Beatmania (PlayStation 2) review
"To really enjoy the experience, you better have some serious dexterity, hardcore beat-matching skills, perseverance, and a love for every little sub-genre of electronic music out there."
My fascination with the dj-inspired music game, Beatmania, began at an outdoor music festival in Chicago. I paid $45 to listen to my favorite bands and suck up the free corporate samples being handed out (mmmÖ.Yoo-Hoo). Instead, I spent most of the day inside a makeshift arcade, transfixed by an intriguing Japanese game tucked away in back. It was almost heartbreaking when the time came to leave - like going on vacation and meeting the love of a lifetime. It has been a long five years since then, but the allure never left. When I caught word of Beatmaniaís venture to the U.S., complete with an arcade-style controller, I immediately started writing my praises out of sheer anticipation. I have since tossed those words aside. Now that I have gotten to know Beatmania better, I realize that is was lust, not love.
Beatmania is a solid and entertaining music game, but for me it lacks the spark that made games like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero so amazing. I originally intended on avoiding any comparisons to other games so that I could judge Beatmania on its own terms, but with the music genreís snowballing popularity, that didnít seem fair. Unlike other games, Beatmania is absolutely not for casual gamers. To really enjoy the experience, you better have some serious dexterity, hardcore beat-matching skills, perseverance, and a love for every little sub-genre of electronic music out there.
Technically, this is two game versions in one: Beatmania and Beatmania IIDX. The controller is a mini-turntable with seven black and white keys next to it. While both versions share most of the same songs, only IIDX uses the last two keys. Like most music games, the rules are simple in theory but can be agonizingly hard in practice. The music plays, the beats scroll down, and you hit the corresponding key or scratch the record. What really made Guitar Hero a hit with me was the feeling of actually creating the music. Miss a note and the guitar didnít make a sound. Play it wrong and everyone heard the squeaks and wonks of someone fumbling around. Miss a note in Beatmania and the music goes on. Every key makes a specific sound, but the songs have so many layers that most people will never even know if youíre not playing. In fact, as long as you just hit random buttons in time, most songs still sound good. Overall, the experience reminded me more of playing electronic Simon than playing music.
I have always said that the most important aspect of a music game is the selection of songs. It doesnít matter how cool the gameís gimmick is when the music sucks. Just look at how many copies of Karaoke Revolution: Country are still sitting on store shelves (sorry if you like modern country, but thatís your problem, not mine). Beatmania certainly has a large collection of songs, but I wish they were more cohesive in style. It has Paranoia and Holic, which are my favorite tracks to play on DDR, some good contemporary offerings from Moby and Timo Maas, and a few mind-bending hardcore songs. The problem is that for every legitimately enjoyable song, there seems to be two or three tracks that are either generically uninspiring or completely out of place. Some people may enjoy a jazz or R&B track now and then, but I donít want to waste my time on them, so I was incredibly disappointed by the inability to preview a song before playing. It sounds like a trivial concern, but it became a serious nuisance when I couldnít remember the names of my favorites.
When it comes to play-modes, Beatmania has just about anything you could ask for; a regular Game mode, Free mode, a Practice mode that lets you pick out measures and the song speed, a dual-turntable mode, and even online play. In addition, you can add modifiers to the songs that will do everything from flipping the beats over, to making them completely invisible. In the seven-key IIDX version, the core of Beatmania, the largest concern is the difficulty level. Songs can be set to Beginner, Normal, or Hyper, and even these are further ranked by a possible ten stars. The harder the difficulty, the more numerous and complex the beats will be. Obviously, a 3-star Beginner song will be easier than a 3-star Normal song, or will it?
I have long given up on trying to make any sense out of the difficulty and scoring systems of Beatmania. I can beat a few 4-star Hyper songs, and yet Iím helpless on some 3-star Beginner songs. If you donít want to embarrass yourself in front of your friends, the only advice that I can offer is to use the difficulty settings as a loose guide and try to keep a mental note of what songs you can do. Even so, you will have to get past the atrocious scoring system. You get an overall score, but the only things that matter are your timing and percentage. Your timing for every beat is rated as Poor, Bad, Good, Great, or Perfect. Anything Good or above builds a percentage meter up by 2%. Bad and Poor knock it down by 6%. You need at least 75% to pass, so those 6ís take a serious toll. I lost many times because I missed the last few beats, and even because I missed some beats in the middle and there werenít enough beats to fill my percentage back up. After successfully completing a song you will be awarded a final grade. During my last session I aced a song with 100%, full combo, almost all Perfects, and I was still given a B. Go figure.
Hands down, Beatmania is the most difficult music game I have ever played, and in a way thatís why I keep playing. I suppose itís a bit masochistic, or maybe just competitive, but I canít fight the urge to keep spinning that little record. Beatmania is an obsession, albeit one that I know will be short lived. If it had been released even one year ago it may have been a serious hit, but now itís bound to be a temporary diversion, sitting down in the shadows of the unstoppable Guitar Hero.
Staff review by Brian Rowe (April 29, 2006)
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