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)

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