Going back before Guitar Hero and its plastic axes came and stole our musical gaming hearts away, there was a little gem of a game for the original PlayStation called Parappa the Rapper. Now, you youngin's with your Xbox 360s and plastic drum kits probably don't remember this charming little game that for all intents and purposes, started the Rhythm genre with a bang. Why do I bring this little obscurity of a game up now? As much as games like Dance Dance Revolution and Rock Band have stolen the spotlight from simpler rhythm pleasures, it's fantastic to have a game test our rhythm while still maintaining standard gaming sensibilities. In other words, the charming Rhythm Heaven feels like a spiritual successor to Parappa.
Rhythm Heaven is actually a sequel to a Japanese only Game Boy Advance game called Rhythm Tengoku, developed by the same folks who brought us the Warioware titles. The premise is decidedly simple. The game is controlled almost entirely with the stylus and touchscreen. Players must flick across the screen, tap, and hold their stylus down in various ways to maintain rhythm. It sounds simple, and by limiting the complexities of the control scheme, Nintendo has brought us a game that is insanely easy to pick up and play, yet infuriatingly hard to master.
Despite using those three main inputs, the developers have found a way to create complex rhythms and games that will test your musical aptitude to its absolute limit; short of actually mastering an actual instrument that is.
Rhythm heaven is split up into 50 minigames, although this number is a bit of a misnomer. The minigames are split up into ten tiers of five levels each. The first six tiers introduce four new games, capping off with a remix level that combines the previous four games into an addictive mish-mash of a song. The final four tiers consist of harder versions of the previous levels. Therefore, in reality, there are 24 games to choose from, plus 10 remixes.
Once you jump into the minigames, be prepared for a baffling display of Japanese style kookiness. The games will have you doing such things as marching ducks in time to a beat, helping Easter Island heads sing in unison, juggle a soccer ball on your knees while flying through space, keeping a yappy glee club singer singing in time with his mates, and going through the worlds fastest concert with a trio of ghostly performers. Predictable this game is not, and the variety between levels is refreshing and fun. Nearly all the games are charming and feature some of the catchiest original music I've ever heard in a game. It also helps that the game will have you laughing out loud throughout.
The remix levels are the fun really begins. By taking elements of the previous games that came before it, the developers combine the previously learned rhythms and morph them into full out songs that will have you playing them over and over again due to their sheer catchiness. Anyone who's played a Warioware game will likely have a better idea of what to expect out of these levels.
Even for those with strong rhythmical inclinations, this game will pose a stiff challenge. The conditions for success are usually very high, and missing more than around 10 per cent of your beats will likely result in failure. Still, with a little practice, I was able to beat 47 out of the 50 games. Fortunately, fail almost any minigame three times in a row, and the game will give you a free pass onto the next game. I only had to use it for the aforementioned Easter Island game, and a ridiculously challenging game that has you realistically strumming a guitar and silencing the strings. In a bit of an annoyance, there is no option to pause and quickly restart the game once you know that failure is assured. You're forced to quit to the main menu, select the game again, sit through the introduction, and skip the practice every time you want to start over. You get used to it, but it's annoying to have to restart this way every time.
Also, it would have been nice to get more feedback on how well you're doing. The game usually just tells you to "try a little harder" or something like that, and maybe a word of encouragement. You won't know how much percentage you've hit, or how close you were to passing.
Another source of frustration is due to the occasional unresponsiveness of the touchscreen. It's generally not a problem, but every now and then you'll blow a perfect score or just barely fail a game because it didn't detect the flick across the screen properly. It's infuriating when it happens, but at least it's by no means a game breaker.
If you manage to really nail a game, you'll be awarded with a medal. Once you've medalled a particular minigame, you'll be randomly awarded the opportunity to score a perfect. When the game gives you the opportunity for a perfect, you're given three tries to nail every single beat, flick, or tap. If you fail to do so in three tries, you'll have to wait for your next opportunity, which comes at complete random.
The appeal of getting medals and perfects is to cash them in for a load of unlockables available. Unlockables range from silly little rhythm toys like flicking pennies and moving a business card in a holder, to the ability to listen to full songs from the game, to "guitar lessons" for the various songs in the game. Trying to get all of these is addictive, yet nearly impossible. I was able to medal about 26 out of the 50 games, and I'm still trying for more.
Much like Warioware before it, the graphics in Rhythm Heaven are stylistically charming, but aren't pushing any sort of technological envelope. Levels vary wildly graphically from one to the next, such as simple pencil lines for the glee club level, to a 3D ping pong table, to charming cartoony graphics. Much like the gameplay, the graphics are anything but predictable. More importantly, everything runs smoothly. The only caveat about the graphics is that they don't always sync up perfectly with the music, so for certain games it may be better to ignore the visuals entirely and go solely by rhythm.
I can't make this any clearer. Get yourself a good pair of headphones for this one. While some of the tunes can be an acquired taste and possibly annoy passers by, you'll likely be humming these tracks in your sleep. Granted, there is an obvious j-pop vibe to a lot of the music, but it is sugary sweet catchy. Musically speaking, there is a little bit of something for everyone here, including a few R & B, Rock, and Acapella themed levels for your listening pleasure. When you start mastering levels, the game becomes an acoustic pleasure that will have you tapping your toes in the bus aisle. Audio quality and fidelity is outstanding, even when using the standard DS speakers.
Rhythm Heaven is one of those rare portable games that is so addictive it makes you wish you had a longer commute to work. Through a charming combination of visual and musical whimsy with rock solid game mechanics, Rhythm Heaven is a game that every DS owner would do well to try out, especially those with an ear and nose for a challenge.