When you describe the actual gameplay of Elite Beat Agents, the new rhythm-based game for the Nintendo DS, it doesn’t sound like much. You have to use the DS’s stylus to hit numbered targets on the touch screen in the correct numeric sequence at the moment when an exterior circle collapses and overlaps with it. This is all timed to coincide with the beat of the music you hear. Sometimes the targets transfer into balls that you have to keep rolling along a track. But generally, all you’re doing is tapping stuff on the screen.
I GOT RHYTHM: But the song choice is weak
Yet thanks to iNiS’s creative, campy presentation, EBA, a game getting stateside release because of the popularity of its Japanese predecessor, Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, is a delight. You play as a member of the title force, some kind of motivational dance troupe whose slick choreographed moves enable people to solve their problems. The Agents appear to work for some shadowy department of the government, because they all wear suits and sunglasses and have access to jets and tanks. They’re also dispatched by Commander Kahn, who looks like Stacy Keach and sends you off with a stern “Agents are . . . GO!” before each song.
In keeping with this military back story, the songs are presented as “missions.” You’re introduced to a character and his problem through an anime-informed series of comic-strip panels that usually culminate in a frazzled cry for help. There are some mundane missions, like helping a lost pug make his way home or helping a pirate dive for buried treasure. But most of them could described as “surreal”: helping a meteorologist alter the weather to fit in with her forecast; shrinking down to microscopic size to help an athlete’s white blood cells stave off a virus; traveling back in time to help a painter finish his masterpiece. The art direction is top-notch, and the presentation revels in its over-the-top seriousness — you’ll find yourself laughing at both the comic stories and the agents dancing behind the targets. You may even find yourself tearing up at a mission that involves helping a deceased man keep a promise to his daughter.
But the key to any rhythm game is the quality of the song choices, and in this area EBA doesn’t score high. The developers have selected mostly middle-of-the-road pop hits from a few years ago, like Ashlee Simpson’s “La La” and Good Charlotte’s “The Anthem.” And as is standard procedure in rhythmic gaming, these are not done by the original artists: they’re inferior cover versions. Worse, there are only 19 songs in all, so once the novelty of the humor wears off, you’re left with listening to them over and over. Perhaps we’ve just been spoiled by the great Guitar Hero track lists — it’s hard to go from rocking “Institutionalized” and “Hangar 18” to sitting through “Canned Heat” and “Sk8er Boi.” Notable exception: the last mission is set to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
EBA also has a steep learning curve. Most gamers can play through the whole thing on the easier difficulty in a solid afternoon, but the “medium” setting gets hectic in a hurry. That’s fine and all, but when you combine the staggering score requirements for unlocking the few rewards there are (a higher difficulty setting and three bonus tracks) with those borderline-annoying songs, you wonder how much repeat play this is going to get. And since it requires the musical accompaniment for optimal experience, it’s not a game that travels well.
And yet . . . I’ve spent some time on this game every day since I got it. So for me, at least, it’s a success.