It's only March, and it's already been a great season for diverse gamers. For proof, we need look no further than the niche genre of music gaming. For a category of entertainment that had formerly been labeled too Japanese for western tastes, music games seem to be here to stay. It's funny to look back and see that such a thing was almost unthinkable even as recently as five years ago.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with this type of game, let me throw out a few things that they generally have in common. Number one, music games are (obviously) based around songs and rhythm as central gameplay mechanics. If you are tone deaf or can't keep a beat, you might find yourself running into some difficulty. Number two, music games tend to be quite short when it comes to longevity and replay. Since it's a little unrealistic to expect forty hours worth of tunes, don't expect these games to last as long as your typical role-player or adventure game. People on a budget, be advised. Third, as a direct result of items one and two, you'll find that music games are generally best enjoyed with friends or at a party. While there's fun to be had grooving solo, the enjoyment and energy are far better when you've got people laughing, singing, and getting a little crazy.
The original PaRappa The Rapper on the PlayStation is consistently named as one of the music genre's top games, and was actually the title that broke the market wide open for others to follow here in the USA. While there was an excellent follow-up game, Um Jammer Lammy, it was more of a side-story than an actual sequel. With this, the third title from developer NaNaOn-Sha, we return to the heroic exploits of everyone's favorite rapping puppy only to find that it's a tremendous disappointment.
For those of you new to the series, it basically plays like a session of Simon Says. In each stage PaRappa will challenge a master rapper and listen to him or her bust out some lyrics. PaRappa has to be able to repeat the same phrase by hitting the Dual Shocks buttons in time to the beat. This is accomplished by following along with a moving cursor at the top of the screen, and jamming on the buttons when the cursor indicates the correct time. It's extremely simple and easy, with even the most casual gamers getting comfortable in no time at all.
If you ask anyone what they thought the best part of the original PaRappa was, the answer is always the same: the unforgettable and insanely catchy songs. More than any other factor, the music and songwriting will make or break any game of this type. Sadly, this is the area where PaRappa 2 falls the hardest. Out of the entire game, there were only three songs that I thought were decent, and the rest were either instantly forgettable or downright embarrassing. None of them even approach the greatness of the first effort's soundtrack. It's hard to put my finger on exactly what makes them so poor, but I think its a combination of not enough hooks in the music along with lyrics that barely make sense. We're talking a half step above being total gradeschool gibberish here.
Not only were the tunes sad, the storyline was equally insipid. While the first game focused on PaRappas quest for self-confidence and the heart of his true love, PaRappa 2 is about preventing his hometown from being turned into noodles. Yes, I said noodles. While I am by no means claiming that the first game's plot was a masterpiece, it definitely had its own style and sensibility. When talking about noodles taking over the world, I found that it made no sense, I couldn't relate and I just didn't care. The content of the cutscenes providing the story between songs was shaky at best, and the whole plot lacked the charm, coherence and emotion necessary to draw me in.
Sadly, the game offers almost no replay value since you probably won't want to hear the songs twice, and going for the highest ranking of "COOL" in each stage by making up your own phat lyrics is just frustrating. The game judges your raps in such an arbitrary and unpredictable way that it's nearly impossible to do it with skill. A rhyme I thought sounded great was judged "BAD", and something that sounded like complete trash to my ear was "COOL". In addition, the games two-player mode is extremely boring, amounting to a nothing so much as a common game of HORSE.
With only a few decent songs, weak two-player options and nothing worth mentioning to be unlocked after finishing the game, there's no way I can recommend this disc as a purchase to anyone except the hardcore PaRappa fan. If this was released as an update or add-on disc for half the price, I might be inclined to be more forgiving. However, for the full price of fifty hard-earned bones, the game's estimated completion time of one hour along with its marginal enjoyment factor reduces it to rental-only status.
Before you walk away from this review thinking that music games are lame, short and not worth buying, lets take a look at Gitaroo Man for purposes of comparison. Looking the approaches and content of both of these titles, it's clear to see that you can take the same basic concept and end up with two completely different levels of quality.
Making a name for themselves with dry simulation games during the 16-bit era, Koei (the developer) has been making great strides to break out of their rut and branch out into a wider variety of releases. While they've tried a few variations on their traditional themes before, it seems to me that there can be no greater leap than to go from detailed management of rice sacks during dynastic times to hard rocking love stories in outer space. Surprisingly, Koei not only manages to pull it off—they pull it off with style.
Gitaroo Man's main character is a boy named U-1 who comes into possession of a techno-magical instrument called a Gitaroo. After a short primer on its use, he is launched into an interstellar adventure that shares the timeless themes of self-confidence and love with one of the games I was just discussing, the original PaRappa. Oddly, I'd even say that Gitaroo Man is something like its spiritual successor. All issues of originality aside, the story here works and is much more satisfying than PaRappa 2's.
As for the gameplay, Gitaroo follows suit with most of the music genre in that the player's goal is to hit buttons in a timely manner. The difference here is that it goes a step further by involving the analog stick as well. During play against the computer opponents, a broken line appears and snakes its way around the screen. To attack your opponent with mean riffs, your job is to keep the stick pointing towards the moving line while simultaneously hitting and holding the circle button after each break in the line. If that doesn't sound complex enough, you are required to hit all four of the face buttons in rhythmic sequences when trying to defend against your enemy's attack. It's much deeper and requires a lot more skill than most music games do, but in my estimation it is completely successful at bringing a new level of depth to what is generally a very shallow genre. On the flip side, be warned that some of the later stages require extremely fast fingers. While most experienced players will still be able to knock the game out in a day, more casual folks will be in for some blisters and frustration.
The songs on the disc are pretty great stuff for the most part. There's quite a variety in the tunes, ranging from your basic heavy metal growler to techno-pop dance. My personal favorite was the Spanish guitar number, but I also thought the power-ballad near the end of the game was outstanding. Out of the game's eleven playable stages, ten tracks were clear winners. The only dud in the bunch was some kind of cacophonous sci-fi mistake with your Gitaroo making the sounds of a theremin. I couldn't get into the groove with that one to save my life, but the rest are golden.
The only real downside to Gitaroo Man is that the considerable dexterity required to play the game is also very physically taxing. If playing PaRappa 2 was like throwing a ball, Gitaroo would be like juggling. About halfway through the game's ten stages, my hands, wrists and forearms were hurting in places I didn't know existed. You might want to do some warm-up exercises before taking this game on. It's also worth noting that I found it very difficult to keep the stick centered on the line during the fast-paced songs. I think it was mostly caused by the Dual Shocks off-kilter hypersensitivity, although my fatigue might have had something to do with it as well.
With a broad range of musical styles, intense gameplay and a winning sense of cool, Koei scores another one from left field. As if that wasn't enough, there's even an excellent option for up to four players to have an impromptu battle-of-the-bands. As a whole, Gitaroo Man is far and away one of the best games the music genre has to offer. I don't know what's driving Koei's sudden bursts of inspiration, but they're definitely on the right track and I hope they keep it up. Hopefully, Sony and NaNaOn-Sha will see how badly they've been outclassed and improve their efforts for any future titles. Admittedly being a big PaRappa fan myself, I'd like to see the series continue. However, if the next game is going to be as lame as PaRappa 2, they might as well just quit now.