Turn the beat around.
The future people of Japan enjoy all kinds of bizarre perks we never get to see here in the States, and I’m not just talking about the crazy games
(or the crazier ones
). They’ve also got ice-cream vending machines
, enlightened cigarettes
, religious robots
, zombie drinks
and, of course, penis festivals
Jealous? We understand, and so do the folks at Konami. The long-time exporters of all things Dance Dance and Karaoke have graciously pushed another wave across the pond with Beatmania, a DJ-inspired rhythm romp that brings a respectable if costly version of this arcade hit to our very large American, uh, ears.
Oddly enough, Beatmania pre-dates its dance pad cousins, effectively launching the whole music rhythm game thing in Japan almost a decade ago. Not to skimp on the wackiness, the U.S. version comes packaged with a big, wonky DJ controller, which resembles a keyboard with a small turntable attached to the side. As a nod to the southpaws and good design in general, you can remove the key section and flip it over to place the turntable on the other side. It’s too bad the turntable doesn’t spin very well; it’s easily the worst part of the controller and potentially could have been one of the coolest parts of the game. But in all fairness, a $50 piece of plastic is by no means a $600 professional turntable, so it’s not that surprising.
The keys themselves are a little flimsy but work fine enough. Every sampler and drum machine on the market has a latency (time) relationship between the button press and the actual sound playing, and Beatmania is no different. It may take a minute or two to figure out, but once you become familiar with the timing and travel of the keys, things will start to fall into place.
The gameplay is pretty much what it sounds like – you play the role of DJ as you scratch and key your way through a slew of songs. You really do all kinds of stuff, from triggering phrases off a sampler to actually playing a keyboard in real time. In either the 5-key beginner mode or the 7-key DXII mode, notes stream down tracks on one side of the screen for you to play to the beat, just like every other dance/rhythm game ever made. The turntable breaks up the monotony with ‘free scratch’ zones that let you cut up the hot wax for bonus points, although the scratch sounds themselves are pretty weak.
But the music is fine. Most tracks have been shortened to the two-minute range to keep things moving. Ranging from remixed old jams like Funkytown and Celebration to some decent modern tunes from the likes of Moby and Timo Maas, a good deal of genres are represented. Between the staple Trance and House stuff to more eclectic Drum ‘n Bass, Reggae, and Ambient, you’re bound to find something you like. Make no mistake, though, the track list isn’t packed full of “classic” songs and artists, and in turn doesn’t quite do for wannabe DJs what Guitar Hero did for wannabe shredders. Ultimately that’s more a comment on popular music than Beatmania, but the absence of really big guns like Chemical Brothers or Goldie is notable.
Every game mode shares the “groove gauge” mechanic, which tracks your performance, going up when you play well and down when you don’t. That’s all well and good, but in order to clear a track, you have to finish above 80%. In practice, that means you could literally not play the first half of the song and if you nail the ending, you still pass, or vice-versa, doing well initially only to lose it and fail at the very end.
While that may seem broken, it sort of matches the experience of a real DJ playing to a crowd. If you’ve got ‘em dancing and screw the beat up, you cause a train wreck as everyone stops dancing and you go home lonely and drunk. But if you’re lame at first and eventually get it together, the people will still dance, right? Still, the fact that you can be inconsistent and still do fine is a bit annoying.
In the standard mode, you simply pick three songs and get rated on your total performance, ultimately unlocking those songs for use in the other modes. For the tougher tracks, Training mode lets you slow down and repeat any portion of a song, while Free mode lets you grind away at the full-speed versions over and over, maybe until the break of break of dawn.
One cool feature of Free mode is the ability to replay a saved performance so you can show it off later. Ala Guitar Hero, the better you play a track, the better it sounds. It’s a nice incentive to improve your skills or to go back over completed tracks once you’ve got your chops down. There are also a few nifty effects you can apply to further tweak your performance.
If you’re thinking you’re the boss DJ, you can shoot over to Expert mode and take on pre-chosen “courses” of tracks designed to test your skill. In this mode, the groove meter runs backwards, starting at 100% and requiring you to keep up or fail. If you do well enough, the game will toss you a special password to enter at the Konami website so you can see how you stack up against the world. It would have been nice to see an in-game leader board instead, but at least it’s there.
The real freaks can go even deeper with Double mode by plugging in a second DJ controller and performing on both at the same time, a task requiring either robotic or surgically-enhanced dexterity. You’ll also want that second controller if you plan on doing any head-to-head action. The game allows the use of a normal PS2 controller, but it’s just not suited for it.
Of course, that also means the price of this party has been jacked up to a hefty 65 bucks. Add on that second controller and you’re looking at about a hundred. That’s a lot of cash for a game that hasn’t changed much at all in a good eight years.
That includes its uninspired, dated look. Beatmania’s presentation is generally full of flashing lights (the game actually recommends against playing it in the dark due to seizure risk), but isn’t all it could be. Each song features a video clip that plays on one side of the screen, and those look fine, but the note tracks look downright boring. Since you spend 98% of your time missing the video and watching the blue and white bars whiz by, they could have at least made it look more interesting for the player and not just the audience.
Though it isn’t the freshest rhythm game in the world, Beatmania hits the stage rocking thanks to a pretty large list of tunes, a groovy controller and tons of modes and options. But the B-side of this record – specifically, the higher price, lackluster graphics and somewhat tired gameplay - keeps this old-school jam from bringing the house down.