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November 29, 2005

MEGA-REVIEW: Rhythm Games

What a glorious day it was. The stuff of which misty, water-colored memories are made:

My buddy and I hopped on our ten-speeds (I had graduated from my banana seat bike a few months earlier) and rode a few miles over to All-Star Bowl, which today houses a smarmy European furniture store.

(Yes, I realize that the term smarmy can’t really be applied to furniture or the stores that sell it, but if it could, it would apply to this place. Black lacquer, gold, and leopard skin, as far as the eye can see. *shudder*)

But back to that day: we may or may not have bowled, and neither of us engaged in any Lebowski-esque shenanigans (you know what I’m talking about), but either way, that isn’t what resonated with me. What did leave an indelible impression was the time (and the many other times) we spent in the bowling alley’s large video arcade.

Of course, it wasn’t the square footage or even the number of hulking game cabinets housed within. It was the quality of the games they had. We spent quarter after quarter playing Tron, Tempest, Galaga, Zaxxon, Track & Field, and many more of my old-school faves.

After pedaling home and finishing my homework (sure I did), I headed down to the basement to practice on my 8th grade graduation present – a Ludwig black oyster pearl drumset (These days, I have a gorgeous Tama Starclassic birch kit with a violet finish. Yay me!).



My mastery of the drums was a slow process. But after a while, I was finally able to get the hang of "Workin’ for the Weekend" by Loverboy. Good times.

20+ years later, I can reminisce about the various bands I’ve played in, and I can look back fondly at the few great gigs that made the many bad ones worthwhile; Cubby Bear, Taste of Chicago, and my own personal “golden palace of the Himalayas” – The House of Blues.

After hurting my back a couple years ago, I had to stop playing (mostly – there were those few gigs I played on Vicodin after my back surgery), and though I am healthy today, even when I find me a new band to join, I’ll probably have to stick to singing, and leave the drumming to some young whippersnapper.

So what’s a hardcore gamer/gigless drummer to do, especially one who enjoys sharing his love of music and games with his kids?

Well, in the words of Coleman’s island squeeze (was she a golddigger? hooker? what?) in the final scene of Trading Places, when he asks whether they should have lobster or cracked crab for lunch, “Can’t we have both?”

In this case, as in the movie, the answer is yes. Or to be faithful to the scene, “extra primo good, Mr. Coleman, sir!”

Behold....the rhythm game, in all its glory!

Rhythm games have traditionally been more popular in Japan, but they’ve been gaining popularity in the US.

I’m going to focus on the games my kids and I have actually played together, though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention RedOctane’s (developed by Harmonix) recently-released Guitar Hero, which is being hailed as the new gold standard in the rhythm game genre.

EDIT: Considering that Harmonix just won several awards at the recent Game Developers Choice Awards, I really should have written "Harmonix's Guitar Hero, published by RedOctane." My bad. Of course, RedOctane is responsible for the awesome guitar controller.

At over $70, it’s too damn expensive, and I’m bitter because my kids and I are missing out on all the rockin’ (sorry, rawkin') out awesomeness. Guitar Hero’s controller is shaped like a guitar, and from what I’ve read (sigh), it has a gentle learning curve, even for kids. If it’s in your price range, it looks like a definite winner for the whole family, even though it’s rated T.

Now, on to the reviews...

Taiko Drum Master: PlayStation 2

A few months ago, as my kids were preparing for the first day of school, I was looking for something fun to get them to celebrate the start of a new school year.

To my surprise and delight, Best Buy had a sale on Taiko Drum Master for the PS2 ($20 for the whole kit & caboodle) at exactly the right time, and after picking the kids up from their respective schools, we took them to the store for their back-to-school surprise.

They absolutely love the game. It takes a lot of concentration and eye-hand coordination, but this is definitely a great game for kids, especially since you can customize the difficulty settings. The Taiko drum peripheral doubles as the controller, and the kids got the hang of it pretty quickly.

While the song list isn’t a mile long (you start with 20+ to choose from), it is wonderfully eclectic, containing a fun combo of pop/rock (ABC, Tubthumping, Walkin’ On Sunshine), classical (Beethoven’s 5th, William Tell Overture), TV show themes (Jimmy Neutron, DragonBall Z), and even the themes from classic Namco gaming hits like Soul Calibur, Ridge Racer, and Katamari Damacy. You can also unlock new songs as you achieve more milestones.

Obviously, since there is banging involved, the game is noisy, but it is also a terrific outlet for the prodigious energies of kids.

EDIT: Here's a more complete review of Taiko Drum Master.

Amplitude / Frequency: PlayStation 2

We’ve played the demo for 2001’s Frequency and the full version of its 2003 follow-up, Amplitude, and while both of Harmonix’s games are excellent, they are also very challenging, requiring the PS2 controller to become an extension of your hands. You need to be a Zen master to succeed at this game on the most difficult setting, and even on the easiest setting, it’s no walk in the park.

The real beauty of these games for kids is the mixer - they can create their own music by “recording” each track individually, then layering additional tracks over the top. Start with the drums (‘cuz it’s all about the drums, baby), then layer in bass, keyboards, guitars, percussion, vocals. Or start wherever you want, and create whatever makes you happy.

So if your kids would rather not “paint by numbers” by trying to keep up with a pre-selected groove, they’re free to express themselves creatively, by constructing a groove of their very own.

As for the song list, it’s more hard-edged and less kid-friendly than, say, the Taiko Drum Master list. Older kids should love it, though.

EDIT: I almost forgot. Live band karaoke is apparently for suckers, cuz Live Band Amplitude is where it's at, baby.

Gitaroo Man: PlayStation 2

Gitaroo Man resides in the pantheon of rare, classic PlayStation 2 games like Ico and Rez, so I was thrilled to see it available for rent on GameFly last week.

Boy, where to start? On the surface, Gitaroo Man is a typical quirky Japanese pop culture game with creative translations and horrible voice acting.

However, after playing a little, you’ll quickly realize that this is an excellent, challenging rhythm game. So challenging, in fact, that young kids will be relegated to spectator status.

I’ve played the game a few times so far, and while the kids were a little too intimidated to pick up the controller, they loved watching the nutty illustrations going on in the background while I played.

Our favorite character so far is Mojo King Bee, because his name is very similar to the name of the blues band I played in at Kellogg. I realize this doesn’t help you determine whether this would be a good game for your kids, but I just wanted to share.

Dance Dance Revolution Series: PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube

Dance Dance Revolution, the popular arcade/party/dancing franchise, is the complete package for kids. Music, dancing, coordination, exercise, friends; this game has it all.

One evening this past summer, I found my kids stomping around on their beds (don’t worry, we keep ‘em low to the ground) in a semi-methodical fashion. They were, of course, mimicking DDR’s gameplay. It was so gosh darn precious that I captured their frolicking for posterity on video.

My kids had recently returned from a trip to visit their cousins, who just happened to have DDR, along with some other games which they also loved.

They clearly love DDR, and I’m seriously considering making it a shared holiday gift this year. I just have to find a good solid mat that won’t slide around on the floor when they play.

The latest in the series, DDR Mario Mix, was released earlier this month, and while the reviews are just pretty good (as opposed to stellar), I don’t see how I can keep this away from my Mario-loving kids.

Stay tuned.

Karaoke Revolution series: PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube

The summer before my senior year of college, I had an internship at a big ad agency in downtown Chicago. Occasionally, we’d go out as a group to sing karaoke at the wonderfully cheesy Baja Beach Club in Chicago’s North Pier, and a good time was always had by all.

So at E3 back in May, I was excited to try out Karaoke Revolution Party, the newest installment in Harmonix’s Karaoke Revolution series.

Here’s what the game experience boils down to. If your singing style is to hit every note exactly as is, then you’ll do very well and enjoy the game.

But if you like to put a little flava into your singing, then you, good sir or madam, are S.O.L. I’m not talking about showing off by filling every possible open space with a cavalcade (or cacophony, as the case may be) of notes. But every once in a while, you need to add a little something extra.

For example, I’ve sung Mustang Sally on stage far too many times to count, so I can do it in my sleep, but because I didn’t keep my singing more robotically-inclined, I didn’t do too well.

To be fair, I’m probably not the target for the game, my prodigious singing talents being what they are...OW! Sorry, I just smacked my swelled head into the chandelier.

Either way, what I’m trying to say through that haze of self-aggrandizement is that the game isn’t supposed to be a rehearsal mechanism for seasoned vocalists. It‘s supposed to be, and is, a fun, social singing (and now also dancing) game for kids.

Parappa the Rapper 2: PlayStation 2

While 1997’s PaRappa the Rapper for the PlayStation is a landmark rhythm game in the US market, the second installment, 2002’s PaRappa the Rapper 2, doesn’t live up to its legacy.

We’ve only played the demo on one of my many PS2 Jampack discs, so I can’t talk about the game in its entirety, but the part we played was mildly enjoyable, for both my kids and me.

The better you play, the better the music sounds, and the worse you play, the more it sounds like a freaky clown circus.

So that’s that, then.


Of the games we haven’t yet played, Nintendo’s Donkey Konga and Donkey Kong Jungle Beat are at the very top of our wish list (along with the aforementioned DDR Mario Mix). Other games include Guitar Freaks, DDR knockoff In The Groove, and Pump It Up: Exceed.

The bottom line for all these games is that an inherent sense of rhythm is very helpful, especially for the more syncopation-heavy games. But even if you don’t “feel the beat down to your feet,” you and your kids will have a lot fun playing rhythm games.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to warm up my voice (*puts hand over one ear*)...

Bumble bee-hee...bumble bee-hee...bumble bee-hee... bumble bee-hee................


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