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Hatsune Miku: Project Diva (PSP) artwork

Hatsune Miku: Project Diva (PSP) review

"Instead of getting too clever, Sega wisely kept the concept simple and made a music rhythm game. There's nothing too extraordinary about that. Project Diva's high quality and success is due to the implementation of that concept. Pick a song, select a difficulty, then tap the buttons to match the onscreen cues. Simple!"

Hatsune Miku is a cute Japanese pop star with cute blue pigtails. Long pigtails. Her story begins with the ancient fable of Pygmalion, but for the sake of time and page space, let's fast-forward a bit to 1985's Megazone 23.

Megazone 23 was one of Japan's first successful direct-to-video anime, featuring character designs by Haruhiko Mikimoto. Mikimoto happened to also be the character designer of the Macross space epic, so his artwork was considered pretty hip at the time. Singing characters were also hip back then, but Megazone put a new twist on the anime pop idol: instead of being a spunky heroine with dreams of stardom, songstress Eve was a computer-generated virtual idol. This concept would later be used for Sharon Apple in Macross Plus.

Computer-generated singing sensations -- we could only dream.

In 2007, a company called Crypton published Vocaloid2 Character Vocal Series: Hatsune Miku. This software let aspiring songwriters insert female vocalics into their songs without hiring a professional (or asking a friend), and the user license even allowed creators to sell those songs commercially as long as the songs' content didn't cause a social uproar. The box had a picture of a cute Japanese pop star with cute blue pigtails, because people are more likely to buy things with pictures of cute girls on them.

Crypton may have expected decent sales, but I doubt they expected fan-made videos of Hatsune Miku (some hand-drawn, some computer-generated) to become a Japanese internet phenomenon. This isn't a studio-born "sensation", groomed and marketed by a corporation. Hatsune Miku sings the songs that are written by her fans, she performs the dances that are choreographed by her fans, and she expresses the feelings that her fans want her to express. Dozens have taken it upon themselves to create Hatsune Miku songs (you can find quite a few on iTunes), and since her hits are composed by so many different people, Miku doesn't fall into a stylistic rut like some artists. Silly, poetic, techno, brazenly dramatic -- Miku always reflects her producer's ability.

Never underestimate the power of talented otaku with too much free time!

With such a rabidly industrious fanbase, Sega's new PSP game -- Hatsune Miku: Project Diva -- shouldered quite a burden. Instead of getting too clever, Sega wisely kept the concept simple and made a music rhythm game. There's nothing too extraordinary about that. Project Diva's high quality and success is due to the implementation of that concept.

Pick a song, select a difficulty, then tap the buttons to match the onscreen cues. Simple! Instead of relegating the cues to a corner of the screen, they sporadically appear across the playfield, forcing players' eyes to follow Miku's spinning, swaying, and rump-shaking. A lot of attention was placed on the choreography and facial expressions; I'm pleased that Sega found a way to prevent players from missing all of that effort. When Miku sings Velvet Arabesque, she alternates between sad and dispassionate, before finally cracking a smile midway through the melody. The level of expression is surprisingly complex, especially since the graphics engine looked so basic in screenshots. The motion-captured dance patterns are smooth and realistically imperfect; when Miku performs the same step three times in a row, each rendition is subtly different. Project Diva isn't some quick fad cash-in; Sega clearly put a lot of hard work into this.

It's a fun rhythm game, but it's also an homage to the talented artists who contributed to the Miku Phenomenon. Each of the 32 featured songs were created by fans; Sega could have made their own Miku melodies using Crypton's software, but they licensed some of the most famous tracks and prominently credited the original composers. Over 100 pieces of fan art appear as "Now Loading" screens. Dozens of unlockable costumes are included -- several actually let players change the onscreen persona from Miku to other vocaloids . . . some of which are official Crypton creations, and some of which were designed by fans.

There's a particularly special costume that can only be earned by beating every song on the "hard" difficulty with a "GREAT!" rating (the only thing better than "GREAT!" is "PERFECT!"). Most songs posed a challenge, but I was slowly making progress . . . until I reached The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku. The premise of the song is that Miku is being uninstalled, so she only has a short time left to express all of her wishes and hopes. In other words, she sings at an inhuman and nearly-incomprehensible speed. After numerous failures, I finally managed to survive to song's end, and only earned a "CHEAP" rank -- bah! I don't know if Sega put this in to torment us, or if they just figured it would take a few months of practice to get there. After all, if someone can memorize an hour's worth of DoDonPachi Daioujou bullet patterns, they should be able to memorize three minutes' worth of musical patterns.

I went online to see if anyone had beaten hard-mode Disappearance yet, expecting to find an exuberant tale about someone who stayed up all night playing that one song over and over. What I didn't expect to find was a Youtube video of a perfect score. You see, some Japanese guy built a robot to play the PSP for him.

Yes -- he built a fricking ROBOT. Not only that, he built it in the likeness of Hatsune Miku herself! Thank goodness this mechanical genius didn't use his powers for evil.

Aside from that anomaly, the songs are generally not too challenging -- even the hard setting is sensible and fair. However, players who explore the "rhythm edit mode" a bit will find twelve additional songs (!) that present some crazy albeit entertaining button-alternating challenges. The edit mode also lets adventurous gamers craft their own levels and attach them to any of the game's songs . . . or to any MP3 that is stored on the PSP. (If your first thought was Caramelldansen, then shame on you!) These fan-made sequences can then be traded over the internet. The interface is cumbersome -- more cumbersome than it should be, really -- but that hasn't stopped some interesting challenges from popping up at Japanese websites.

Last week, a computer-generated Hatsune Miku performed two songs in front of a live concert audience. Miku introduced herself, she danced just as she did in the PSP game, and the crowd cheered and waved their glow-sticks as they would for a "real" performer. Despite such ridiculously heightened expectations, Sega managed to craft an entertaining, energetic game that not only honors Miku and her fans, but allows those same fans to design and share their own rhythm game creations. In a carefree nod to Sega's own groupies, Project Diva opens with a Sonic-era "SEGA!" and lets players beat up the end credits like in Altered Beast (this time with spinning pigtails of doom, instead of fists of fury).

Hatsune Miku: Project Diva is a worthy ambassador of Japanese dreams that began back in 1985 with the virtual idol Eve. I can't wait to see what comes next.



zigfried's avatar
Staff review by Zigfried (September 05, 2009)

Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.

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pickhut posted September 06, 2009:

Whoa, I was expecting a normal review of a music game. Instead, I get a bunch of information regarding the character and her history to go along with details about the game itself. Entertaining review.
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zigfried posted September 06, 2009:


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jiggs posted October 02, 2009:

the "film-strips" are a nice touch. this is by far the most feminine review Zig has ever done. i meant that as a compliment.

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espiga posted February 12, 2010:

So, I was on the fence about this game for a long time, then I stubmbled on this review. Zig's review brought me over the edge and I'll now have a copy of.Hatsune Miku in a week or so.

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