Yes, Samba de Amigo requires $80 maraca peripherals that come in a big yellow box with cartoon characters on it. And yes, it's one of those silly music games that are so huge in Japan. But what do they know? They bought more copies of Seaman than Soul Calibur. And you read online that there are some Ricky Martin songs in the game, and there's no way you're ever buying a game featuring the Latin sensation from Menudo.
For some reason, Sega doesn't care. If I had any financial investment in Sega, I would be upset at the decision to release Samba de Amigo. Its a game of a genre that doesn't exist in America and requires expensive peripherals that jack the price up to a shocking $120, more than a PlayStation or Nintendo 64 including tax. Nobody's going to buy this game, just as nobody bought Space Channel 5, Chu Chu Rocket! or Seaman. It's going to disappear after the new year, and the shelf space will be cleared for yet another mascot kart racing game that will sell more than all three previously mentioned titles combined.
But if someone, somehow takes a chance and picks up this game and a pair or two of maracas, they'll find that Samba de Amigo is a terrific game and the first one to plug in when the gang is around. The latest from Sonic Team has splendid music, makes everyone laugh and has enough gas in the tank to keep you playing it by yourself months after bringing it home.
Learning how to play Samba de Amigo is simple and straightforward. There are six circles on the screen arranged in a ring on the screen. The circles correspond to the high, middle and low locations on the left and right of the player. During the game, blue balls come from the center of the ring toward the circles in rhythm to the Latin soundtrack. The player must shake the maracas at those locations when the balls collide with the circles. To spice up the action, a stick man will appear at appropriate times encouraging the player to strike a crazy pose with the maracas. While you are playing, Samba -- the maraca-haking, sombrero-wearing monkey -- plays along in the background with his friends. As common to most music games, the background changes to reflect your success in the game. If you shake the maracas just right, Samba and his buds seemingly enter a state of Maraca euphoria, which evidently looks like a good LSD trip. Shake them out of rhythm, and everybody starts leaving and the lights go out.
While the setup is simple, the soundtrack provides a perfect compliment to the loco maraca shaking. The set list is fittingly south of the border, with classics such as "La Bamba," "Tequila" and more recent hits like "Livin La Vida Loca" and the "Macarena." Complementing the theme are a number of songs that are just fun to shake maracas to, such as "Tubthumping," "Soul Bossa Nova," and a ska version of "Take On Me." (It must be noted that few songs from the soundtrack are the original recordings, but most are very similar to the best-known version.) Even if some of these songs have passed their pop-culture prime, the way that Sonic Team unassumingly presents them makes you realize why they became popular in the first place -- they have amazingly catchy tunes and are easy to groove to. With maracas in hand, it is hard to find a better collection of songs.
Samba de Amigo can be played without the maracas, but the enjoyment is a small fraction of the Samba experience. Theres a fundamental difference between pressing up-left on the control pad and actually moving your arm to shake the left maraca high. Playing the game with the shakers takes the game from a typical videogame challenge and makes it into a combination of musical performance and dance. The result is that a good run in a Samba song combines the positive reinforcement from videogames -- like high scores -- with the sort of uniquely physical joy of making a jump shot or doing an elaborate dance. It moves the challenge and enjoyment of the game from the head to the entire body, or at least to your forearms and wrists which get a rough workout during long sessions of the game. This amount of physical feedback and interaction hasnt been explored in videogames released in North America, and Samba de Amigo is a great introduction to what else games can be.
Most of the fun in Samba de Amigo can be traced directly to the patterns that Sonic Team created for the great set of songs. They matched the maracas shaking to the patterned, symmetrical nature of music. For example, the player may have to shake the maracas high, middle and low on the left side for a line of a song, then shake high, middle and low on the right side for the next line. It creates a pleasing physical symmetry that compliments the structure of the tune. This symmetry helps make the act of shaking the maracas into more of a dance performance. Another way that Sonic Team uses this symmetry is to help guide the player through the game at the harder difficulties. Even though there may be rhythm balls flying all over the screen on "Super Hard," the players learn that the game speaks a symmetrical language and can provide an almost prescient vision into upcoming beats. The amazing thing is that Sonic Team builds this language almost invisibly -- integrating it with the music so it just feels right to players.
The only major flaw in Samba de Amigo is the required set of maracas that make the game so much fun. The hefty price tag of the peripheral already limits the audience to individuals with deep pockets. The bigger problem is that the maracas are not as accurate as one would expect for $80. The sensors for the maracas require line of sight between the maraca and the ground unit to determine the height of the shaker, which can be interrupted by loose clothing or shaking a maraca behind your body. This hardware feature can lead to an extreme amount of frustration when trying to complete the more difficult challenge levels, especially when the player is less experienced. Trying to reason how to shake the maracas in the correct location to keep them in sight of both ground sensors while playing immediately destroys the magic of the game -- you're no longer jamming to "The Cup of Life," you're troubleshooting a flaky piece of equipment. Even though the hardware has limitations, the problems can be overcome with practice, as long as players dont attempt too difficult a level too early.
While the main draw of the game is the arcade and original modes that allow the players to play through songs on the soundtrack, Sonic Team added a number of features to mix up the festivities. The game features a challenge mode that tests the upper limits of players skill (and the maracas' accuracy) by requiring them to achieve a very high score or grade on one of the songs. There are three party modes that can be played. The most enjoyable is the quintatholon of maraca shaking, the Mini-Game mode, where players can compete in five events that challenge all aspects of maraca play -- from shaking accuracy to rapid-fire posing. The Battle mode involves two players powering up bombs by getting large combos in the game, and then firing them at each other to deplete their life bar to win. The strangest is the Love mode, where two players play the same song together and the game determines how good of a romantic match they are, providing love advice as well. The game also features an Internet mode where 10 classic Sega songs can be unlocked from the Samba de Amigo Web site. While this set isnt as consistent as the original group of songs, "Super Sonic Racing" and "Burning Hearts" are two of the best songs of the game and "Magical Sound Shower" is a sentimental favorite. These extra downloads push the game to a very respectable 23 tracks.
My favorite thing about Samba de Amigo is the way that it makes games feel new again. Its solid, straight-forward gameplay combined with the physical element of maracas helps strip away all the conventions and thoughts of current videogames to provide a very fresh and invigorating experience. Samba is reminiscent of the best old arcade games, like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, when games were played because they were fun, not to get to the next cut scene or earn some frivolous power-up. Samba de Amigo is a landmark game and Sonic Teams best work to date. It should not be missed if at all possible.