More than 2 years old, I’ve had almost no excuse for not playing Rhythm Heaven before now. Well, no excuse, except for the fact that I’ve been buried under a pile of incredible, almost-as-awesome games. I’m also an out-of-the-closet “saver”; this is to say I regularly “save” things. For instance, if I hear of an especially good movie, television show, or video game, I’m often inclined to keep it in reserve for a rainy day. Rhythm Heaven fell into this category for a long time. Too long. But now it’s time has come.
I can honestly say that my current interest in Rhythm Heaven has nothing to do with the announcement of a Wii sequel. RH has been on my radar since it hit shelves–I would have been living in a cave to have missed all the positive buzz. When Rhythm Heaven debuted, my job required me to travel quite a bit. I spent as much time in airports and hotels as I did in my home office. My DS–the fat original model, no less–was my most trusty companion on countless lonely nights in podunk country towns. (Sounds sad if taken out of context–but I’d rather be playing Professor Layton or Elite Beat Agents and drinking beers on the company tab, than watching crap television in a dinky Holiday Inn lobby). Point being that, thanks to my job, I was able to play a lot of DS . . . a lot. Rhythm Heaven was one of those titles I always wanted to pick up, but just never fit it into my schedule. Given the nature of my employment (3-4 days on the road, every other week–think Fight Club), I tended to choose longer, content-heavy experiences that would last for a couple weeks of airline hell. Titles like Castlevania, Phantom Hourglass, the Layton series, and Contra 4 were the likeliest choices, if only because they offered more value for my money. Rhythm Heaven had the aura of a shorter, casual game, so I left it in the queue, and time passed.
ANYway . . . the game. Rhythm Heaven is an experience divided into tiny vignettes of song and cadence. And although RH is a card-carrying member of the “rhythm game” genre, RH is nothing like Guitar Hero or Rock Band. RH comes from a different universe entirely–imagine WarioWare’s microgame sensibilities merged with Elite Beat Agents. Humor is front-loaded here; while you won’t be picking noses (a WarioWare staple), the pure, unapologetic weirdness of the RH universe will have you laughing out loud. You’ll build dancing robots, you’ll slice vegetables as a dog ninja, and one of my personal favorites, you’ll lead a choir of snot-nosed, ugly little kids who can’t carry a tune to save their lives. Even if the gameplay wasn’t good, you’d still be laughing your ass off.
But the gameplay–so simple in concept, so awesome in execution. Controlled entirely via stylus and touchscreen, you’ll only use a few basic moves to play Rhythm Heaven. Mastering this title, however, is a different story entirely. Most of the mini-challenges run between 1 and 3 minutes, yet pack such an intense punch that I’ve often finished a round to discover myself crushing the DS in a deadman’s grip. Most levels require the player to execute a small set of tap-and-swipe stylus patterns while grooving to the beat of ridiculously catchy tunes. The cues are both visual and audible; to succeed, you’ll need to use your ears as much as your eyes, seeking that sweet spot between rhythm hell and that sweet on-the-beat, in-the-zone sensation.
And Rhythm Heaven is no joke in the difficulty department. An adult gamer could assume that the kiddie graphics and goofy premises position RH as a title for the under-10 crowd, but you’d be so ridiculously wrong. Levels can be completed at 3 tiers of competence: “OK” (average performance), “Superb” (nearly no misses), and “Perfect”. Even an “OK” ranking can require a skilled player multiple do-overs; as you come closer to the end of the game, you’ll even be tempted to skip tough levels (the game condescendingly offers this option when you’ve failed several times in a row). The game also includes an agonizing side-effect: multiple misses will cause some tunes become permanently ingrained in your psyche (I’ve woke up to realize I was hearing RH songs in my dreams, no kidding). In spite of this, I’m betting that you’ll willingly line up for more punishment at the hands of the rhythm devils. The game is just too damn cute and catchy to ignore for long.
If I had any complaints, I’d probably note that the gameplay can become slightly repetitive after a few hours. The minigames are delightfully creative and well-balanced, but they ultimately all come back to tapping and swiping the stylus. On bad days, when you’re having trouble finding your inner groove, you’ll be tempted to throw your DS across the room. It’s the kind of game that requires a high degree of concentration and timing, so I tend to play it for 10-20 minutes at a stretch, then switch to something else. But I always come back to it, because it’s the sort of game that encourages compulsive replay and perfectionist attention.
My fat old DS is currently living out it’s old age alongside my bathroom reading pile, so my nearly-complete copy of Rhythm Heaven gets a few devoted minutes every day. ;’]
No serious DS collector will want to miss this one.
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