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Nodame Cantabile (DS) artwork

Nodame Cantabile (DS) review

"You haven't read Nodame Cantabile either, have you? Conceived as a manga, adapted for both animated and live-action drama, highly praised as all three, yes, but that's not the point - any import gamer interested in the DS version is probably intrigued instead by the idea of an Ouendan with classical music, happily willing to ignore or endure any license-related distractions to that gameplay. Indeed, the title's good for some fun and has the rhythm genre's inherent addict..."

You haven't read Nodame Cantabile either, have you? Conceived as a manga, adapted for both animated and live-action drama, highly praised as all three, yes, but that's not the point - any import gamer interested in the DS version is probably intrigued instead by the idea of an Ouendan with classical music, happily willing to ignore or endure any license-related distractions to that gameplay. Indeed, the title's good for some fun and has the rhythm genre's inherent addictiveness, but it's not as import-friendly as its competition - and the manga-related accoutrements prove a bigger stumbling block than perhaps anticipated.

In the game, you play a new reporter for Classic Life magazine charged with getting the scoop on the gifted students of the Momogaoka College of Music. Most of the time, you'll work from a map of the campus from which you can visit various locations and chance a meeting with a bright young talent. Certain subjects require a bit of glad-handing, however, and that's where the rhythm game comes in; only if you prove your mettle in orchestral practice (you're also a music prodigy, by the way) will you earn their esteem, trust, and exclusive interviews. The site of each such showdown is marked on the map by...a happy, smiling mongoose (remember: manga adaptation). Clear all the rhythm games on the campus, and you'll meet with your editor and head off on the next day with a new set of challenges.

There isn't really a story, though the game culminates with the final student performance for one of the characters. You simply chat with various students over the course of your workday, and their individual concerns don't change much from meeting to meeting. (One student is always fretting over his father's restaurant business; the requisite old lecher is always begging others to get him out of his latest sexual harassment-induced jam.) The students seem like nice enough folks, but, for a non-fan, they're not compelling to the point that it's a pleasure simply to spend time with them; unfavorable comparisons to the Ouendans, which rendered characters vivid and memorable with a few manga panels, are unavoidable. (Import Warning: if you don't speak Japanese, all the chit-chat will be (all the more) endlessly tedious. It's necessary to unlock everything, but that's of dubious value if you can't read the language - see below.)

Nevertheless, the sheer novelty and fun in tapping along to the Ode to Joy or Bizet's "Carmen" zips the game along for a while; I was hooked for most of my first run-through. The corners cut in the production eventually hit you, though. For one, the core game's too short (about 3-4 hours for one playthrough) and too easy - I got a high score on my first try on every composition. Since the main course is so skimpy, the bulk of Nodame Cantabile's gameplay is provided by a Free Play mode where you can practice compositions you've already passed and other minigames outside the plotline. Completing compositions in Free Play may unlock material, but:

a) Miss a single beat, and you can kiss any potential reward goodbye. Good luck handling the William Tell Overture.

b) Instead of a few new tracks to conquer, the game simply presents a slew of difficulty levels - six total, for all twenty-four songs. You'll at first earn an unlockable for every S-rank, but the rewards eventually slow, doled out on an erratic schedule. In short, though: if you want to unlock everything, plan on performing the entire playlist flawlessly six times over. It's an utterly lazy way of stretching out the game.

c) The unlockables consist of text files on composers, compositions, and instruments that are brief but laden with high-level kanji (about Jouyou 5 or so) and written in a humdrum manner. (That Bach "was born into a large family" and "was very industrious" is less interesting than "the man had twenty kids and produced so much sheet music the local fishmongers used it to wrap herring".) The composition glossary can double as a jukebox, but you might be a bit saturated from Free Play, and you can find better-produced versions for free on the web. The instrument files are nifty - you get sound samples, historical info, 3-D models to rotate, it's very cool - but they're the very last files you unlock.

The problem here isn't challenge so much as programmer laziness and lack of adequate reward. Think of Ouendan or Elite Beat Agents; notorious for their difficulty, but you get fun dance moves and sharp pop art and an emotional conclusion to the drama for the level should you excel. Nodame Cantabile substitutes busywork for quality, forcing you to play through the same set of levels ad nauseum instead of giving you new stuff. (That the graphics are wanting doesn't help; you get to unlock a gallery of eye-pleasing image illustrations, but the usual manga portraits are flat and lack detail. We also need more to look at during rhythm sections than a few slideshowed images of the conductor; it's monotonous and drains life from the game.)

Then there're the heaping helpings of obnoxious cuteness the game insists on slapping on your plate every other turn, like the giant mongoose mascot character who haunts the map screen and announces unlockables or the supposedly-endearing-but-in-fact-unbearable high-pitched squeals and "wacky" behavior from the manga heroine Nodame or the embarrassment of material we get on an entirely fictitious kiddie anime Wikipedia tells me Nodame adores. Its own mascots populate the minigames (which are insultingly easy, save for the platformer on "hard", which can burn in the hell that spawned it); we unlock its image art, in-depth character profiles, and voice samples; the game breaks from its all-classical menu for one level to play the show's entire theme song.

I repeat: this anime does not even exist outside the heroine's fictional world.

No one but a fan is going to enjoy learning about a fictional character's favorite fictional characters, but, then, the game isn't really designed for anyone but fans. That's the thing: we're used to portable rhythm games being jump-right-in crowd-pleasers, but Nodame Cantabile is a licensed title first and foremost, with all the attendant pandering. The game's not shovelware, but it has the same shiftless disregard for providing anything beyond the license to hold your attention. Giving you a guided tour of the franchise is a higher priority - let's walk around campus and meet all the characters; take a tour of the highlights of the series, organized by their accompanying compositions (sample manga scans included); please stop at our image gallery on your way out. It's a walk down memory lane for aficionados and a sales pitch for the uninitiated.

Look, it's not a bad game, and it's cheap now, so you won't break the bank if you decide to take a chance on it. The samples chosen are lively and engaging, if "classical" normally equals "boring" for you; I've developed an appreciation for Rhapsody in Blue and can finally put a tune to "Eine kleine Nachtmusik". It lacks much of the class and beauty one might expect from a classical rhythm game, though, and the story and rewards, text-based instead of visual, are inaccessable to those who don't speak the language. If you've been spoiled by the grade-A titles in this genre - or your own expectations for a concept that, by all rights, should've been awesome - then it's likely to be a disappointment.

Synonymous's avatar
Community review by Synonymous (November 13, 2007)

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