The system/publisher/developer bit: Nintendo DS, published by Nintendo, developed by iNiS
The ten-word synopsis: Rhythmically tap the screen to help those in need.
Whenever asked for compile my favourite films, TV shows, books, plays, whatever, my first instinct is always to impress. To list titles that make me come across as somewhat highbrow, like a proper critic type or something. However, it never takes long before the likes of Psycho and Hamlet give way to a mesmeric platoon of silliness. Scott Pilgrim, Danger Mouse, The Gruffallo… And, with the onset of gaming as a ‘serious’ new medium, Elite Beat Agents can take its’ rightful place amongst that most esteemed company.
The premise is utterly ridiculous. Playing as a group of three besuited male cheerleaders, it’s your job to turn the wrongs of the world around through the power of dance. Based on Japanese rhythm-action hit Osu! Tatake! Ouendan!, the game has been adapted for a western audience but still failed to find that great a market. The gameplay is simple enough- you tap the screen with the stylus in time with the music, as larger circles converge inwards on smaller ones. There are also spinners and sliders that require slightly different technique to pass through, but it never gets complicated as such.
It’s the simplicity that creates the sense of endearment you can’t help but hold for the game. Once you get the hang of it, you’re unlikely to struggle much for the duration of the standard 14 songs. A tricky two-part finale accumulating in a fast-paced, finger-testing take on Jumpin’ Jack Flash that’ll fill your heart with indignation at the very mention of the Rolling Stones follows, as well as three unlockable bonus songs. By this point, your brain will have already stopped wondering what it’s all for and just accepted that Elite Beat Agents probably is the meaning of life. There’s a major addiction on your hands.
And so the game feeds you more. There’s four more difficulty modes for you to clear, each one with individual high-score counters (Meaning that getting all the perfect scores becomes even harder than it already was) and it’s own pacing to the same songs. As you have to select the difficulty before the song, it adds an importance to all levels of play, rather than just presenting you with the top option and leaving it out of your skill levels’ reach. However, it won’t be tantalisingly close for long, as the game has an incredibly satisfying difficulty curve, that makes you improve at a pace necessary for the game. While there are spikes, (Good Charlotte’s The Anthem is far harder than, say, Bowies’ Let’s Dance) they serve as tests of skill, just as you were tiring of it all being so possible. There’s also a huge jump from the final difficulty with male cheerleaders to the hidden ‘Diva’ mode, which is greatly appreciated when you’re looking for excuses to keep playing.
Not that you’ll need them: EBA is, in this writers’ humble opinion, the first game since Tetris to truly nail the ‘One more go’ desire into the metaphorical wall. Even if you do manage to put it down, which is to be applauded, (I’m writing this with the stylus in my mouth) chances are you brain won’t be able to resist it’s musical charms for long, and you’ll find yourself reaching for the DS Lite in a mad scramble that’d raise the collective eyebrows of any on-looking policemen. Circle-prodding will soon become a way of life. Before too long, you’ll get so good at well-timed tapping that Rupert Murdoch’ll offer you a job.
Most rhythm-action games live or die by the range of songs on offer. Not so here. Whereas the original Japanese title was filled to the rafters with crazy J-Pop, here we get songs more designed to cater for our Western needs. That is, our Western need to here a Avril Lavigne cover over and over again, which wasn’t one I was aware of until Nintendo flagged it up to me. While all the songs are cover versions, they’re all perfectly functionable ones and have apparently saved Nintendo a lot of money as well as having a longer copyright sell-by date. Perhaps they haven’t gone for the highest quality of song in the world, (It’s certainly more The Gruffallo than Hamlet) they all fit the game, which is what you want. There’s an Ashley Simpson song called La La in there that I’d never heard before picking up the game, yet find myself, almost every single day, humming in the bath. Your bath. Whilst you’re not in.
The other aspect of EBA that’s pretty much been skimmed over is the incredible cutscenes. Each stage, as well as being a different song, tells a different, self-contained story. One, for example, has you trying to drive a pregnant woman to hospital before she bursts, to the tune of Sk8r Boi whilst another sees an overweight, young ninja-in-training come to the rescue of his father who has been kidnapped by business rivals whilst Jamiroquai blurts out in the background. Each one is facing difficulties, and the titular Agents have to dance to inspire them. Their progress plays out on the top screen, whilst you tap/watch the Agents dance in the background on the bottom. At certain points, the story takes over both screens, and depending on how well you’re doing, will head in different directions, with a positive outcome for good play, but a negative one if you’ve been missing a lot of beats. While most of these are throwaway fun and just a bit amusing, half way through you’ll come across a really quite beautiful take on Chicago’s You’re The Inspiration about a little girl whose father has recently passed away. To say it’s a bit emotional would be an understatement- I find myself unable to play the level for fear of working my tear ducts too hard. Think It’s a Wonderful Life times twelve.
And keep thinking It’s a Wonderful Life. Where as the Jimmy Stewart classic falls into the first category I spoke of, the smart films, the well-regarded ones, used in lists to sound impressive, I like it because it’s also a bit silly. It’s an entertaining romp as well as a profound piece of cinema. While nobody could say that of Elite Beat Agents, it’s certainly a well-constructed game, technically. The comic book visuals look excellent on the DS, there’s a well-implemented multi-player mode and the thing runs smoothly without the need for loadtimes or options screens. It’s solidly put together. Someone couldn’t complain that this is a bad game. What it has above, say, Ocarina of Time, though, is an infinite sense of fun. It’s a ludicrous comparison to make, but what it lacks in wonder it makes up for the sheer desire of the player to keep going. It’s a glee-spilling machine. A smile factory. A production line of exuberant ecstasy. Or, in other words, a really good video game, and one that certainly should not feel out of place on anybodies favourites list…
9 Village People out of 10