Release Date: 04/05/2009
As we tackle a new week, yet another rhythm game has been passed along to me. One would tend to think since rhythm gaming has been my favorite genre since 1997 and I assist in operating a Web site dedicated solely to the genre I would be eager to snatch up any game in the genre, but the recent copy and pasting of Guitar Hero/Rock Band mechanics into nearly every single music game title in the past five years has definitely not hastened my purchases in the genre. However, every once in a while, companies still take chances in giving us wholly unique rhythm titles as Nintendo has done with the launch of Rhythm Heaven.
If you don’t follow Japanese video game releases, Rhythm Heaven is actually the third product released in the lineage of the franchise’s titles, all produced by the wildly imaginative team behind WarioWare. Rhythm Tengoku (Japanese for “heaven”Â) originally spawned on the Game Boy Advance in 2006 while the system was on its death bed, requiring players to tackle rhythm-based mini games, similar to those one might find in WarioWare. The reception the title received warranted follow-up titles with the first thrusting the GBA version into arcades and a true sequel, Rhythm Tengoku Gold, releasing on the Nintendo DS in the middle of 2008. With the robust sales in Japan (for the game and its official soundtrack CD), Nintendo of America finally give the series a green light at last year’s E3 and even heartily promoted the title along with the launch of the new Nintendo DSi (the game has no DSi specific features, though). In the end, even though Nintendo has kept us waiting three years for a piece of Heaven, the series hasn’t lost its edge a bit and provides the most fun to be had with a rhythm title so far in 2009.
There’s no real story or purpose to be found in Rhythm Heaven as a whole, instead the title breaks the game play down into bite-sized chunks, a la WarioWare. Each individual game has a quirky scenario, serving as “stories,”Â ranging from winning the affections of a male lizard through mating dances, developing a scientific formula for love and auditioning for a television show. Other scenarios are much more straight-forward such as snapping pictures at a local sporting event, eating dumplings, harvesting vegetables or keeping a soccer ball in the air through rhythmic kicking. The entire game revolves around a single universal menu, so while there are unlockable mini games, demonstration toys, guitar lessons and a bar environment that serves as the game’s gallery, there is no real variety of modes, just a nice spread of uniquely varying mini games. This creates a deceptive appearance as there is actually a lot to do and see in Rhythm Heaven.
Anyone who has picked up a WarioWare game in their time will be very familiar with the look and feel of Rhythm Heaven. While the grossly generic menus bring the presentation down a bit, each mini game is filled to the brim with crazy, colorful, cartoony characters that set the title miles apart from the recent wave of rocker clones the genre has seen of late. Nothing is displayed on the touch screen during game play, however, it thankfully allows the player to keep their full attention on the action. Each mini game has its own distinctive look, utilizing a full spread of color suitable to every situation and music genre and the animation is handled very well, usually giving the player clear visible cues of the song’s current tempo. In all, Rhythm Heaven is extremely pleasing to the eyes and its explosions of craziness and color should grab the attention of almost anyone.
Perhaps, most importantly, though, the title succeeds in bringing players quality audio – the crucial element on which all music games are judged. Ditching licensed tunes in favor of original works, the development team is able to mold the audio to its whim to reflect everything that occurs during each mini game and the results bring a wide variety of tunes that ring with great clarity from the Nintendo DS. Fans of music will find something they can enjoy in the title, which hosts rock, mellow jazz, J-pop, Latin, electronic and more on a single cart. While most of the tracks are entirely instrumental, a few of them do contain lyrics, which is what breaks the game’s audio away from being truly perfect. The straight translations from Japanese result in some painfully cheese-laden lyrics and the placement of the lyrical layer on top of the music seems off sometimes, mostly in terms of volume and clarity. Regardless, the audio from Rhythm Heaven does what rhythm game fans would expect and beyond, and serves up another title that showcases the surprisingly excellent audio capabilities of the DS.
With such great presentation, thankfully, the title’s game play holds up quite well, aside from a few minor qualms. Ultimately, the game only requires players to do one of three actions throughout the entire game – tap, hold and flick – but while this seems quite elementary and boring, the variety of tasks at hand and the rhythm element make Rhythm Heaven a satisfying quick-fire experience. Taps handle the most basic tasks such as pecking the ground with a bird’s beak, firing a spaceship’s laser or pounding a taiko; holds sustain actions such as closing a singer’s mouth or entering an attack position; and flicks execute accented actions such as hitting a ping pong ball, yelling or scratching a record. With simplistic commands, Rhythm Heaven makes the game easily accessible to any player but the strict timing-based mechanics will provide ample challenge.
Although each mini game lasts only a couple of minutes at most, the span of performance ratings and unlockables will keep players coming back repeatedly. After each game, the player will receive a performance comment along with a rating of “Try Again,”Â “OK,”Â “Just OK”Â or “Superb.”Â Obviously, “Try Again”Â prohibits the player from progressing to the next mini game, while the other three ratings open up a new stage. Players receiving a “Superb”Â rating, though, also receive a medal, which unlock additional mini games and toys to play around with, and eventually these stages become challenges that require a perfect performance in order to unlock the ability to listen to songs outside of the mini games along with other information documents. The span of achievements bolsters the replayability of the titles and players who aren’t satisfied with less than 100 percent cleared in a game before they move on will find plenty to do here.
For the most part, the journey to the end of Rhythm Heaven is an enjoyable one, however, there are a few minor issues with the game play. First, while the controls do their job for the most part, there were occasions where the flick command didn’t execute as I intended, but, still, I was able to clear all of the games without much trouble. Also, while tutorials accompany each game, the timing required for each game is fairly strict and the difficulty amps up quite a bit toward the end, which may detour some players from enjoying the game. There are some cases where it may seem the player has only missed a few commands and still fails the stage. With no clear visual indications of overall performance, there are times where a failure might seem a tad unfair. However, those who just can’t seem to clear a stage can, in almost all cases, go to the barista in the bar and request to move to the next stage. Those few minor gripes aside, Rhythm Heaven is an engrossing rhythm experience that nearly any Nintendo DS owner will be able to tackle and enjoy.
While there is a lot to do in the title, the initial game play isn’t exactly the longest of experiences, so the meat of the title banks on the player returning to stages to best their scores and nail a perfect rating in each stage. After the initial 30 stages, more unlock, however, they are variants of the mini games you’ve already played with more of a challenge. It may seem like a cheap way to garner replayability and not everyone will have the patience to uncover everything, but in WarioWare fashion, the pick-up-and-play attitude of Rhythm Heaven makes it work. Rhythm Heaven is a perfect example of simplistic equating to fun, with an activity as simple as flipping a coin gluing a player to the system for hours at a time. While Rhythm Heaven gained a lot of traction by releasing with the DSi, the quality of the software speaks for itself and the attention-demanding presentation of the title should appeal to many new DSi owners who need something new to play.
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal Factor: GREAT
Final Rating: GREAT GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
The rule of thumb in deciding whether Rhythm Heaven is worth your time is by weighing in on how much you enjoyed the WarioWare titles. Much like its predecessor, Rhythm Heaven relies on players playing the same handful of mini games repeatedly, however, everything is so well done and simplistic, nearly anyone can enjoy it. The title looks fantastic and finally arrives to the United States as a fine example of Eastern-designed music gaming done right – simplistic, yet insanely fun with a variety of original tunes and unique presentation. If you’re growing weary of the endless wave of guitar games and consider yourself a music game fan, there’s no reason to not own Rhythm Heaven. Even if you’re not a fan of the genre, the accessibility of the title and its undeniable charm can still pull you in and serve up a score of fun.