Time Ex­tend

Re­vis­it­ing the in­spi­ra­tional yet pun­ish­ingly hard rhythm-ac­tion clas­sic

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY NATHAN BROWN

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

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