Sunday, January 27, 2008


Jive Pod

I remember Tiger Electronics primarily for their heyday in the late 80's and early 90's, when they were probably the leading producer of standalone LCD video games in America. They distinguished themselves from other makers of Game & Watch knockoffs by 1) making games that weren't clocks; 2) licensing some of the biggest names in console and arcade gaming; 3) making games that generally weren't a variation of "move between three different spots on the screen and catch/avoid the things coming at you". They really hit their stride when Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat became big name items -- it was super easy to translate a game with only two on-screen characters into an LCD handheld, and the games were often quite a bit of fun.

I threw what support I could behind them when they started branching out into real game systems -- first with the lovably peculiar R-Zone, and then with the dead-on-arrival But as video game systems increasingly trended toward machines that could render photorealistic landscapes in real time, their presence in the industry vanished, and their output was reduced to Furbies and Furby-like electronics.

But I still have a soft spot in my heart for good old Tiger Electronics. Even now, long after what was left of the company has been consumed and digested by Hasbro Toys, it's nice to see their name on a new product. In this case, it's a toy with such a great concept that it's hard to imagine why it took this long for someone to come up with it.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Jive Pod.

The Beat is On

The Jive Pod joins a long, proud family of faddy toys that encourage you to hook them up to your iPo-- er, personal music player. The Jive Pod's hook is that it will turn any music you feed it into a Dance Dance Rev-- I'm sorry, rhythm action game.

I'm sure you have many questions. I will answer the ones I have anticipated in order of importance.

The unit is basically a glorified speaker, meaning that it will not actually store your music for you. The way it works is, you plug in any audio source into its fairly universal eighth inch input jack. The music will stream straight through the system's speaker (or, if you plug them in, headphones). The unit will happily act as a passive speaker if you want it to -- in fact, leave it idle, and it'll put on a little light show for you that moves in time to the music you play. (It should also be noted that the game has some simple built-in music for you to play with, should you find yourself without an external source. It's not bad, just kind of generic.)

When you push a button on the unit, the system will start analyzing the music that's playing through it, and a couple seconds later, it will start to generate a more or less random beat sequence that moves at whatever tempo it has calculated your song to be playing at. The unit will continue to monitor the tempo of the song as it plays, and you may find that the pace jumps and dips as a song progresses. The game continues until your music stops, but because of the way the system tries to anticipate what's going to happen next in the song, you'll find yourself with a couple leftover beats at the end.

The actual gameplay is fairly standard rhythm action stuff. Colored arrows move from the center of the unit to the buttons at the four corners, and when they light up the buttons, you have to hit them with the beat. The game comes with three difficulty settings: Boring, Boring, and Easy. Well, that's not strictly fair -- the difficulty has a lot to do with the songs that you decide to play and how the game decides to interpret the rhythm. Still, the system does seem to trend toward keeping a moderate, steady beat; on faster songs, you may find that the tempo of the game is about half the tempo of the song.

The toy has a few problems, of course. First, and hardest to deal with, is the fact that there's no audio feedback when you hit a beat. All it would need is a little "pop" whenever you hit the beat correctly. Most rhythm games are fun because they make you feel like you're contributing to the music somehow, but this one? You're just punching arrows while music plays.

Secondly, there's the lack of scoring. At the end of each performance, you're basically given a grade -- a number of lights on the unit light up to represent how well you did, and the unit plays a clip featuring an appropriate audience reaction. It's just not enough detail -- I tend to ace every song I play. A three-digit display to show hit percentage or max combos would have been neat.

But that's all right, because this is just such a cool toy. The instant gratification of turning any song you want into a rhythm game is neat. The effect isn't perfect; if a deluxe model was made, I'd want it to have the smarts to pre-process a song rather than streaming it directly, the better to smooth over transitions in tempo and detect where the important beats should go. Still, it works well enough to give you something that's eminently playable. And when you get just the right song playing -- Weird Al's "Hardware Store" is a perfect example -- it's bliss.

I have a mad desire to make gameplay videos. Heaven help me.


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