What constitutes Japanese entertainment in the 21st century can sometimes seem very strange to the average American viewer—and in the case of their punishing TV game shows, downright painful. Of course, that same unique approach can also open the door to unexpectedly creative outcomes from time to time. Rhythm Heaven, the new rhythm/music game for Nintendo DS, is a prime example of how animated oddness and creativity can blend together for a very enjoyable result. (Even though this game can be a little painful in it's own way, too.)
First of all, compared to other titles in the rhythm/music herd (Guitar Hero or even the quirky but fun Wii Music), this handheld title is an unusual critter. Sure, there are lots of catchy tunes on hand, but this is a beast that's all about the beat. It's actually a collection of 50 minigames that challenge gamers to tap or flick their DS screen through each song—much like you might tap the table while listening to music on your iPod. It's so much like that, in fact, that while I was working my way through this game at my desk with headphones on, my colleagues were searching high and low for the pitter-patter-tapping sound that was coming from my stylus.
Tap, Flick and Slide
Now, that might sound like laid-back rainy day fun to some, but most of you are stifling a yawn right about now. So let me say that the game's ever-changing musical events do manage to keep things fresh. And the catch-you-by-surprise rhythm patterns do keep things challenging. For example, one minute you're tapping the screen to duplicate the beats of a drummer as he hammers away at his taiko. The next you're flicking your stylus to return Ping-Pong balls in perfect time. Then, in the case of a glee club game, you're touching the screen to keep your mini-vocalist quiet until you let him join the chorus at just the right moment by lifting your stylus.
Another contest sets gamers up as one of two güiro "love" lizards who dance and play their mating songs for one another. The male has a rattling maraca-like tail. And when you slide the stylus back and forth on the screen, the female's tail rubs on her hard-ridged back to "shukka-shukka" in his direction. When the mating sounds overlap perfectly, the two form a rhythmic bond.
Sound a little strange? Well, the scenarios get increasingly wacky from there: A hungry monk flips dumplings into his mouth in syncopated style, moony-eyed scientists mix bubbling heartbeat love potions and a ninja dog slices and dices vegetables—in the air. It's all so smilingly quirky and refreshingly short that you can't help but want to keep moving on to the next bit.
A Tiny Ouch
However, here's where you might develop a slight cramp in your flicker finger. As you progress to the upper levels, the rhythmic demands start getting a little stiff. And the game gets tough. Instead of making your way through on the first or second try, the game grabs you by the collar and requires a more perfect tap or flick.
Mix that with animations that don't always match up with the tune, a screen that doesn't always sense your stylus movement or, perhaps, the fact that you're suffering from a slight case of rhythmic brain cramp and you can quickly become a pretty testy tapper. Instead of giving you a few tips to help you past whatever roadblock you've hit, Rhythm Heaven simply exhorts you to "Try harder." Thanks. Like I needed that! After it happened to me for the seventh time, I struggled to restrain myself from sending the game (rhythmically) flying through a nearby window.
Fear not, though. For both the younger set and the terminally frustrated, Rhythm Heaven does offer a coffee shop of sorts where gamers can rest a bit, look at medals they've earned for high scores or read something interesting about güiro lizards and such.
A postscript: Psst. Don't tell anyone, but you can get the barista to let you skip the really tough parts.