When Michael Jackson stepped on a sidewalk square in the "Billie Jean" video, the ground lit up and a beat played with each step. When Justin Timberlake swayed his hand in the video for "SexyBack," a synthesizer zips through some notes.
In the virtual reality of music videos, these things are part of the physics. Apples fall. Balloons float. And gestures of the body cause music to happen.
If only real life were like this.
Sometimes you might fall for thinking it is. Going to a club or cranking the volume in the car might create the illusion that it does. But nodding one's head while holding up the wall isn't really making the bass kick. Tapping the steering wheel while speeding down the highway isn't really making the drum beat.
But thanks to what must be the screwball division of Nintendo there is some place sort of close to real life and a little bit closer to reality than music videos where the tapping of one's foot can kick off a symphony or rap beat — a place called "Rhythm Heaven."
Just five weeks ago, GameFile declared that the current popularity of music-based video games, as well as the surging cultural influence of game music beyond the gaming world, marks the current era as a golden age for video game music. The subsequent discovery and release of "Rhythm Heaven" threatens to turn that gold platinum.
"Rhythm Heaven," a Game Boy Advance game, was released in Japan two weeks ago under its Japanese title, "Rhythm Tengoku." The game is composed of some 40-odd mini-games, each featuring that magic of Jackson and Timberlake videos.
In the first mini-game, a karate man punches objects tossed in front of his fists to the beat of a slow, synthesized electronic song (with English lyrics). As each punch connects, it creates a smacking sound that snaps right into the song — better than the off-note warble a player hears if the punch misses. A well-timed press of the "a" button is what causes the punch to connect.
Another mini-game features Caribbean-sounding dance music and a baseball player at bat, seen from a pitcher's-eye-view. An unseen hand is lobbing him pitches. Regardless of the player's actions, rollicking notes from a steel drum sound forth a lively melody. But it's each well-timed button press that triggers a swish of the swinging bat — and a crack once it connects — that drives a steady one-two beat. Bad hits don't just create foul balls but a clunker of a beat, mangling the song.
A mini-game of a different sort plays a high-tempo tune that sounds suited for the clown portion of a circus show. It prattles out as three mice run left to right across a long table riddled with cups and saucers. A cat snoops along in the distance, its paws climbing up to the table's horizon. Cued to the cat's arrival, the music goes soft. Then the mice, who have been running automatically, just happen to be behind a cup, hidden from view. The music automatically softens. One high-pitched note hangs in the air for suspense.
Mouse one and mouse three stop cold. Mouse two, under the player's control, will bump into the first and cause a noisy song-ruining collision — unless the player holds the "a" button down just in time to screech mouse two to a halt. When the cat drops away, the music picks up and mice one and three dash off. If the player doesn't let go of the button at that same moment, mouse two bumps around again — more ruined music.
In "Rhythm Tengoku," success is doing something — often something bizarre — with smooth rhythm. And if that's hard to picture, just imagine that nodding one's head or tapping one's fingers really does cause each drumbeat in a favorite song blaring from the stereo. And imagine what that song would sound like if the tapping went awry.
"Rhythm Tengoku" doesn't track high scores for each mini-game; it just provides a single stat that assesses the amount of rhythm the player has demonstrated while playing the game.
The game has received raves on gaming sites and message boards. It's not tearing up Japanese sales charts as of yet, but its fervent fans are already short-listing it for top-of-the-year honors.
The game has not been announced for U.S. release. It could just as soon never be officially brought to the non-Japanese market, but that's a small obstacle. This is also the age of Internet-based import shops. The language isn't a barrier, and the Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance both play GBA games no matter what country they're made in. Obtaining the game is, at worst, a slightly marked up $40 or so.
Many games are criticized for indulging in power fantasies, satiating players' lizard desires to command and conquer. Maybe games are guilty of overdoing that, or maybe game designers just haven't figured out yet how to turn some other flights of fancy into games.
But for those who have wanted to live that musically scored life seen in videos — for those who want to walk the walk that makes every footfall a strum in the bass line — games can help you with that now too. Just head to "Rhythm Heaven."
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