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Gitaroo-Man (PlayStation 2) artwork

Gitaroo-Man (PlayStation 2) review

"Gitaroo Man is a dream for genre purists, and is destined to live on as a fondly remembered cult classic."

There are many ways a critic might embark upon a review of Gitaroo Man, the 2002 Koei-published rhythm game, and yet no summary feels like it truly offers a satisfactory overview of the experience. The lazy approach would be to celebrate how unabashedly Japanese it all is, from the hallucinatory, epileptic visuals and rock star pastiche characters, to the overwhelmingly overblown soundtrack. Another option is to lament the loss of rhythm games of this ilk to the novelty peripheral generation. “They don’t make them like this anymore,” my dad would say. But the recent decline of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises only highlights the longevity of more classic rhythm game experiences such as this one. With no better option available, I’m left asking for your indulgence as I take you on a trip into the bizarre world of Gitaroo Man.

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In Gitaroo Man, you are introduced to a schoolboy named U-1. He is picked on by classmates and overlooked by the girl of his dreams. It’s hardly unusual for such a character to pick up the guitar. All boys think they know that’s the key to a girl’s heart. What’s less usual is his decision to take music lessons from his talking dog. It’s even more unusual when he comes under attack from a guitar-wielding baby demon, at which point his dog turns into an anthropomorphic boom box, slings him a Gitaroo (in this case a decidedly sci-fi guitar) and instructs him to battle... with song! If only the “Step Up” movies were this interesting…

Over the course of the game, U-1 is thrown headlong into a series of musical battles, which he must win in order to collect additional Gitaroos. The journey takes the unlikely hero to the outer reaches of space and the Planet Gitaroo, where the people have been waiting for a legendary hero to free them from subjugation.

Does all of that make sense? If so, good. Gitaroo Man clearly has more in common with the likes of PaRappa the Rapper and Um Jammer Lammy than it does the slew of more recent rhythm games, and yet it offers a more dynamic take on rhythm battles than those genre stalwarts. Every fight incorporates a number of different sections that can be divided broadly into attack and defence. Defending is a (theoretically) simple case of hitting face buttons as they hurtle towards the centre of the onscreen crosshair. Attacking, on the other hand, requires a little more finesse. Notes appear on the screen as orange trails, long or short depending on the music. When a note reaches the crosshair, you must press the Circle button and hold the left stick in the direction of the orange trail. Short notes require frenzied taps, while longer notes shift and wriggle, forcing you to elegantly glide the stick after them.

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It’s a system that sounds simplistic on paper, but in practice it is something of a joy. You’ll feel that you are in absolute control of the music. Every note, whether offensive or defensive, is matched perfectly to the accompanying music. Getting into a song’s rhythm is crucial to success. Miss a note when attacking and it can knock you out of the flow, quickly transforming the song into a cacophonous mess while draining your health bar as you try to recover. You’re far more than the backing band. With a learning curve that rises steeply across 10 stages, only skill will carry you through to the end of the adventure.

Variation on the central mechanics is limited (some levels are all about defence and others are devoted entirely to offence), but this is more than made up for by the music. Gitaroo Man features what is quite simply my favourite video game soundtrack of all time. Every unique foe brandishes a song from a different genre. “Flying to Your Heart” sees you battle ululating UFOs to frenetic synth and soaring J-Pop vocals. “Bee Jam Blues” pits you against a gigantic bee with an afro that plays a song on his trumpet that fights a war between smooth jazz and the “Shaft” theme tune. Later there’s space-reggae, industrial salsa, and full-on operatic hair metal. Every song is a classic, taking the frustration out of the numerous restarts that are sometimes required to claim victory. Each song also features alternate sections that are chosen based on your performance up to that point. You might play through a song several times before hearing every variant.

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The story, as mentioned, is compellingly bonkers, and it is accompanied by visuals that are reminiscent of the most terrifying fever dream. An enormous hammerhead shark chases you through space ahead of its gnashing maw; prisoners break their bonds and synchronise in impromptu dance routines; a girl cosies up to you while you strum out the delicately seductive “Legendary Theme.” The lumpy, misshapen visuals are hardly the prettiest by today’s standards, but remain so vividly idiosyncratic you’re unlikely to care. The button cues are wisely placed in the centre of the screen, making it easy to watch these events unfold without taking your eye off the beat.

The experience is short, depending on how quickly you take to it. With a few likely stumbles along the way, your first play through still shouldn’t take any longer than a few hours. Beyond that, there’s the option to return and earn higher ranks, as well as “Masters Play,” a hard mode so difficult that I’ve never made it past the third stage. The button presses become so fast and precise that only those with unimpeachable coordination and dexterity will make it out alive. There’s multiplayer too, which supports four players but works most smoothly with only two. One player thrashes out U-1’s parts, while the other assumes the mantle of the villain. It’s limited, certainly, but good fun for a few plays through each song.

Outside of Japan, Gitaroo Man was only produced in limited quantities. Indeed, anyone not too fond of Japanese kitsch is unlikely to play beyond the nappy-wearing guitar-shredding demon featured within the opening stage. Yet beneath the bizarre veneer is a satisfying, challenging rhythm game set to an unforgettable soundtrack. Gitaroo Man is a dream for genre purists, and is destined to live on as a fondly remembered cult classic.


space_dust's avatar
Freelance review by David Owen (April 21, 2013)

David Owen is a freelance writer who also contributes to VG247, Eurogamer, IGN, and others. He likes Gitaroo Man more than is healthy.

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