Imagine someone asked you to review a see-saw. How would you begin to define the experience? More importantly, how silly would you feel trying to recommend to someone else that they should sit on a plank of wood and go up and down? On paper the premise sounds so simple, so boring… and yet, see-saws rock. There is a quality to them that can’t be accurately conveyed through words. This is how I feel when it comes to Rhythm Heaven. The game is idiotically simple, yet so charming and fundamentally enjoyable, that I recommend it to almost any gamer despite lacking the lexicon to explain why.
If you were strange enough to import Rhythm Tengoku – Rhythm Heaven’s Japan-only predecessor on the Gameboy Advance – then this becomes easy. You already know how weird and fun the game can be, and I’m pleased to relay that Rhythm Heaven is more of the same. Everyone else will need a bit of explanation. Heaven consists of rhythm-based minigames, which are bizarre and WarioWare-esque in presentation. The games feature things like choruses of monkeys that clap in time with an idol singer or moai heads that sing in patterns.
After a brief tutorial explaining the timing and controls for each game, players try their hand at the challenge and either fail, pass, or earn a medal that contributes to unlocks. Four of these games lead to a remix, which strings all of the preceding minigames together to construct a simple song. Don’t let the basic premise fool you; Heaven has an uncanny ability to strain players’ senses of rhythm and coordination.
For instance, the first game involves two square nuts that roll towards the center of the screen. The player must flick the stylus when both nuts reach the center, launching a bolt through the nuts. First the game will change the rhythm of the nuts, causing them to roll forward every half note, then in triplets. On top of this, the vision tunnels out and only shows the area where the nuts overlap, requiring players to rely on sound instead of sight. You know how goofy you felt the first time you tried to pat your head and rub your stomach? It’s like that, only with music, and you’re holding a DS and grinning like an idiot.
Merely passing these challenges isn’t all the game offers. As previously mentioned, doing well enough in a challenge will earn a medal. Medals accumulate to unlock rhythm toys, which really can’t be explained any better than the name “rhythm toy” already does. Additionally, a challenge that already has a medal is eligible to earn a special “P” medal every so often, which requires a perfect run. This creates addictive goal-driven gameplay. First, I want to play this new challenge. Oh neat, now I have enough medals to play with this toy, and oh now this other challenge is eligible for a perfect, I’ll try to get that. I didn’t get it, but I bet I can earn a medal on this other one – and so on for hours.
The game’s controls are relatively experimental, and as such achieve moderate success. Most games revolve around a motion called “flicking,” which involves placing the stylus down and then flicking one’s wrist quickly as though drawing a check mark. Everything else is controlled by pressing and releasing with the stylus. Most games that employ the flick match the motion with complimenting representation on screen – be it a character tossing a bottle or kicking a soccer ball. In these situations, the controls work well because the flick matches the on-screen motion. For others… maybe this is my two decades behind buttons talking, but using the touch screen for these is unnecessarily inaccurate. They may as well have used a button, which is, in a tactile sense, much less ambiguous. The games in which the controls work well come out ahead, and the ones that do not come out behind, so the controls average out.
Rhythm Heaven is a different sort of music game. It’s raw, no frills, and utterly refreshing in that regard. You’ll experience elements of music and rhythm you never did listening to that New Kids on the Block Greatest Hits album, and the game has more charisma and charm than you can rhythmically shake a stick down on a drum at. The only people that won’t be utterly charmed by this game are the people that never tap out a rhythm on a table with their fingers, or never turn on the radio in their car, or hell, never jumped on a see-saw. You know, people without souls.