded me of the attract mode of an arcade machine from the late 80's. There's a gallery that fills up with cinematic sequences as you unlock them. There's a ranking system that judges your high scores and awards you with new songs and prestige as you build it up. There's the aforementioned replay feature, allowing you to build up a gallery of entertaining playthroughs -- the game is just as much fun to watch as it is to play. And, of course, there's the multiplayer mode. Some modes require more than one card, but there's support for competitive and cooperative play. And as a truly delightful touch, you can even play a mock multiplayer game and let one of your saved replays serve as your opponent.

With Elite Beat Agents, the Nintendo DS has solidified its place in my heart as the Dreamcast Portable. It's everything I loved about Samba de Amigo in the palm of my hand, with no extra components to pay for, set up, and eventually break. Thank goodness I made some good progress on my NaNoWriMo novel before I picked it up, because I never would have bothered to finish it otherwise -- I've been playing EBA compulsively, every free minute of my time ever since launch. There's simply no such thing as a five-minute game of Elite Beat Agents. I'll pop in to play a song, and it'll turn into two, then five, then the entire list as the hours slip away.

Thank goodness that we're finally starting to see companies test the waters with games like this outside of Japan. It seems like the DS has truly become a symbol of a new awakening in the video game industry, and Elite Beat Agents is living proof. If you have a DS, get it. If you don't have one, get one and then get it.


Friday, November 17, 2006


In Which Our Society Continues to Prove That it's Largely Made Up of Assheads

Man, one more reason not to try and get a Wii on launch day. After all the chaos surrounding the Playstation 3 launch, imagine what people are going to do for a good video game system.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Hiatus Over, Surprise Twist!

I finished my NaNoWriMo novel early. And I have some bad news.

I'm going back on my earlier promise. I'm not getting a Wii. Not within the launch window anyway.

Why? Partly it's a matter of money. Yes, $250 is a damned steal for a new video game console these days. But add on games, accessories, and sales tax, and get up to $500 for a decent setup, and it just becomes a cost that I'm not ready to absorb right now.

Mostly it's a matter of I just plain don't want one.

I've been waffling for the past few months now over exactly how excited I am about the Wii. I sort of thought that, if I presented it to myself as a personal reward for a grand personal undertaking, I might take to it a bit better. But no. If it was something I really wanted, I'd be able to justify the cost to myself like any good addict would.

So why don't I want one? The novelty joystick appeal is right up my alley. On the other hand, the launch lineup (virtual and otherwise) doesn't exactly light my fire if you know what I mean. The big launch game to get is The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess. And... I'm getting more than a little tired of compulsively buying Zelda games just because it's a big name and then never getting around to finishing the games because they just plain bore me. The only Zelda games I've ever finished were Zelda 1 and Link's Awakening. The rest of them just get too long and boring to see them through.

I'm interested in Wii Sports and Rayman, but neither of them are really system-sellers to me.

I guess I'm getting tired of buying Nintendo consoles that don't launch with anything that I'd consider a killer app, and then waiting months to get something worthwhile to play on it. I put up with a lot of annoying shovelware on the Game Boy Advance and DS before their real classics started coming out. It took forever for the Gamecube to get a good, compelling adventure game to play.

Everything about the Wii's immediate future turns me off. I don't even really play console games that much anymore; I can never find the time anymore, and it's just so much more convenient to pick up my DS and start fooling around with it. Plus the games are cheaper and the library is a lot more robust.

So instead, I rewarded myself with the Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events box set, because I've always wanted it and I'm starting to get back into reading as a leisure activity. And I'm going to wait on the Wii until it gets something of Seaman proportions to inspire me to buy it.

Oh, and I fully expect my next gushing review to be about Elite Beat Agents. It's the single best music game ever created by mortal or divinity.


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