Review / Rhythm Heaven (DS)

Long before little plastic guitars stole the spotlight, Japan was cranking out inventive and innovative rhythm-based games, like the late Game Boy Advance title Rhythm Tengoku. Though it missed the cutoff date for a stateside release, the minigame-based music title, from the same team behind the successful Wario Ware franchise, became an instant cult classic thanks to its catchy music, crazy visuals and intuitive controls. Now that rhythm-based games have become the genre du jour, what better way to launch the newly improved DSi than with Rhythm Heaven, the spiritual successor to the Japan-only original. Rhythm Heaven trades pressing a button for tapping or flicking a stylus in time to the beat, delivering the same addictive experience that made its predecessor such a smash hit. But even though it uses just a handful of touchscreen-only controls, don’t be deceived into thinking this is an easy game. Rhythm Heaven’s seemingly simplistic gameplay belies a robust, complex and sometimes brutally hard experience, one thankfully adorable enough to keep you from pulling your hair out.

Rhythm Heaven only requires you to learn three moves – holding your DS or DSi like a book, you will tap, hold or flick the stylus against the touchscreen in time with various visual and auditory clues. It sounds easy enough, but learning and mastering these moves are two totally different beasts. As you progress through the title’s 50 different minigames, you’ll be constantly surprised and occasionally frustrated by the varied and complex ways the designers have combined these seemingly simple controls. There’s such a variety of scenarios that the gameplay never feels boring, especially when it starts switching the visual cues or dropping the background music. Just goes to show you can’t take anything for granted in a world where ninja dogs hone their craft on flying vegetables, ghosts comprise the house band for late-night talk shows, and monks prepare for lives of quiet spiritual reflection by conquering the competitive eating circuit. The games are short, often taking less time to complete than the tutorials that precede them, which is one of the few complaints. But each of Rhythm Heaven‘s ten sets of four minigames are capped off by a fifth “remix” game that takes the visuals and controls of the previous four and mashes them together to the beat of a completely new, extended song.

These are the most enjoyable moments of the game, as they provide the best showcase not only for the different control schemes but the music, the real star of any music-based game. All the songs are the original creations of Japanese pop producer Tsunku, who manages to incorporate his infectious, infinitely hummable melodies into a wide variety of musical styles. From the electronic beats of an interstellar football match (“Space Soccer”), to the dreamy strains of a love potion-producing laboratory (“Love Lab”), to the doo-wop stylings of an all amphibian band (“Frog Hop”), the songs are inspired even if the same can’t be said of the lyrics. Some of the Japanese-heavy vocals from the import version have been lost in translation, like the repetitive and lifeless “Fan Club,” but thankfully most of the wonderful musical accompaniment is wordless. Even if you don’t fall in love with every song, there will still be plenty of minute-long masterpieces to keep your internal soundtrack spinning long after you’ve switched off the game. But the music isn’t just memorable, it’s essential. You could even play Rhythm Heaven with your eyes closed, and if you’re having a hard time moving on to the next minigame, you probably should as the colorful, cartoony graphics often do more to throw you off the beat than help you keep it.

But even when the animations and music are working together in your best interests, Rhythm Heaven is hard. Genuinely hard. With no difficulty levels to choose from, and an almost perfect performance required for advancement to the next batch of games, the musically challenged are going to find the learning curve very steep indeed. Other than letting you replay the tutorial as many times as you like, the game doesn’t do anything to help you along if you’re having trouble keeping the beat other than extolling you to “try a little harder.” And though the touch screen controls work surprisingly well, there will be times when the flick doesn’t register, especially when you have to quickly transition between tapping and flicking. Thankfully, these instances are few and far between. If you fail a song three times in a row, you’ll be able to skip it from the cafe menu. But odds are you’ll come back to it eventually in order to unlock all the hidden extras. For every “superb” rating you earn, you’ll receive a medal which can be used to unlock more games and an assortment of noise making rhythm toys that weren’t quite quirky enough to warrant their own minigame. In addition, the game will randomly challenge you to complete a minigame with a perfect score to earn rewards like songs, lyrics or background reading materials to flesh out the colorful cast of characters, adding more replay value to an already addictive game.

Striking the perfect chord between challenging and charming, Rhythm Heaven is a prime example of what the genre is capable of in the hands of designers willing to try something new. This strange assortment of minigames will keep your head bobbing and your toes tapping long after the music fades, and without the aid of any cumbersome and expensive peripherals. If you love music, you’ll definitely love this game. Heck, even if you don’t love music you’ll probably still love this game, it’s that different from anything else on the market. Not to mention it’s just plain fun. With its easy to learn but hard to master controls, whimsical graphics, hummable music and hilarious scenarios, Rhythm Heaven proves that the rhythm genre still has room for heart among all the heroics.

+ Cute visuals
+ Catchy music
+ High level of replayability

– Tutorials are often longer than the actual minigames
– Controls don’t always register
– High level of difficulty