Drink Lots of Water
Step onto the Dance Dance Revolution platform. Look at your feet and chances are that you are standing in the middle, on a metal plate that covers not only the center, but also the corners of the pad. You are only a tap away from the arrows. Up, down, left, right. Safe and secure. Then suddenly, the arrows and the metal plates begin to warp. You stagger as the arrows slide into the corners and a center arrow forms beneath your feet. The metal plates now cover the arrows you once knew.
No, you are not having a nightmare. You are ready to Pump It Up.
No matter how Pump It Up is explained, the diagonally-skewed pad is enough to intimidate everyone - even DDR veterans. Oddly, Andamiro has served up their DDR alternative for several years now, and Pump It Up machines have begun to take hold in arcades all across the continent, blasting Korean pop songs over their Japanese counterpart. Following in Konami's footsteps, Andamiro is porting the competition to the console with Pump It Up: Exceed. Unfortunately, this company known for creating games exclusively for arcades isn't familiar with the world outside of their pinball-lit universe, and that inexperience shows. Still, Exceed betters DDR in nearly every aspect of dance and makes more than just a slanted, hackneyed variation of aerobics.
Exceed doesn't stray far from the typical peripheral-based rhythm game. Flip through the music. Pick a song. Pick a difficulty. Listen to the beat. Watch the colored arrows scroll up through the stationary gray arrows at the top of the screen. Stomp on the corresponding arrows on the pad. Get a grade from 'Perfect' to 'Miss' for how well you timed each step. Get a grade from 'S' to 'E' for the performance. Flip through the music again. Pick another song.
On premise alone, Exceed seems like a DDR rip-off. Indeed, for a game that will be inevitably compared to a series that already has more than fifteen console iterations, Exceed doesn't pay much attention to the competition. To the chagrin of rhythm veterans, thorough features found in DDR have been ignored. Grades are not stored anywhere. Sure, you get a list of high scores and an internet code that gives you a worldwide ranking, but who cares? What really matters is being able to track your progress song by song, and for most arrow-minded dancers, grades of either 'A' or 'S' are what count in the end. Regrettably, you can't train specific ankle-twisting step sequences on Crazy-level songs. Furthermore, songs from various Pump It Up mixes have been plastered over without fully-fleshed step charts. Far too many songs can't be played on the difficulty setting you want. And worse yet, you have to pick a song before you can actually see the difficulty rating; that is, if you can unlock it first. In order to unlock most songs in Arcade Mode, you have to complete songs in Home Mode and Sudden Death Mode, but that's only if you can unlock songs in Sudden Death Mode first by passing songs without making a single mistake, and even then, you have to unlock songs in Home Mode by completing songs in Arcade Mode, and…
But while you will feel short-changed at times, Exceed makes dancing so vivacious, ebullient, and fluid that nitpicking short-changes the game. Stepping on diagonal arrows, let alone a "center arrow", certainly feels unconventional. But the wider arsenal of steps gives, at least more than DDR, the impression that you are not trudging through an exercise routine. In DDR, your movements are usually bound to the center of the platform and fixed step patterns pop up frequently. Since the arrows in Pump It Up are in the corners, your feet can spread from the center, shifting forward and backward from one side to the other. With five arrows and double - even triple - combinations, your feet won't be bored. The center arrow also acts as a pivot, providing a firm axis to ground your feet and turn. Jumps and spins are far less awkward and are even easy to perform. Moreover, using both pads in Freestyle has much more freedom than Double in DDR. Here, you step on ten arrows that are evenly spread across the platform rather than eight arrows that are placed away from the center line between the two pads. You have the ability to use your hands, knees, and feet without feeling restricted to the tabular arrows of a step chart.
You can actually dance.
And not just to generic music with generic backgrounds, either. You will, of course, still get the occasional epileptic backdrop and one (extremely) unfortunate remix of Six Pence None The Richer's "Kiss Me". But you will notice that the background for each song carries its own artistic theme - either through hand-drawn or computer-generated animation, or even the song's actual music video - and that the vast majority of songs have rhythms that you want to dance to. Spinning through the color-wheel of music, you can choose your favorite from a selection of Pop, Korean Pop, and BanYa - Andamiro's acclaimed in-house composer. Headlining the soundtrack are "A Little Less Conversation" by Elvis Presley; "Let's Groove" by Earth, Wind, and Fire; "Rapper's Delight" by Sugarhill Gang; and a fiesta of Latin-flavored songs. And even if you don't understand foreign lyrics or aren’t fond of techno renditions of classical music, every song has it where it counts: a heavy dance beat. Whatever your taste, even if it's heavy metal or Koreans singing in Spanish, you will likely find music that suits your dance style.
The only serious criticism that can be lodged against the game is the dance pad it comes bundled with. The pad is a slippery, plastic mess, and sadly, there are hardly any other compatible pads, foam or metal, that can replace it. But for the most part, the pad is responsive and durable enough for casual gamers, and you will be too lost in the music to care. Just make sure to tape the pad to the floor, because you don't want to end up on your face.
Unfortunately, we can't give this advice to Konami. When will DDR get it right? After countless - meaningless - iterations, it's time to find the answer someplace else and that place is Pump It Up: Exceed. With a simple shift of 45 degrees and a blood-pumping soundtrack, Exceed is one of those few games that makes you forget that you are playing a rhythm game. Any slipups the game has is quickly made up with solid dance mechanics and a hip, no-nonsense groove. So have fun proving to your parents that video games are actually making you do something productive. Just drink lots of water and hold on to that sweat.
You're going to need it.