Built to Scale.
Finally, a mini-game collection that isn’t flawed because it’s a mini-game collection. Maybe you’re sick of editors like me railing on mini-game collections like some sort of scapegoat, but when I’m walking down the aisles at my local GameStop and see some “89-in-1” spiel on a game by some DDD-developer trying to make a quick buck, that’s enough to make me patrol the nearby shelf area for uninformed parents and their small children. Or maybe I’m just frustrated that people like them (as in, not you) aren’t reading my or any of fellow critics’, you know, information.
[image1]I’m tired of mini-game collections, you’re tired of them, marketers are tired trying to make them look good, and developers are tired trying to make them new and fun and a reason not to quit due to a mid-life crisis. Of course, whenever there is a specific class of horrible titles - like Wii titles that can’t figure how to use the infrared system and Wii-mote correctly - it’s up to the first-party developer to say, “Ha, ha, you’re silly.” And so Nintendo has made Rhythm Heaven. Ha, ha, ha.
As the name suggests, Rhythm Heaven is a collection of rhythm-based mini-games, whose difficulty is on par with what ordinary Americas think ordinary Japanese people, eh, “play” on their DS. So let’s just be curt about it: These mini-games are as painfully difficult as you think they are, maybe even harder (and this is coming from a Guitar Hero/Rock Band fiend). Some leeway is given as a courtesy - you can generally miss up to three times before losing a medal - but many of you will be grateful just to scrape by with the grade of “OK” (revealing the stereotypical Asian educational curse - if it’s not an “A”, it's not much at all).
Nonetheless, with enough
restarts and desperate pounding and tear-soaked pillows perseverance, it’s possible to earn all medals for all 50 mini-games. [Evidence provided by yours truly. ~Ed. Nick] (Technically, the end credits also feature a mini-game but you can’t win a medal for it.) The problem, though, is that aside from a handful of them, you’ll likely never win a medal on your first or second or seventeenth attempt, despite how similar and simple the mini-games are in their design and controls.
Flipping your DS sideways, you’ll be asked to do one thing: follow a visual and audio cue, paying attention to the beat of the music, with a specific sequence of stylus taps, holds, and flicks on the touch-screen. Every mini-game offers a variation on this task. For instance, after the female frog humanoid says “Ya-hoo!”, as she sways her hips to a doo-wop song, you tap the screen twice. After the bird commander says “Strike jab your neck!”, you flick. After the chorus sings a note, you release your stylus off the screen for the same length of that note. Sometimes you need to be quick on your fingers, following cues within half a second (or less); and sometimes you need to remember and replay two measures worth of notes. But otherwise, your mission of precision is still the same.
[image2]Though a part of the difficulty lies with the controls, demanding perfect tapping and flicking technique, most of it is due to being surprised and unaccustomed to the mini-game at hand. Even with the practice tutorial section at the beginning of each mini-game, you’re usually not told certain vital pieces of information, like how fast the rhythm will be, how long the song will be, how distracting the visuals will be, or just how your hand gesticulations are supposed to fit into the mini-game. Going beyond the expected learning curve, there are hidden curve balls - making nearly the entire screen go black, suddenly changing the tempo, or adding a phrase of jazzy off-beat notes. (The mini-game Lockstep, which is all about hitting notes off-beat, took me 37 attempts to master. No joke.)
Additionally, detailed stats are not given at the end of the mini-game, only whether you passed (“OK”), passed with distinction (“Superb”), or failed (“Try Again”). The game’s progression is linear in the exact definition of the word - you won’t unlock the next mini-game if you don’t get at least an “okay” - so you’ll feel cheated if you think you did well but actually
Try Again failed. More so if you’re going for medals.
Since you don’t know your margin of error, like how many passages you got right out of how many passages there were in total, it just causes frustration. The only variable stat called “flow”, which supposedly measures how well you did in your last few mini-games, simply rises as your medal count rises… so the stat is unnecessary.
Moreover, you’re not allowed to get a “perfect” grade (as well as a special gift) unless the game tells you that you can. At random times, a random mini-game will have a frame with happy notes and the word “perfect” around it, indicating that if you beat that mini-game without making any mistakes, you’ll be rewarded with a “perfect” grade. In other words, there are times when you’ll be lucky or extremely skilled to be perfect on a mini-game, and you won’t be awarded with a “perfect” because the frame isn't around it. Just why?
[image3]All told, this means that you’ll want (or need) to restart the mini-game over again multiple times, but the game doesn’t make it easy. Instead of a simple restart function, you need to press start, quit to the main mini-game selection screen, press okay, wait four seconds for the intro movie to finish, and finally skip practice. All that takes about 10 seconds, getting a medal on a mini-game takes about 6 restarts on average, and there are 50 mini-games; so if you do the math (50 minutes in waiting time), you’ll wonder why you have to wait at all.
With all these issues, you might be surprised to know that the collection of mini-games maintains your attention and are excellent examples of comic mischief. Though only 24 out of 50 mini-games are original games - 10 are remixes and 16 are more difficult versions of the original 16 - each of them has a creative, cartoonishly drawn theme. Whether it’s the flavorings of the music or a unique environmental setting, each mini-game is kept fresh in look and mood, from the first mini-game “Built To Scale” to the final (boss battle?) “Remix 10”. They might be repetitive and static in design, but they’re repetitively enjoyable, challenging, and well-imagined. And it’s hard to ask for more than that from a mini-game collection that is entirely rhythm-based.
As you collect medals, you’ll unlock "rhythm toys" which are simply widgets that allow you to make sounds, like fooling around with the touchpad tones of a telephone, and "endless games" that test how far you can keep your rhythm. Other than earning all 50 medals, there’s not much left to do except for banging out some short guitar mini-game sessions and the subsequent Battle of the Bands. You can also get all the “perfect” gifts, listening to the soundtrack and reading some side files on in-game characters, but that’s not enticing given the restrictive process of achieving each “perfect”.
Looks can be deceiving. Rhythm Heaven is not your typical easy-breezy knock-off mini-game collection, but in Nintendo fashion, a whimsical and simple yet serious and demanding test of your timing and focus. Finding a mini-game collection that has substance and style is a treasure, and that it’s on the DS makes it that much more special. Though Rhythm Heaven hits a smattering of flat notes, its composition and concept are simply divine.