Rhythm Heaven carries an impressive pedigree. It’s part of a multi-million selling Japanese franchise developed by Nintendo R&D 1 – the same folks responsible for classics such as Kid Icarus and Metroid, as well as more modern hits such as the highly-regarded WarioWare series. The music is made by Tsunku, a popular Japanese record producer. There’s a huge amount of Nintendo’s formidable talent behind this game.
So, what’s it about? Well, Rhythm Heaven is a rhythm game in the same style as the WarioWare series. There’s usually an absurd goal onscreen that you have to complete, like wooing a male lizard or playing a game of ping-pong. In this game you tap along with the beat to various short songs in order to achieve it. The game looks like an enormous amount of fun, but is it? Is it worth your time even if you don’t like rhythm games, or is it a good game for any type of gamer?
For what Rhythm Heaven is trying to do, it looks okay. It’s not trying to blow you away with amazing graphics, and they’re not supposed to get in the way of the minigame you’re playing. If there’s too much going on at the same time, you can lose track of what you’re supposed to be doing. I get that.
At the same time, Nintendo should have given us a little more to look at. For instance, there’s a minigame with a choir of three singers and a band director. The background is pure white and the characters are drawn with lines. That’s it. I like minimalist design as much as the next guy, but there’s a limit as to how little is too little, and Nintendo didn’t get that here.
Even the basic tracks are pretty catchy. There’s a wide variety of music, from high-powered techno to spaghetti-western influenced tracks to tropical beats. It’s mostly very catchy. Even the tracks with poorly translated Japanese-to-English lyrics aren’t all that offensive, and still maintain a certain charm. For the most part, the songs in Rhythm Heaven manage to be catchy and clear to understand.
In Rhythm Heaven, you hold the DS sideways like a book, look at the left screen for what you need to do, and use the touchscreen for control. There are really only a couple of types of control. You can tap or move the stylus or flick the stylus on the screen. Every game is a combination of these basic controls.
Mostly, the controls work. Sometimes, you’ll swear you flicked the screen or tapped the screen at the proper time, but the game insists you didn’t, which is frustrating. It also gets demerits because it never asks you to do anything interesting besides those basic maneuvers. Still, once again, it never really gets in the way of gameplay, which is what it’s trying to do. You’ll usually know what you’re supposed to do.
It’s rare to see a game that makes me so angry that I turn off my DS and close it. However, Rhythm Heaven made me angry repeatedly for several reasons. Congratulations, Rhythm Heaven.
Why did I get so mad? Well, picture this: You’re playing a game of Guitar Hero. You have no idea how well you’re doing throughout the song. There’s very little feedback from the crowd aside from scattered coughs when you miss a note. At the end of the song, they tell you how well you did and whether or not you are now able to play the next one. If you want to restart the song, you go back to the song menu, select the song again, sit through a introduction screen, get dumped into a training session that you can skip out of, and then start your song back from the beginning.
Sounds frustrating, right? Even if it sounds manageable, think about this: If you don’t know how well you’re doing, how can you ever improve?
For example, during one level, you’re supposed to take pictures of racecars in time with a song. Every time you take a picture, it’ll show how the picture looked and give you a circle for a good photo, a triangle for an ok one, and an X for a poor one. I got through an entire song with only one X, and I maybe missed one or two during the song, maximum. That’s it. I at least expected a medal for my efforts. Instead, Rhythm Heaven awarded me the “Just OK” award, which is what it hands out when you just barely finish the song. Now, maybe if there had been some sort of meter on the screen a la Elite Beat Agents I could have been able to tell where I went wrong. As it was, I moved on to the next song with my tail between my legs.
Also, what I said about sitting through an introduction screen and a training session EVERY TIME you start a song is true. Even when you’ve failed at a song, you have to go back to the beginning, sit through the introduction screen and get to the first part of the training session. You can’t skip the training session right at the beginning either. You have to wait a couple of seconds for the “Skip” icon to appear on screen and then they let you skip it.
Now, how hard would it have been to put “Retry” as one of the options? Not very. If it would have just sent me back to the beginning to try again, I think I would have had a lot more fun. As it was, it just ended up being infuriatingly tedious. Consider also the fact that some songs have completely different beats than others and you need to play through them a couple of times in order to get a feel for them, and you’ll get an idea of why this was such a terrible, terrible idea.
There’s another major flaw. Rhythm Heaven forces you through a linear progression, making you play each and every song instead of giving you options as to which one you want to do first. WarioWare didn’t do that. No modern rhythm game does that because people don’t like it. There’s a bartender that will let you skip over songs if you try them several times and can’t get them, which is welcome. Still, if you have to have a way built into the game to get around your own stupid design decision, maybe you made a mistake.
There are a ton of unlockables in Rhythm Heaven, like a guitar trainer and other little toys. They’re really neat, but in order to see everything, you have to get perfect scores in every game. The amount of frustration and trial-and-error necessary to get through all of it negates any great value from these special bonuses.