Elite Beat Agents: Proof that dance can save the day
Elite Beat Agents for the Nintendo DS is a “rhythm-action game” (their words, not mine), and an adaptation of the cult Japanese hit Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!, which was lauded by critics all over the world for its originality and innovative use of the DS touch screen. The basic premise is very peculiar: Special agents using the power of dance to music to rid the world of problems. Despite being somewhat Americanised (agents in lieu of male cheerleaders…!), EBA still retains a lot of the idiosyncrasies (read: weirdness) of Ouendan.
It still follows the formula for its Japanese predecessor. Balloons will appear on the touch screen. A circle will enclose on the balloon. You’re supposed to tap the balloon when the circle and balloon’s edge intercept. Lather, rinse, repeat; all to the tune of American pop ‘classics’ (more on this later). Sometimes you drag the stylus along a path, other times you rapidly draw circles. A life bar measures your performance, which will have an effect on the in-level story. Nothing too special, it seems, but there’s much more to be had from EBA.
Let me make this very clear: Elite Beat Agents is still very Japanese at heart, and it is very weird. Most importantly, and probably because of this, Elite Beat Agents is very fun. It never pretends to be a serious game (except for one poignant level), and this only helps its cause.
The story for each level is about as deep as a kiddie swimming pool or Paris Hilton’s personality (not to be confused with her other big, perky ‘personalities’): A person(s) is in some sort of distress. They yell “HEEEAAALP”. The agents arrive at the scene. They dance to music; the world is safe for another day. Come to think of it, it’s marginally better than a lot of plots in modern TV/Cinema. In actual fact, many of these stories can be quite funny, even if the humour is mostly derived from the utter ridiculousness of the stories. You’re not going to get a moving storyline or emotional character development, but that’s not the point of EBA. You’re here for the rhythm and the music.
And by gum, it delivers the rhythm! Although the gameplay mightn’t sound that exciting in text form, when you pick up a stylus and start tapping and swiping away, it becomes very compelling, especially when you get to the Sweatin’ difficulty. Successfully tapping the touch screen to the tune of the song provides a very satisfactory feeling. There are some moments when the beats don’t logically match up with the music, but these are quashed by the sheer fun that is to be had in the majority of songs.
Rhythm games live and die on their soundtrack. Unfortunately, this is where EBA falters. The sound itself holds up well, the cover versions for all the songs sounding not too dissimilar to the original artists. But the track list itself raises some issues. Remember the earlier reference to EBA’s “American pop ‘classics’”? Well the inverted commas are there for a reason. There are some quality songs among the track list: YMCA, Canned Heat, and Rock This Town being my personal highlights. However, among the gold are artists Avril Lavigne, Cher, Good Charlotte, and *shudder* Hoobastank. That last band’s song is a particularly awful case, not only because it is an awful, awful song, but also because it is the score to a particularly difficult stage, so you’ll be forced to listen to it over and over and over again; which is about as appealing as a punch to the crotch, and hurts like one too when playing it. There are some painful moments from that stage.
Which brings up EBA’s other major gripe: The frustration factor. The game mechanic mightn’t sound too hard, but when balloons are laid thick and fast all over the screen, the difficulty ramps up. Combined with a constantly decreasing life bar and major penalties for missing even one balloon and you’ll end up seeing the “Mission Failed” screen many, many times. Unlike a game like Guitar Hero, where you can easily pass a song the first time you play it, EBA seems to expect the player to rote memorise every little nuance of the song in order to pass it, especially at the higher difficulty levels. This can get particularly frustrating, but when a mission is finally passed, a feeling of relief and sheer fulfilment passes through your head, before you move on to the next song and potentially even more frustration.
At least the visuals aren’t as mixed as the soundtrack. The ‘story’ for each level is told on the top screen through manga comic panels, with looping animations used during gameplay. The bottom screen has the balloons as well as 3D models of the dancing agents. That aspect is nothing too special, the DS definitely isn’t being pushed to its limits, but the manga sequences add to the character of this very individual game. They’re very simple, but very effective.
There is a real sense of replayability to EBA. One could take a cynical point of view and go on about the difficulty artificially extending the games length; but there are some tangible incentives to keep on playing, with 4 difficulty levels to pass (though the highest level is a rehash of the second highest difficulty), as well as unlockable songs and ranks. Trying to see the different branches for every in-level story will also whittle some good times away, as well as the obligatory score-beating motions. I’ve yet to try the multiplayer (which is 2-4 player single/multi-card), but with a worthy opponent, it promises to deliver some quality musical duelling.
Ultimately, this game is ridiculously fun. The gripes, hardships and track list, which at times can be carcinogenic (did I mention how awful Hoobastank's song is, because it is awful), are overwhelmed by the sheer addictiveness of the deceptively simple game mechanic, which is so well executed that even songs by Ashley Simpson are playable and, dare I say, enjoyable. There will be some who will be put off by the weirdness and difficulty behind it all; after all, dancing agents saving the world isn’t something Activision would normally pump out. But leave your prejudices, sensibilities and 'alternative' music tastes at the door, and there’s hours of madness and fun to be had with Elite Beat Agents.