Friday, August 30, 2013

Game Review: Beatmania

  • Publisher: Konami
  • Developer: Konami
  • Release: PlayStation 2, 28 March 2006
  • Genre: Music
  • Players: 1-2
  • Save: Memory Card
If you've read this blog before, you may have picked up on the rumour that I am an avid fan of the Dance Dance Revolution video games. Welp, I've got a series going on the history of the darn thing, so I'm gonna confirm those rumours right now. You could say my mental trivia collection on the subject knows no bounds. And early on as I was learning about the many, many original songs Konami has produced for the games, they led me to the other series from their "Bemani" brand. First and foremost seems to be the combined force of beatmania and beatmania IIDX, their DJ simulation series. The number of games they've released in Japan is staggering: for example, there are 14 beatmania IIDX games available on the PlayStation 2 alone. Equally staggering is that none of them have been exported out of Asia. At least that was the case until Konami took a chance on a US release in 2006, simply titled beatmania.

Gameplay is designed around a special controller with seven buttons (laid out alternating in two rows, like part of a piano keyboard) and a turntable, plus Start and Select buttons. This thing is huge; I mean, the large buttons and spaces in between them have frequently left my fingers floundering to keep up, at least compared to using a piano or computer keyboard. And apparently the controllers on the arcade machines are even bigger. But what's neat about the Beatmania Controller is that the section with the buttons can be ejected from the rest of the body and turned around, thus supporting both right- and left-handed players. Considering that the ideal hand configuration is to use the turntable with your non-dominant hand, that was awfully nice of Konami to keep that possibility in mind.

During gameplay, coloured bars descend from the top of the screen -- blue and white for the keys, and red for the turntable -- and you have to press/scratch the appropriate object when these icons meet a bar at the bottom of the field. So what's your incentive for doing so? Well, beatmania doesn't use a traditional lifebar. In order for your performance to count as a "clear", you have to get the Groove Gauge filled to 80% or higher by the time the song ends. This means that even if the Groove Gauge falls to zero, you won't get kicked out mid-song. But don't take this as a blessing; just one miss is enough to knock 15-20% off of the meter, and it takes many, many correct hits to build up the same amount. Plus, you have the occasional song with a really tough passage at the end, designed to throw you off at the last minute ("Ska A Go Go" says hi).
The series' roots are represented in 5-Key mode.
Three major gameplay modes may be selected from the main menu. Game Mode lets you play sets of three songs, like in the arcade versions, Free Play lets you play any songs you've already tried in Game Mode as much as you want, and Expert Mode challenges you to clear back-to-back series of five songs apiece. Each of these three modes is also divided into two play styles: the 5-key beatmania and 7-key beatmania IIDX. The 5-key mode is, of course, easier than 7-key because your hands have less ground to cover, plus it's nice to see the series' early days represented, seeing as how newer releases have neglected this classic era. However, there is only one difficulty level for the songs in 5-key mode, versus four in IIDX, and most of the songs available in the 5-key mode aren't playable in IIDX, and vice-versa. In fact, most are exclusive to IIDX mode. It's almost as if they wanted to shift the focus on that...?

Starting out, you'll spend most of your time in Game Mode, trying to unlock everything in Free Play. Once you do, you'll have pretty much no reason to return to Game Mode. In fact, unlocking all the songs also awards you access to the Another difficulty level. I'm sure the purists will complain about this Americanised version of beatmania locking them out of a difficulty that is available from the start everywhere else, but as for the average Joe Six-Key like myself? Come on, as if I need this game to be even harder!! It's bad enough that the timing judgement demands the utmost precision in order to score Perfect marks, and that the Hyper-level charts (the next level under Another) are packed with many, many more notes than their DDR counterparts! Now you want to throw even more notes into the equation!? Well, buck that noise.

In addition to the main modes of play, beatmania also offers a free-practice mode and a tutorial. The tutorial does teach the basic mechanics but offers little advice in the way of advanced technique. I guess one pointer I could give you myself is to use your left (non-dominant) hand to cover the first two keys in addition to the turntable, scratching with your pinkie finger. Other than that, I can only tell you to practice. A lot. And while you're at it, try learning how to play a real piano. Who knows, some of that muscle memory might come in handy. You can also save replays of your best performances, and play them from the main menu. O-kay, that's not something you see every day, certainly not in this genre, but I appreciate the thought.
You think this looks hard? This is only the Normal level.
At least you have an array of modifiers to help you out or challenge you. Many of these work the same as in DDR, such as Mirror/Random, Hidden/Sudden, and the Speed modifiers. In fact, the speed modifiers are essential; on the default setting, the notes move so slowly that it can be hard to make out their position in the rhythm. Thus, the use of Hi-Speed 1 or 2 (or 3 for slow songs) is highly recommended. There's even an option to save your note-speed choices for each individual song, which is incredibly handy for the absent-minded of us (myself included ^^;). Furthermore, two different versions of the lifebar can be selected from this options menu: an easier (faster-filling, slower-falling) version of the regular Groove Gauge, and the Challenge lifebar, which drops the 80% clear requirement but kicks you out of the song instantly if it falls to zero. And finally, you can also have the computer automatically handle the turntable and/or (in IIDX mode) 6th and 7th keys, although doing so will pre-empt you from reaching the best grades.

If you're expecting to tap and scratch away to the best of the Top 40, don't. Out of the 50-some total tracks available for play, the number of licenced songs can be counted on your fingers. There's "Funky Town", that "delightful" one-hit wonder from Lipps, Inc., some less-exposed electronic dance jams (if you've actually heard of names like Timo Maas or Paul Grogan, more power to you), and cover versions of songs like "Celebration", "Toxic", and "You Really Got Me" (presumably the Van Halen version). Fortunately, the Konami-originals more than make up for this shortcoming. They've been brought in from all across beatmania's history (primarily the 1st through 8th IIDX versions), and cover all matter of genres, with a slight bias towards techno and trance. Not many songs which got their start in Dance Dance Revolution are represented here (I can think of "PARANOiA Max" and... that's about it), but the opposite is certainly true; songs like "5.1.1.", "Holic", "Colors", and "V", have become famous to players of both series. All the songs have their own background videos as well, showcasing various forms of 2-D animation, 3-D animation, and/or live-action footage, and each contributes to their song's identity.

Konami took a gamble releasing beatmania in North America, and somehow despite Guitar Hero, and their own Dance Dance Revolution, putting the music-game genre in the forefront of popular opinion, it failed. Gee, I can't imagine why. The tracklist has little content that would entice neophytes, and the difficulty curve is steep. That said, for the adventurous rhythm gamer, it's not a total loss. Without a serious single-player framework like the Dance Master Mode from DDR Extreme 2, beatmania's replayability may seem limited, but there's always a chance that you'll want to stick around and play it hours on end, just to improve your high scores or conquer the next difficulty level. Heck, if it inspires you to import one of the many Japanese IIDX editions, so much the better.

+ 5-key and 7-key modes are available.
+ The soundtrack covers a wide variety of musical genres.
+ Rather slick-looking background animations.

- The Beatmania Controller could stand to be a little more compact.
- The intricate charts and lifebar mechanics contribute to a steep difficulty curve.
- Limited replay appeal apart from setting records.
- Not many songs would interest non-fans.

Control: 3 keys out of 5
Design: 3 keys out of 5
Graphics: 4 keys out of 5
Audio: 5 keys out of 5
Value: 3 keys out of 5
The Call: 65% (C)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Dance Dance Retrospective: DDR X

It took me until the 15th anniversary of Dance Dance Revolution to talk about its 10th. Go figure. But whatevs, the time is right to talk about the game that took DDR into its second decade: 2008's DanceDanceRevolution X.
The new DDR X cabinet. ...In Japan.
For the first time in ten years and goodness knows how many games, Konami designed a new cabinet for the arcade version of X. The machine boasted a HD widescreen display, a new external light patterns, including LED bars along the sides, and USB ports which, rather than support profiles as I would've hoped :-(, replace the PlayStation Memory Card ports for the purposes of transferring edit charts from the home versions. At least... in Japan. In order to cut costs, the machines sold in America and Europe were co-manufactured by Raw Thrills... Seriously!? It's not bad enough that Raw Thrills produces inferior games in genres already conquered by the Japanese; now they have to go and ruin one of their franchises directly!? The result is that the HD monitor tends to lag behind the sound, throwing off timing (results may vary), the pads were constructed out of a single piece of metal instead of the "grid" pattern used before, thus being easier to break (again, results may vary), and those pretty light-bars on the sides were taken out. And the USB ports, while still present, were not supported by the home version, but instead a Web browser-based program which only supported a selection of songs from SuperNOVA on, and I couldn't even get the darn thing to work. As in SuperNOVA2, an e-Amusement kit is required for unlocking songs, and unlock codes were unveiled for regions in which the kit was unavailable.

So enough about the outside of the machine, what's going on inside? DDR X makes its own little attempts at modernising the experience, starting with a new difficulty rating scale. The old 1-to-10 scale from the MAX and SuperNOVA eras has been replaced with a scale going from 1 to a possible 20. All difficulties using the old scale have been adjusted, by a roughly 1 1/2-times increase. For example, "PARANOiA" Expert has gone from level 8 to 12, and "MAX 300" Expert from 10 to 15. As of 2013, the highest level ever achieved on this scale by an official chart is 19. And for those of you migrating to this series from Pump It Up!, this scale is also roughly analogous to the scale they introduced in PIU Exceed, back in 2004. It appears that Konami was only now trying to catch up with its competition... specifically, where its competition was that many years ago.

Want proof? DDR X also marks the debut of the Shock Arrow, which damages your Groove Gauge if you're stepping on any of the panels as it crosses the Step Zone. If this sounds like the mines from In The Groove (refresher), they are indeed similar, but with two differences. Shock Arrows always cover all four step directions, and if you hit them, all the arrows on screen will flash invisible for a brief moment. Sadly, the Shock Arrows are a bit under-used, only appearing on Challenge-level charts (themselves copies of other charts with Shock Arrows replacing some notes) for a scant number of songs, and you can't add them to edit data. At least it's fun to play with them every once in a while, and they would return for the next few games.
DDR X employs a new art direction for its background stages.
In contrast to the wide variety of colourful, computer-esque settings that the SuperNOVA games offered as backdrops, there are only six to be found in X. Some are grungy cityscapes, which tie in to urban elements like chain-link fences and masking-tape tags used in the predominantly yellow-orange UI. And then you lay eyes on the birthday cake stage and things start to get more complicated... They brought in new announcers, too: Justin and Wil-Dog from the band Ozomatli, who also contributed a song to the home version. Aaand... they suck. Their uncomfortable mixture of American street slang and gratuitous Japanese makes them the most grating out of all the announcers this series has ever had. On the bright side (figuratively, anyway), DDR X also adds a handful of new modifiers. The Screen Filter option darkens part of the background, making the arrows easier to see, which is a Godsend if sun glare has been a problem wherever you've been playing (in my case, the Jersey shore). You can also change the design of the arrows from the options menu, similar to what the later home games allow.

Notable new songs include:
  • "30 Lives (Up-Up-Down-Dance Mix)" by The Motion Sick. An alt-rock love song built around the Konami Code, of all things. And yes, they do work the code into the stepcharts. Made for the DDR Song Contest 2008.
  • "A Geisha's Dream" by Naoki & Pretty groundbreaking in that it's a collab between Konami and non-Konami acts, but in the end it just serves to cement's association with the DDR franchise.
  • "Always On My Mind" by the Pet Shop Boys. This country classic was re-worked into a post-New Wave version by the band in 1987.
  • "Here It Goes Again" by OK Go. And yes, it does use the "OK Go on Treadmills" music video.
  • "U Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer. And yes, it does pause at the "Stop, Hammertime" line.
  • A selection of old licences from 1st and 2ndMIX have been revived in the form of "2008 X-Edits". The steps bear plenty of resemblance to their original charts, all of them boast Shock Arrows on Challenge, but unfortunately, the edits made to the songs themselves kinda suck. It's like they tried to avoid using any passages from the original cuts. I realise that the cuts from older games are shorter than nowadays, but these are just jarring to anyone familiar with them. The following songs have been revived in this manner:
    • "Butterfly" by (1st)
    • "Boys" by (2ndMIX)
    • "Dub-I-Dub" by Me & My (2ndMIX)
    • "Get Up'n Move" by S&K (2ndMIX)
    • "Hero" by Papaya (2ndMIX) (Only available on home version)
  • In addition to the X-Edits, Shock Arrow charts are available for the following songs:
    • "Dance Celebration" by Bill Hamel feat. kevens
    • "Flight of the Phoenix" by Jena Rose
    • "Horatio" by OR-IF-IS
    • "On the Bounce" by Neuras
    • "Saber Wing" by TAG
  • The five X-Mixes, which are medleys of new songs. Like the Nonstop mixes from the Solo games and the Long Versions from 5thMIX, these require 2 stages to play.
  • The following songs have been revived from the Hottest Party games, making their core series debut: 
    • "Beautiful Inside (Cube::Hard Mix)" by NM feat. Alison Wade (HP)
    • "Super Samurai" by jun (HP)
    • "will" by Naoki (HP)
    • "Into Your Heart (Ruffage Mix)" by Naoki feat. Yasmine (HP2)
    • "Loving You (Epidemik Remix)" by Toni Leo (HP2)
  • The new boss songs are listed below. In the arcade version, depending on the total difficulty ratings of the songs you chose before, you may get different songs.
    • "On the Break" by Darwin. First available as a Final Stage.
    • "Saber Wing" by TAG. First available as an Extra Stage.
    • "Horatio" by OR-IF-IS. First available as an Extra Stage.
    • "Saber Wing (Akira Ishihara Headshot Mix)" by TAG. First available as an Extra Stage.
    • "On the Bounce" by Neuras. First available as an Encore Extra Stage.
    • "Trigger" by sonic-coll. First available as an Encore Extra Stage.
  • In addition to the boss songs, X also features "X-Special" charts, new Challenge-level charts for numerous classic songs, similar to the Groove Radar Specials from SuperNOVA2, but instead of trying to max out any one element of the Groove Radar, they're just all-around challenging. X-Special charts are available for:
    • "PARANOiA" (1st)
    • "Trip Machine" (1st)
    • "PARANOiA Max (Dirty Mix)" (2ndMIX)
    • "PARANOiA KCET (Clean Mix)" (2ndMIX)
    • "SP-Trip Machine (Jungle Mix)" (2ndMIX)
    • "Afronova" (3rdMIX)
    • "PARANOiA Rebirth" (3rdMIX)
    • "PARANOiA Evolution" (4thMIX)
    • "Trip Machine Climax" (4thMIX)
    • "Healing Vision" (5thMIX)
    • "Candy" (MAX)
    • "MAX 300" (MAX)
    • "Kakumei" (MAX2)
    • "MaxX Unlimited" (MAX2)
    • "Dance Dance Revolution" (Extreme)
    • "The Legend of MAX" (Extreme)
The home version of DDR X was, yet again, made for PlayStation 2. Thankfully (IMO), the shop system from the Extreme and SuperNOVA games has been scrapped; instead, you unlock most songs and content by playing through the Street Master Mode, which deals out missions in the context of stories for each of the game's characters. In practice, these are simple text-box vignettes which provide the most transparent excuses for getting them to dance against one another -- think the DDR equivalent of Professor Layton. Although I did enjoy the quiz missions where you choose an answer by getting the corresponding grade in a song. Don't take it too seriously, and you'll find it a fun way to see all the game has to offer.

With its anniversary out of the way, Dance Dance Revolution will now join the 7th console generation! ...Or not. Read what happens next time on the Dance Dance Retrospective!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Web Work Review: Kung Fu Cooking Girls

So I was trolling around deviantART one day and I read about this animated short called "BatMan in Shanghai", made for the DC Nation Shorts. It's title pretty much describes what it is: an alternate-universe Batman tale set in 1930s Shanghai, in which versions of Catwoman, Bane, and Batman fight over some scroll. And it was good. But then I heard the same team who made it, who call themselves Wolf Smoke Studios, did this other animated short called "Kung Fu Cooking Girls", which is also a more or less a case of Exactly What It Says On The Tin. And it was good. But it got me thinking a lot more than the other one, so please indulge me this opportunity to vomit the contents of my over-active mind.
Having a running time of about six minutes, not including credits, the plot of this video is simple enough. A traveller walks into a village, discovers himself to be hungry, and is called upon by two rival food vendors. One is a Chinese girl selling dim sum (shrimp-filled dumplings), and one is an Occidental (presumably American) girl selling sub sandwiches. They compete to get his attention, only to forget about the man and fight each other directly. Eventually they forget all about the man, who crawls over to yet another restaurant, and finally gets something to eat as the catfight rages on until the credits roll. This sort of love-triangle story archetype is a dime a dozen, something you might find in rom-com anime like Ranma 1/2 or Tenchi Muyo!. Essentially, this tale teaches the moral that if you keep trying to one-up other people, you'll lose sight if what's really important, in this case, doing business with a customer. But by presenting a conflict of East versus West, it permits me to inject my own crazy interpretations, so let's have at it.

The Chinese girl, heretofore referred as Girl Number One in a vague Lonely Island reference, certainly lives up to the expectations set up by the title of this film. She uses kung fu in her cooking: first she throws the shrimp fillings in the air and, with lightning-fast reflexes, catches them in their buns, and to top it off, she cooks them by levitating the basket in a sphere of chi. Simply awesome. I do love a girl with huge... talents. (And I meant that both literally and as a Sailor Moon in-joke.) The Western girl (Girl Number Two) is certainly overshadowed in this department (although her speed at assembling that sandwich is nothing to sneeze at), but she makes up for it in sex appeal, all but flirting with her potential customer (why not call him Steve, just to wrap up the "Just 2 Guyz" reference) in a getup lifted from Gurren Lagann's Yoko. Not that Girl Number One is lacking in this aspect either; I'm guessing she doesn't have a bra under that apron-top-thingie. Regardless, Girl Number One calls Girl Number Two out on this, and on the lack of technical skill in preparing her food. Meanwhile, what sort of smack can Girl Number Two talk about Girl Number One's food? That it's not worth feeding to the pigs. Well, that's just your problem, lady. The way I see it, responding to objective criticism with a subjective insult is just petty. And at the end of it all, the two girls expend all that energy and waste all that food (as complained by "Steve" himself), only for "Steve" to find another place to eat altogether. It's tempting as a viewer to emotionally latch on to either of the two girls, but in the end "Steve" is the protagonist, so it's nice to see his conflict (read: hunger) resolved.

So based on what I just described, the inferrence to draw would be that the Chinese take greater care in not just the preparation of food, but everything they do, whereas their Western counterparts just don't understand the tradition and diligence that goes into making great works, right? Well, it's not that simple, and in fact it falls apart if we were to apply it to real-world macroeconomics. As I have been led to believe, America and allies have been doing most of the industrial innovation in the past few years, as opposed to China being ripe with cheap production labour. Granted, that role has the potential to change -- the quite likely potential, at that -- so we can't apply that to the movie. Besides, it's not as if Girl Number Two is completely out of Girl Number One's league; when they fight each other directly, they're pretty much evenly matched, and their fight ends without conclusion.

But what if the behaviour of the girls could be a representation of Chinese and American mindsets about each other? As mentioned before, Girl Number One can get rather hot-tempered in her attempts to prove herself to "Steve" and Girl Number Two who, in turn, goes for sex appeal over technical skill in doing the same. This may, more plausibly, be seen as a commentary on the mentalities of China and America, both as nationalities and as people. Communist nationalism aside, it is imaginable that the Chinese, and for that matter many other peoples of the East, take offence at the heretofore unrestricted dominance the West has had over politics and culture over the past century or two. Meanwhile, the way in which Girl Number Two attempts to connect with "Steve" suggest that both the works America produces, along with the tastes of American consumers, are geared towards the lowest common denominator. Man, when I put it like that, I really come across as siding with Girl Number One, if not the Chinese as a whole. But who's to say Girl Number One really is better? It's never revealed, but is there possibly any talent she lacks but Girl Number Two possess? (Besides the obvious "talents".) See, this is why you should never draw these kinds of inferences without knowing the whole story.

Why am I telling you all this, especially if it may never even have been intended by its creators at all? Think about it: with China's economic power growing as it has been over the past few decades, the country stands to play a far bigger part in more than just the economic sector. What I mean is that we may soon encounter pieces of media that are not only produced, but conceived in China. Like this film, having been produced by a Shanghai-based studio. So as potential viewers of this media, we need to brace ourselves for what sorts of ideas will be presented therein. If you're worried about the next generation of the Red Scare, I wouldn't. Ever since the end of the Cold War, and the death of Mao Zedong before that, it feels like the Chinse government has become less concerned with spreading the Communist revolution than with just the usual amassment of riches. So we can expect more depictions of rivalries between China and the West, if not on an ideological level, then on economical or cultural terms.

But enough about the message that "Kung Fu Cooking Girls" may or may not be trying to promote; is it any good? Well, the plot is action-packed and concise, with no more main characters or minutes of running time than it needs to get its point across. Enough visual stylings are borrowed from Japanese anime for it to feel familiar, but are used just loosely enough to create a completely new aesthetic identity. The animation is a little sketchy, with roughly drawn outlines barely containing their colours, but for a short film produced by five people (not including music and voice acting), would you really expect a whole lot more? After all, they've got the frenetic pace of the fight scenes down pat, although considering the great Chinese tradition of martial-arts films, I can't say I'm surprised. But most importantly, I had fun and it made me think a little, which I for one value above all other qualities. The future of Chinese media is yet to be set in stone, but for now? Godspeed, Wolf Smoke Studios. Take the time to perfect your craft, and you may one day become animation's equivalent of Girl Number One.

The Call: 5 dim-sum out of 5 (A)