Go into your local videogame store and have a dig around in the PS2 section, through the shelves of also-rans and budget titles. You might come across a box with a busy manga cover, the name Gitaroo Man just about visible in amongst all the characters. If you do, pick it up. It’s one of the PS2’s best games.
Gitaroo Man took the rhythm action (or ‘bemani’) template – asking the player to keep time with a selection of songs – and fashioned something unique from it. Rather than just following a basic beat, it made you feel as though you were actually playing a new type of musical instrument with the control pad; the instructions on the screen became a score.
Gitaroo Man also added a whole new emotional response to videogaming’s still limited repertoire: wistfulness. After a series of tracks in styles more common to bemani games – rock, funk, dub – the developers, iNiS, suddenly and unexpectedly threw a fragile acoustic lullaby into the mix. Instead of fighting out the musical battle against an enemy, as in the rest of the game, the storyline for this level had the titular hero sitting against a tree on a beach at sunset, in front of a campfire, with an alien girl by his side. As the lullaby progressed, she began to fall asleep on his shoulder, her health bar dropping all the time.
Gitaroo Man displayed an understanding of how to affect the player through tiny, three-minute vignettes that shamed more pompous developers’ enormous budgets, universe-spanning epics and famous scriptwriters. That iNiS has managed to do so a second time proves that GM was no freak of luck.
Ouendan introduces us to a trio of spiritual cheerleaders, three imposing figures in black leather greatcoats, jackboots and red armbands. Like Nazi stormtroopers auditioning for parts in a cross between the A-Team and Highway to Heaven, they appear to those facing difficulties in life – a new PE teacher who can’t get his students to take him seriously, a potter in need of inspiration, a chef whose restaurant is going under – and provide them with encouragement through the power of cheer.
It’s the player’s job to keep the Ouendan cheering. Numbered circles are shown on the DS’ touchscreen with rings that gradually contract around them – these circles need to be hit in time with the rhythm, the rings acting as a visual guide as to exactly when this should happen. A ‘health’ bar at the top of the lower screen shows how well you’re cheering. Keep in time with the music and, for every circle hit at the correct time, the health bar tops up a little. Added to the mix every now and again are lines that you need to trace between two points, and discs that need spinning to fill up a meter. But the principle remains the same – hitting marks on the screen in order to retain enough of the bar to complete the song.
The simple interface sucks you in totally. Every hit that strikes home results in a drumbeat or a whistle, resulting in you feeling as though you’re a part of the group playing the music. Fail to hit a beat in time and you’re met with silence, or a groan. The reward for performing well is hearing the song play out perfectly, without any fumbles.
It generates an irresistible urge to perfect each track, so it’s important that the music be good enough for you to want to hear it. And Ouendan’s soundtrack is great, incorporating a range of styles – J-pop, disco, ska, punk, rock – and songs that are never anything other than insanely catchy. The sort that gets stuck in your head but, miraculously, never become annoying.
iNiS’ presentation and storytelling skills shine through once again. The graphical style is like manga Captain Pugwash. The story is told in the form of a comic book – panels zoom onto portions of the screen and build into a whole, with simple animation inside them. As you play your way through a song, the storyline unfolds on the upper screen – you can view it all as a replay on successful completion of the stage. Energetic and hugely attractive, these tales of individuals overcoming provide you with another reason for wanting to do well – if the Ouendan fail to cheer effectively because your playing isn’t up to scratch, the storyline will take a turn for the worse.
The stories become ever more wonderfully ludicrous as you progress through the game. From commonplace studies of woe, problems take on ever-increasing size until the final level takes them to a planetary level. The pacing is exemplary, providing a real sense of scale – aided by the reappearance of characters from earlier stages.
The highlight comes just over halfway through in a sharply focused, personal love story that provides a goosebumps moment. Slightly sentimental it may be, but it’s still affecting and touching, helped by a sudden shift in musical style. Like the equivalent level in Gitaroo Man, it marks the point where everything comes together and you realise that you’re not just playing a good game, but one of the elite.
It also features an intelligent set of difficulty levels – two available initially, two unlocked after completing those. They don’t only increase the number of markers you have to hit during each song, but also change the specific rhythms that you’re required to pick out within them. Brilliantly, the more complex each song becomes, the better it sounds and the more you feel as though you’re playing a real part in its performance.
And now the bad news. Ouendan’s currently only available in Japan and shows no signs of being released over here, nor in an English-language version anywhere else. For one thing, all of the manga sections would likely need to be redrawn, each currently being covered in Japanese text (anybody who’s read the Dark Horse release of the Ghost in the Shell manga will be at home with incidental text squeezed into borders and otherwise blank spaces). For another, all of the songs have Japanese lyrics.
No DS owner should let that put them off, though. The DS plays games from any region, and the Internet is the importer’s friend, providing plenty of hassle-free virtual shop shelves to pick a copy up from for a decent price. Furthermore, there’s already a translation guide for the (few, simple) menus in Ouendanavailable on Gamefaqs – and its small tales of triumph in the face of defeat are already in a universal comic book language.
This is, without question, the finest game on the DS to date. In a videogame library that already has a higher hit to miss ratio than that of any other console, it takes pride of place.