Revisiting the inspirational yet punishingly hard rhythm-action classic
We call for a rewind of Inis’s Japan-only DS music game Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan
The thought of it being made now is ludicrous. A punishingly hard rhythm-action game featuring a three-manstrong cheerleading squad dancing to a selection of J-pop tunes in order to motivate everyday people to overcome their problems would barely reach the modern-day drawing board, never mind the pitching stage or a green light. And if the impossible did happen, that game’s chances of reaching the west would be slim in an era when publishers only localise the most globally friendly fare.
But in 2005, things were different, and none of that mattered. The Japanese game industry was in rude health, as was the British pound. DS software was region-free, and the Internet teemed with Asian exporters offering up Japanese curios for lower prices than the kid-friendly licensed tat that littered the shelves of western retailers. Passionate forum communities spread the word more effectively than any marketing campaign, and new cult classics were born on an almost monthly basis. This was the last great hurrah of the grey import, and Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan both prompted and delivered the loudest cheer of them all.
Western games tend to cast us as underdogs against seemingly impossible odds; in these titles, we save a world, a species, a way of life. Japanese games, however, often have a tighter focus. Link fights Ganon to save Zelda. Mario chases after Bowser to rescue Princess Peach. In the Yakuza series, the hoodlums that Kazuma Kiryu duffs up don’t simply lie prone on the ground when beaten, but get up and apologise. They’re chastened, promising to change their ways, to get back on the straight and narrow. In games like these, you make the world a better place in tiny, granular increments.
So it is here. The game’s opening level has the titular Ouendan fist pump and pose their way through Asian Kung-Fu Generation’s Loop & Loop to help a student study for his exams. At first, he struggles to concentrate, toiling away in a corner of the living room amid the din of the TV set and his obliviously raucous family at the dinner table. A couple of pop-punk choruses later, his now-understanding mother brings him a hearty dinner. Soon after, he’s scribbling furiously on the page while lifting a dumbbell with his free hand, then doing push-ups while his little brother dances on his back.
He aces the test, of course, but this is a tale with more to tell than simply the importance of academic success. It’s about dysfunctional families, about empathy, about the importance of a healthy body to a healthy mind. You may not have singlehandedly fended off the alien invasion, but you’ve done something important, sweet and, above all, relatable.
So it continues. You help an office worker gain the romantic attentions of her boss – not by dressing or acting differently, but by working hard. You guide a nervous schoolkid through a game of dodgeball against a cocky, better-looking classmate who takes exception to the kid’s advances towards the prettiest girl in class. You help a jaded old potter recover his inspiration by getting out into the world; ensure a budding politician sees off a flashy, better-funded rival; and save a struggling restaurant from closure. You solve a succession of everyday problems with little more than hard work, the Ouendan teaching not only those you save how to be a better person, but you too.
This, however, is a game made by Inis, the studio that, in Gitaroo Man, turned an average young man into a guitar-toting superhero then had him defeat a skeleton Mariachi band with his lightning-fast fretwork. Ouendan can be bonkers, too. When your squad’s not helping out the man on the street, it’s cheering a racehorse as it chases after a robber. The trio gives a Clark Kent-alike salaryman the strength to dragon punch a giant mouse that’s stomping through Tokyo. They see off a stomach virus to ensure a concert violinist doesn’t empty his bowels on a subway train floor. They even travel back in time to help Cleopatra get the Great Pyramid built and regain her normal, beautiful form – she’s rather let herself go, you see.
Even when playing things relatively straight, Inis retains its playful spirit. When piano-tinged rap track Kokoro Odoru breaks down into bass-driven funk, our old potter dons an orange tracksuit and becomes a
club DJ, inspiring him to turn out a creation in the shape of a 12-inch record.
Ouendan is not just a Japanese game thematically, it’s one mechanically too. It’s fast, precise and eventually punishingly difficult, and it does an awful lot with just three uses of the DS’s touchscreen. Hit Markers are sequentially numbered coloured discs that you tap in time to the music. Each is surrounded by a shrinking circular line indicating when it’s time to tap, and the closer the next marker falls to it, the sooner you’ll have to hit it. Phrase Markers are two discs connected by a trail that must be precisely followed with the stylus; sometimes arrows at your destination will send you back along the path over and over.
Spin Markers, meanwhile, cover the entire lower screen with a wheel that must be spun via high-speed stylus circles – a
IT’S FAST, PRECISE AND PUNISHINGLY DIFFICULT, AND DOES A LOT WITH JUST THREE USES OF THE DS TOUCHSCREEN
little too fast, in fact, with furious touchscreen whirling guaranteed to draw puzzled looks from fellow commuters. Every successful tap, trace and spin is met with a sound effect – the kick or roll of a drum, a cymbal’s crash, the whoops and cheers and whistles of the Ouendan. Unlike most rhythm-action games, you’re not simply making the music, but adding to it; listen again to these songs without Inis’s tappedout enhancements and they’re missing something. The Ouendan aren’t just making the world a better place, they’re also improving its music.
Along the top of the touchscreen sits a meter that depletes if you miss a beat. Miss too many and the camera zooms in on Ryuta Ippongi, the spiky-haired figurehead of the Ouendan and the closest the game has to a protagonist, his steely resolve unwavering despite the droplets of sweat on his brow. On the top screen, meanwhile, things go south. The chef who was chopping carrots at lightning speed cuts his hand. The office worker pouring tea slumps against a wall, exhausted. A glance at the upper half of the DS reminds you that the consequences of failure here are hardly fatal; shift your gaze to the touchscreen and you realise that, consequences be damned, they matter.
And things will become life or death soon enough. The final level, set to the 144BPM punk of L’Arc-en-Ciel’s Ready Steady Go, sees a gigantic asteroid hurtling towards the Earth. The Ouendan have never been so desperately needed – the cry for the squad’s help is made by thousands of voices instead of one. The stakes have been raised, and the difficulty level surges in kind: a couple of missed beats is all it takes for the touchscreen to focus tight on Ryuta, and only a rapid string of perfect hits gets you back on track. The game transforms from light, kindhearted comic-book fare to a fight for the fate of the world itself. It is about as traditional as Ouendan gets, and surmounting it is the game’s most rewarding moment.
It is not, however, the part that sticks most in the memory. That honour rests with a stage set to Over The Distance, a piano-led
ballad by Hitomi Yaida. The Ouendan dance but are mute, their cheers and whistles replaced by gentle bleeps, brushed drums and crisp cymbal hits as they watch a dead man descend from heaven to say a ghostly goodbye to his wife. Inis knows exactly what it’s doing here – Gitaroo Man had a similarly sweet moment in which protagonist U-1 serenaded a love interest on an acoustic guitar by a campfire – but that merely warmed the heart. Here, Inis snaps it in two.
Ouendan’s unlikely success in the west did not go unnoticed, but rather than bring it west, Nintendo commissioned a spinoff. Elite Beat Agents replaced the Ouendan with a trio of ludicrously coiffed secret agents, and the Japanese soundtrack with a western one. It served only to prove that the original game’s otherness was what
made it so special. Perhaps Ready Steady Go is the Japanese equivalent of YMCA; maybe The Blue Hearts’ Linda Linda is regarded with the same disdain over there as Cher’s Believe is here. In this case, ignorance was most certainly bliss. Nintendo set a forecast for 300,000 sales; Elite Beat Agents achieved less than half of that.
A mooted Elite Beat Agents 2 never came to pass, but an Ouendan sequel did, its title translating as Let’s Go! Hot-Blooded Rhythm
Spirit: Go! Fight! Cheer Squad 2. Its release in May 2007 came months before the onset of the global financial crisis, and not even the Ouendan could stave off the damage done by subprime lending. Rhythm-action was changing, too, and it would eventually take Inis with it. The genre’s increasing focus on peripherals saw the company commissioned to make Xbox 360 karaoke game Lips. It reviewed poorly and sold no better.
Ouendan is a snapshot of a much-missed moment in time, the last great drumroll and cymbal crash of the company that made it, the import market and the Japanese music game. It is a work of remarkable soul, one that reminds us that our fellow man’s everyday struggles are as vital as the impending end of the world, and that nothing is insurmountable so long as you can summon the resolve to struggle on. Even now, nine years on and with the language barrier blocking our way, that message rings out as loud as the celebratory Ouendan chant at the end of a level: “Ouen! Dai-sei-kou!” Cheer! Big success!
Your quarry’s motivation is signalled by the colour of their eyes. This all-white look is the first successful phase, but get them really fired up and bright flames will lick from their eye sockets
During this opening level, it’s easy enough to keep track of what’s going on up on the top screen. Later, however, as the number of hit markers increases, it’s all you can do to keep up with the touchscreen action
A perfect hit nets you 300 points, less exact timing earns 100 or 50 points, while missing entirely means the Ouendan fall flat on their backs. A string of successful hits increases a multiplier that affects your final grade
Nothing says ‘US secret agents’ like enormous blond quiffs, coloured shades and red afros. Elite BeatAgents’ far more obvious bid to be bonkers made it a much harder game to love