Rhythm Change

– So, how goes it? – …

Lockstep. I’m certain Rhythm Paradise Megamix veterans already know where this is going. For the past few days, the game has already been not-quite-as-fun-as-before but now I’m quite content to toss it back to the backlog. The aforementioned minigame requires you to keep up a swift rhythm while switching to offbeat and back. I can’t even complete its tutorial. As expected, the internet folk consider it “a piece of cake once you get the hang of it” and they’re probably right. Still, for the life of me, I just can’t get my brain around it. I’m now at a point where just the thought of starting the game for one more go feels repulsive. To avoid a storm of the foulest of profanities, it’s probably best to take a break. At least there’s some consolation in knowing that it has been a major hurdle for others as well.

Idol power!

In order to finish at least something in February (and to lie to myself that I still have a perfectly valid sense of rhythm), I dug out the Jolly Olde PSP and played through a much shorter and more forgiving rhythm game. The Idolm@ster Shiny Festa: Groovy Tune is one of the three games that Bandai Namco ruthlessly used to raid the wallets of the most fervent Idolm@ster fans. Most Idolm@ster games are manager simulations that require fluency in Japanese. The Shiny Festa trilogy, however, represents pure rhythm gaming in which the language barrier is hardly an issue.

The Shiny Festa games comprise of 48 songs that have been deviously divided between three different games; Honey Sound, Funky Note, and Groovy Tune. Each of them has 14 unique songs and six that are common to all. The 13 teenage idols of the 765 Production talent agency have been separated as well, with Groovy Tune focusing on Miki Hoshii, Yukiho Hagiwara, Makoto Kikuchi, and Takane Shijou. You, as Producer-san, lead this group of four to a fabulous paradise island for a bit of R&R and competitive singing. The show kicks in with an impressive, full-length, 23-minute anime episode that does a decent job introducing the plot even for us linguistically handicapped players. After an equally hazy, yet intuitively achievable tutorial section it’s time to get to business.

The 20 song selection is a pleasing mix of mostly energetic girly pop seasoned with a couple of more relaxed ballads. Gameplay is deceptively simple. Notes flow in from both sides of the screen towards the hit zone in the middle, where they have to be struck with rhythmical precision using any button on their respective sides. Some notes require simultaneous presses or holding down a button for the duration of the note but all in all, success only requires distinction between left and right.

At first the system feels ridiculously unchallenging. On Debut level, the notes follow a straight line and it’s quite possible to score absolutely flawless performances even on the very first try. The hit window is generous and the notes have been placed exceptionally well. Still, the ostensible easiness is but a fleeting breath and all it takes to ramp up the challenge is to mix up these basically simple variations to breathtaking levels and above, laced with devilishly twisting note paths on top. Everything is still doable on Regular difficulty, but Pro is already rather panicky, and Master well beyond the reach of mere mortals.

Visually, Groovy Tune is most excellent, albeit by cheating a little. At least it looks like the music videos accompanying the songs would have been rendered on better hardware and then just transferred onto PSP as videos. Granted, the pace doesn’t give much time to ogle the cute girls and their massive wardrobe to begin with, but even with an occasional glance here and there, the overall appearance is rather pleasing. As for the music, it’s naturally down to each one’s taste but fans of lightweight jpop should nevertheless find the included selection most satisfying.

Content-wise, the game is pretty much just one third. The 20 songs can be completed in little over an hour, after which there’s the main story mode known as Star of Festa. It’s a five day (in-game) campaign during which you play 15 songs of your choice, aiming to amass 100,000 fan votes by the end of the festival. Every three songs you can also challenge another idol. Should you outperform them, you’re rewarded with their collectible character card. There are 50 cards in total but they, too, have been divided between the three games. In order to get the complete Shiny Festa experience, you pretty much have to own them all. Thankfully I managed to grab them used, as it would have been outrageously expensive otherwise. As fine as the Shiny Festa games look and play, they would’ve been better off as one. On their own, they’re just trifling snacks.

All Quiet on the Gaming Front

Breathtaking!

This week has been mostly same old, same old. My main project is still Yakuza 0, which has temporarily bid farewell to Kazuma Kiryu and his real estate woes. The focus is now on Osaka, where perhaps the most beloved maniac in the entire series, Goro “Mad Dog” Majima, is leading a most peculiarly serene life. He is the refined manager of the fanciest, most successful cabaret in town. Instead of indiscriminate acts of brutal violence, Majima spends his time entertaining his clientele and taking care of his staff. Still, for him such ostentatious high life is but a reluctant prison. Thanks to his youthful blunder, he lost both his left eye and his position in the yakuza. He’d like nothing more than a new chance, but that’s not even negotiable without a 500 million yen apology. Bubble economy or not, that’s a sum that will probably take quite some effort to raise.

Since I’m in charge, Majima has not been concentrating on earning money but enjoying the nightlife of Osaka. Just like in Kamurocho, amusing side stories and eccentric characters pop up almost everywhere. The most wonderful aspect of the game is still its good-natured jabbing at the 80’s. As Majima, you get to marvel at the emergence of cellphones, or even have your say on how the government should improve taxation in the coming decades. Osaka’s Sotonbori (Dotonbori in real life) is familiar from Yakuza 5 but it, too, has been given a lovely PS4 overhaul. The areas in Yakuza games have never been particularly large, but what they lose in size, they win back in attention to detail. Neon signs, street adverts, vending machines, convenience store shelves, even the pavement… Absolutely everything has been designed with extreme care and authenticity. It’s because of this impeccable pedantry that I’ve already played for 18 hours, yet the story is still in the bullpen. In these surroundings, just gawking around, doing nothing in particular, and breathing in pure Japan is the way to go!

Yes… Yes it does…

Over on 3DS, I’m still making progress in Rhythm Paradise Megamix, although awkwardly. As much fun as it was to go for perfection, I’ve now more or less given up and struggle through the challenges with minimal effort. For some reason, the game no longer feels entertaining. I’m not entirely sure why, but (inadvertent) discouraging might be it. Even if the challenges themselves are still spontaneous crazy comedy, the game takes its rhythm dead seriously. The required reaction times and hit windows are becoming so small that some beats seem to hit more by accident than skill. It’s frustrating when your head and your fingers convince you of your rhythm being right but the game begs to differ. It more or less requires you to reach a flow of some kind, but even if that would only take more practice and especially repetition, it’s starting to feel more like work than actual fun. Luckily the challenges are still less than a minute each, so the game is still tolerable in small bursts.

D’awwwwwwwww!

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice is stumbling as well. Its third case was just as colossal and needlessly convoluted as the second. The fourth one, in turn, was weirdly short and remarkably detached from everything else. In other words, the pacing is off and the common thread lost. If Spirit of Justice was only about Phoenix and Maya adventuring in Khura’in, it might have risen to the excellence of the dreamy original trilogy. As it stands, it’s a disappointingly vague “something for everyone” experience. Despite all that, though, I must praise the holy priestess and princess of Khura’in, Rayfa Padma Khura’in. This condescending young woman resents lawyers with all her heart, but she has grown into a fantastic tsundere whose impetuous outbursts are a constant source of hearty laughs. I still have the final case to solve, too, so the game still has ample time to redeem itself. Besides, it’s not like Spirit of Justice is bad; it’s just not as good as us long-term fans of the series might’ve gotten used to.

Game of the Year 1988

Kamurocho is my oyster

Despite a feisty flu, I’ve managed to get Yakuza 0 at least started. For veterans of the series, the seedy streets and back alleys of Kamurocho are probably more than familiar by now, but the year 1988 adds a welcome tinge of excitement. In other words, the game takes place at the height of Japan’s bubble economy. Money flows like water, real estate prices skyrocket, and Kazuma Kiryu is still but a young whelp. Having served three years as a yakuza in the Dojima Family of the Tojo clan, he’s still but a collector, beating the money out of negligent debtors, if need be. Then, one morning, someone he roughed up just the night before is found with a bullet in his head. In the world of yakuza, killing civilians is understandably contemptible. What’s worse, the body is found on a lot that the Tojo clan shows great interest in, yet which is now the center of unwanted attention. Preferring to work from the shadows, the organization is obviously enraged. When Kiryu is to take all blame, he has no choice but to expel himself from the yakuza and get to the bottom of things as a mere civilian.

That’s the setup for yet another dramatic story, but as it always happens with these games, I’m already blissfully lost in Kamurocho, just soaking it all in and having the time of my life. Debuting on PS4, the evenings in the game are particularly wonderful. It’s almost like you could drown in the neon sea that is Kamurocho, and the continuous hustle and bustle of a metropolis, the shouts of staff members luring in customers, the hellish racket of pachinko parlors, and the catchy theme songs of convenient stores all make up for what might be the most authentic Tokyo game experience ever. There’s lots to do, too. As well as dining and boozing, you can once again take part in such familiar activities as bowling, billiards, darts, karaoke, or why not pay a visit to the nearest Sega arcade to try your luck with crane games? There, you can also play such state-of-the-art arcades as Out Run and Space Harrier. Since this is the Golden Eighties, the city also has a disco that serves as a venue for a swift rhythm game, as well as an indoor track, where people race customizable miniature pocket cars.

As before, the streets aren’t really that safe. Despite exuding an aura of danger, Kiryu is constantly challenged by all sorts of troublemakers who then get the beating of their lifetime. A new feature of sorts are Kiryu’s different battle stances which he can switch between with just the click of the d-pad. In practice, all this means that Kiryu can now use the various fighting styles of the other heroes of the earlier games. His standard brawling style is good enough for pretty much any encounter but should you prefer, you can also switch to a stances that have more focus on, say, speed or power. Each of these stances has its own skill tree full of new moves and generic bonuses to be learned. This time, however, you don’t level up by collecting experience points but instead invest on yourself with cold, hard cash. Since the economy of the 80’s was in overdrive, so is the game’s monetary system. You don’t just beat the bluster out of bad guys but their money, too. Even the most basic of encounters often earns you more than half a million yen. Although this makes financing the nightlife of Kamurocho a breeze, it’s not so great when the price tag of new skills is often in the millions. By a quick glance, it seems like the most expensive ones are up to a billion yen…

As always, the best part of Yakuza 0 are the dozens of hilarious and touching substories. As well as brawls, Kiryu frequently bumps into citizens having all sorts of weird troubles that he, more or less willingly, ends up sorting out. These cases – just to name a few – include a rowdy punk band whose members aren’t quite as delinquent as they lead to expect, a teenager who is hopelessly in love with a gravure idol, high school girls bartering their used underwear, and even a domina who’s too kind for her work. Some of these problems are resolved by talking, others by fighting, but they’re all remarkably funny and compassionate. Yakuza 0 doesn’t shy away from sensitive or controversial issues, and even if Kiryu is essentially a sullen criminal, he’s also a noble and responsible father figure, who steers people towards a better life. That’s the true charm of the series!

Sega is also to be commended on its brilliant release strategy. From what I’ve read here and there on the internet, the success of PS4 also means there are many gamers for whom Yakuza 0 is their very first Yakuza experience (and apparently often a positive one at that). Since the game is a prequel to the entire saga, it’s the perfect time to hop on board. Furthermore, since Yakuza Kiwami, the remastered version of the first Yakuza, is released this summer, the entire series has a new chance to bask in the spotlight. Deservedly so!

Sidetracked to a Sidetrack

A wolf in a lumberjack’s clothing

After four hours and maybe a third into Rhythm Paradise Megamix, the game is slowly starting to bare its fangs. Tibby – a reserved pink afro bear-or-something – makes steady progress on his journey to reach Heaven World (yup, that’s the game’s story) but it’s getting challenging. That’s slightly odd, considering the game is still very much only about rhythm. Each mini challenge features a little practice session, and if you constantly fail that, the lower screen of the 3DS even goes the extra mile to show exactly what to do and when. In other words, the game is most eager to help. Still, in the actual challenges it occasionally seems nigh on impossible to nail the required timing. It isn’t, of course, but especially when trying to grab those elusive Skill Stars, dozens of retries are sometimes required. While I could play in a slightly more lackadaisical fashion, I’m still aiming for perfection just for the heck of it. Besides, as gruelling as it sporadically gets, I’m still smiling. It’s hard to be grumpy at a game that woos you with rhythmic calligraphy, flamingo prancing, rooster racing… There’s nothing quite as eccentric and unpredictable as a Japanese game developer unleashed!

Golden 80’s or futuristic 20’s? No contest.

Then again, if I was already sidetracked by Rhythm Paradise Megamix, it happens again. The postman was finally kind enough to deliver Yakuza 0, which personally is simply a release of such caliber that it ruthlessly shoves all the other games aside like a drunken oaf on a 4AM queue to a fast food stand. If that one won’t get coverage in this blog by the end of the week, it’s most likely due to it being so fantastic that there won’t be time left to sing its praises. I also grabbed Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. It’s certainly something that I probably should’ve picked up earlier but all the plump AAA releases seem to lose more than half of their original price in about six months or so. Just showing a little bit of patience saves me a pretty penny in the long run (although in reality it just means twice as many games bought…)

A Rhythmic Intermission

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

Even if I usually aim to play through games one by one, I guess a little bit of variety to Phoenix Wright wouldn’t hurt. For a side project, I chose Nintendo’s extremely weird and absolutely hilarious 3DS music game, Rhythm Paradise Megamix. Vaguely resembling the WarioWare series, it’s a collection of over a hundred minigames in which all you have to do is stay in rhythm by pressing or holding one or two buttons. And boy, do these 10-20 second challenges get real bizarre real fast! Plucking bristles of an onion, performing synchronized swimming, hitting high notes in a chorus, translating the welcome speech of a Martian… It’s all utterly bonkers and highly entertaining in an ever capricious way.

Still, I was very close to skip this one altogether, thanks mostly to its Nintendo DS predecessor, Rhythm Paradise. In that one, all the minigames had to be completed by using the stylus to tap, hold, or swipe the console’s touchscreen. I’ve tried to complete that one twice, but both attempts ended in horrible swearing: “Yes, I’m SURE I flicked the stylus just the right way at just the right time! I’ve done so several times already but you accursed POS refuse to register it!!” I still hate that game with fiery passion. Thankfully, I happened to hear on Twitter (thanks, @RiepuP!) that Rhythm Paradise Megamix can, indeed, be played traditionally with just buttons. This makes a world of difference and I’m really pleased to see that I’m not as rhythmically challenged as Rhythm Paradise once led me to believe.

That’s not to say Rhythm Paradise Megamix would be a cakewalk. Merely keeping up a steady tempo, let alone handling slight rhythm changes, is surprisingly hard, and the window of a perfect hit is noticeably small. Thankfully, in each challenge that perfection is only required to nail a single note that houses a Skill Star. Even those seem to be nothing more than optional collectibles. Still, I’m going for them as the short stages are a breeze to retry, and as the controls are so precise that the game actually does feel like a rhythm paradise of sorts. Then again, I’m still only a couple of hours into it, so let’s see how it goes.