Friday, July 8, 2011

Dance Dance Retrospective: DDRMAX

We are not in merely Dance Dance Revolution territory anymore.  In October 2001, the franchise entered the sixth console generation with the sixth core series game for the arcades.  In fact, the proper title of the core series' sixth entry is DDRMAX: Dance Dance Revolution 6thMIX.  Given how much I'm treating this name change alone as momentous, will the game itself follow suit?  ...Sure, why not?

Seriously, what could make DDRMAX such a milestone in the evolution of the Revolution?  It all starts with a gimmick, albeit a gimmick that caught on quickly: ladies and gentlemen... the Freeze Arrow.  These are long green arrows which, instead of just stepping on, you have to step and hold your foot on the panel until it passes the step zone completely.  Successfully holding a Freeze Arrow for its duration earns you an "OK" mark and points, but taking your foot off the panel  too early knocks you with an "NG" mark, which doesn't break your combo, and a Groove Gauge penalty.  Higher-level charts mix it up by placing extra notes on other panels during a Freeze Arrow, which you must hit with your other foot.  From my experiences, arcade panels need a shot more pressure to keep a Freeze Arrow held compared to a soft home pad.

Going through the menus, MAX looks a lot like 5thMIX, sharing a color scheme dominated by soft blues/greens and rounded corners.  The second screen, however, is new: after your play style is confirmed, you get to choose which difficulty level you wish to start out on.  (At this point it's also worth noting that the difficulty names have been changed to Light, Standard, and Heavy.  This will stick for a while longer than the last time they changed those names.)  This menu is technically pointless; you can change your difficulty at will later on, just like you could since 3rdMIX, but perhaps new players won't know about that.  I know I didn't.  So with that out of the way, we are introduced to out music menu.  It's a lot like in 5thMIX with one glaring exception: the difficulty ratings have been replaced by the "Groove Radar", a five-sided chart displaying the chart's difficulty visually based on 5 criteria:

The Groove Radar indicates difficulty.
  • Stream: Average density of steps in the chart.
  • Voltage: Maximum density of steps in the chart.
  • Air: How many jumps are used in the chart.
  • Freeze: How many Freeze Arrows are used in the chart.
  • Chaos: How many irregular notes (8th, 12th, 16th), or "chaos steps" as I will now call them, are used in the chart.
Modifiers are still triggered by arrow sequences, but MAX introduces a much easier-to-remember method of controlling them.  Just hold the Start button on the console after selecting a song, and before the song plays, a menu will pop up displaying a list of all the modifiers.  In addition to the standard turn, visibility, and arrow options, there are some "new" items ("new" as in they technically first appeared in Solo 2000, should you be bothered to care).  Speed modifiers change how fast the arrows travel up the screen, ranging from 1.5x to an insane 8x.  Low speed modifiers can help you tell the arrows apart if the chart has a high Voltage rating, but using higher speed modifiers on a fast song can render the arrows unreadable, unless you want the challenge.  In the same group as Little and Flat, the Solo modifier re-colors the arrows depending on their timing, as in Solo 2000, hence the name.  As for completely new mods, there's Boost, in which the arrows accelerate faster on their way up the screen, Reverse, which causes the arrows to scroll down instead of up, and a function to turn Freeze Arrows into regular notes, much like what Little does to chaos steps.

DDRMAX runs on a brand-new engine, comparable to the likes of the PlayStation 2, and Konami chose to show this off during the gameplay.  The animated still images which comprised the background footage of the previous generation are replaced by computer-generated FMVs.  This new eye candy ranges in subject matter from more smoothly-animated shapes and text, to footage of the classic characters - who are conspicuously absent from this and the next few games.  They even replaced the previous announcer with an African-American - yet equally hammy - one, whose lines such as "U.M.A.! U.M.A.!" qualify as, for better or worse, crazy.  But in the end, you're still trying to survive and score points (the maximum score is now 50 million points plus a bonus, regardless of difficulty).

Gameplay with Freeze Arrows.
On a more troubling note, if you thought 5thMIX's song cuts were bad, MAX takes it even further; there are absolutely no songs revived from any other games from the series, apart from some 4thMIX and 5thMIX home version exclusives, which have nonetheless become more strongly associated with this game.  The songlist clocks in at a paltry 42 songs, the lowest since 2ndMIX, and is dominated by the trance and eurobeat, so if that's your thing, more power to you.  Notable debut songs include:
  • "So Deep (Perfect Sphere Remix)" by Silvertear, a licenced trance song.  With the new combo system, where jumps add 2 to your combo streak instead of 1, the Light chart tops out at 125 notes, Standard has 250, and Heavy has a whopping 500 max combo.  This gives the Heavy chart a distinctive - and stamina-draining pattern of chaos steps.
  • "Exotic Ethnic" by RevenG (comp. Naoki Maeda).  Following the tradition of the "artist" formerly spelled Re-Venge, this song utilizes Egyptian and Indian musical influences, a fast tempo (190 BPM), and charts filled with Freeze Arrows and (on Heavy) crossover patterns like in "Afronova".
  • DDRMAX also marks the introduction of the Extra Stage system.  By getting a AA grade on your final song on any Heavy chart, you get to play "MAX 300" on Heavy.  Not only is this the hardest song/chart in the game, but the 1.5x and Reverse modifiers are automatically switched on, and your Groove Gauge starts out full but does not recover.  Clear that with a AA, and you get to play the Encore Extra Stage, "Candy" on Heavy.  Break the combo or a Freeze Arrow just once here, and the song ends.  These two songs are initially locked, but beating them once as an Extra/Encore Extra Stage unlocks them for regular play (thankfully, other workarounds exist in the home versions).
    • The Extra Stage is "MAX 300" by Omega (comp. Naoki Maeda).  This hardcore techno song sets new records for speed (300 BPM) and difficulty (555 max combo on Single Heavy).  In fact, Heavy on this song is so hard, even I can't beat it consistently (usually only in the arcade, where I have a bar to lean on).  Take my word for it, or it'll stomp your stamina to the curb.  Also of note is during the middle of the song, when the tempo slows to a brief stop during a Freeze Arrow.
    • The Encore Extra Stage is "Candy" by Luv Unlimited (comp. Naoki Maeda).  This electro-pop song is loaded with Freeze Arrows on most charts and while it is a world easier than "MAX 300" (when the old ranking system was re-instated in DDRMAX2, the Heavy chart was rated at level 8), but as an Encore Extra Stage, you're expected to clear it without messing up.  Once.
The Japanese home port (May 2002) was the first title in the series released for the PlayStation 2, and boasts the same content as the arcade version, with the addition of two not-so-memorable songs.  North America also got a "port" of this game, simply titled DDRMAX: Dance Dance Revolution (October 2002).  The songlist for MAX USA is 71, although very few songs are shared between these versions.  Some of the big Konami originals from the original MAX are represented, but that's about it; the rest of the songlist is filled in by revivals from 4thMIX, 5thMIX, and the Club Versions, as well as brand-new remixes, Bemani transplants, and licenced songs.  While there are other changes to be discussed in regards to MAX USA, that will have to wait.  It turns out that MAX USA owes just as much to the original MAX as it does to the next game to be highlighted on Dance Dance Retrospective...  DDRMAX2.

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