"When it comes to dancing games in North America, Dance Dance Revolution is the biggest name to know. But there are other games in town, like Pump It Up. Through a dozen arcade and console releases in Asia, PIU has built a reputation as a freestyle-leaning alternative to DDR. In sticking with its dancing roots while transitioning to a handheld, though, Pump It Up Exceed Portable leaves that flexibility behind, and it ends up playing a clear second fiddle to a..."
When it comes to dancing games in North America, Dance Dance Revolution is the biggest name to know. But there are other games in town, like Pump It Up. Through a dozen arcade and console releases in Asia, PIU has built a reputation as a freestyle-leaning alternative to DDR. In sticking with its dancing roots while transitioning to a handheld, though, Pump It Up Exceed Portable leaves that flexibility behind, and it ends up playing a clear second fiddle to another twitch rhythm title on the PSP, the DJ Max series.
Actually, that fiddle should be called a violin. The oddest remixes in Exceed Portable combine classical masterpieces with heavy dance beats. Electric guitar licks turn Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor into the Beethoven Virus. A driving drum accentuates the powerful winter of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. An operatic performance of Ave Maria overlays a techno track. Several other works receive similar treatment, and it infuses the game with a completely unexpected feel. If they had tackled an entire symphony in addition to these two minute snippets, I'd rate this game a perfect score.
These reimaginings are the work of BanYa, a virtually anonymous collective working in-house for Andamiro Entertainment, the series producer. Exceed Portable actually divides its soundtrack into three separate channels, and BanYa receives a group of its own. In fact, they composed a little under half of the 94 songs listed in the credits, and that mass of music shows off a diverse range. They pump out the expected infectious weirdness of Korean pop, and it's mixed with anything from mariachi trumpets to heavy industrial sounds. Of course, you can bust a move to all of it. That's why BanYa has achieved success releasing albums outside of PIU.
The other two channels are generically named K-Pop and Pop, and they include just about any kind of music as well. It could be rap. It could be a Korean language version of Venus, a #1 hit in the '80's for Bananarama. It could be Swedish pop that sounds like Ace of Base. It could be a more direct lift of the Miami Sound Machine's Conga. Each song is matched with an animated music video that plays in the background. My favorite focuses on a little hero in a sombrero – he would look at home in Samba de Amigo -- trying to out-boogie his girl... and failing. Most all are dynamic and lively, filled with swirling colors and quick transitions.
But your eyes will focus on arrows, not animation. This handheld version mimics the diagonal layout of the arcade dance pad; there's a step in the center and four others in the upper and lower right and left corners. On the PSP, the right d-pad and square button cover the center, up and down on the d-pad translate to the left steps, and triangle and X cover the right. As far as I can tell, there's no way to remap the setup, which keeps the flow of the choreography uniform. A row of arrows sits at the top of the screen to represent these directions. As the music plays, matching arrows scroll up from the bottom, and you hit the corresponding button as the pair of arrows syncs exactly. When you hit successfully, your life bar fills, but even slight misses will drain it. Exceed Portable is stringent in measuring a perfect match, so you must be extremely accurate to score perfectly. It's especially tricky when you have to hit both diagonal keys on the same side at the same time. Being all thumbs here is literally as bad as it sounds.
There's no question the game becomes unbelievably hard. Beginning levels are numerically rated from one to five, and they have a balance of one or two notes at a time. The middle level (of five) is called Crazy, and it provides a steady stream of notes, consistently requiring chords of three at a time. Freestyle and Nightmare difficulties lie beyond that, with ratings of 20+. On these settings, you cover two dance pads, essentially using every key for the 10-button layout. Talk about a drastic leap.
What it lacks is a lasting, consistent incentive to reach those heights, beyond the pure thrill of competition. Its main attraction is in Arcade Mode, where you play through four songs of your choice, then receive a code to input on a Korean website. That code inserts your score into an internet ranking, which lets you indirectly measure up against players across the world. Home Mode lets you run through any unlocked piece of music. Sudden Death ends with even one mistake, while Survival goes on until your life bar is finally empty. Most of your time will be spent shifting between Arcade and Home to unlock songs to use in other modes. After that, it's simply an exercise of practicing until perfect.
Compare that to its main competition on the PSP, the two DJ Max games. DJ Max has a more gradual buildup in difficulty, from four, to six, to eight buttons; the sequel even has a five button layout like PIU. And it lets you modify the setup to suit your style. Even better, it presents a lot of special challenges, along with a system where you're constantly unlocking new skins, button shapes, and other prizes. All these carrots continually reward you, even if you never become proficient past its easiest levels.
Exceed Portable does let you tinker with some settings on a limited basis. Most important, you can speed up the arrows, a virtual must when challenging the bunches of notes in harder music. That is, if you can figure out how. The game comes with an English mode to read the menus, but navigating them can be unintuitive and inconsistent. The d-pad is fine to scroll through the viewer where you can watch the videos on their own. When choosing a song to play, though, the down arrow moves you left and the X button right. To bring up the menu to change modifiers, it's select plus the left shoulder. At least, that's how it works in Home Mode. If there's a similar option in the Arcade, I haven't decoded it yet.
Pump It Up Exceed Portable is a decent experience, but it retains an air of inaccessibility. The game offers a wide variety of music, including some you would never expect to hear out of a title like this. And with it comes a gigantic degree of difficulty. But unless you're prepared to dive into mastering this game hardcore, there's not a lot of reward waiting for you.
Community review by woodhouse (August 24, 2008)
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