Gaming Memories: Elite Beat Agents

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list (and possibly beyond), and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

Once upon a time, Hulk was a star baseball player. The kids loved him. Until, one day, he inexplicably started to decline, and struggled to hit all those home runs anymore. First he was demoted to the minor leagues, then he resigned to be a janitor at the stadium. He was devastated. Then, out of nowhere, a giant fire-breathing golem appears and starts attacking the fans. The same kids that used to love Hulk. He wants to help them. So he does the only thing he can.

He calls out for help from the Elite Beat Agents.

Agents are...
Agents are...

At a glance, the titular agents don’t seem like they could help in this scenario. They are essentially a group of male cheerleaders dressed in snazzy suits and funky hats, but they nevertheless manage to solve problems around the world by dancing and singing. The power of song? Positivity? Magic?? No matter, it’s not meant to make sense, which is one of the fun things about Elite Beat Agents. It’s extremely silly, and genuinely funny at times - if not borderline insane. In the above example, the agents sing and dance, which inspires Hulk to use his baseball skills to defeat the golem and save the day. He defends by catching fireballs with his glove, he attacks by throwing fastballs, and he delivers the killing blow with a powerful home run swing of his bat. This all plays out as you tap your way through the song, and every song in the game is accompanied by a charmingly absurd situation. A young woman babysitting nightmare children. A lost dog trying to find his way back to his owner through busy streets. A weather woman trying to conjure the perfect weather day her son. Corporate intrigue, stranded on a desert island, an alien invasion. It goes on and on, and no matter how normal they seem at first, each scenario devolves into utter madness by its end. Elite Beat Agents’ sense of humor is one of my favorite things about it.

Of course, Elite Beat Agents is a great rhythm game underneath the quirky exterior; I wouldn’t like it so much if it wasn’t. As of the time of this writing, it remains my favorite rhythm game to date. I’ve always considered myself a fan of rhythm games, and at one point in life I was a solid band/music nerd. Yet a lot of them fall just short in one way or another for me. Either they manage to be too rote and mechanical, acting as glorified quick time events. Or they become too distracted with cumbersome peripherals, such as plastic guitars, drums, microphones, or dance pads. Elite Beat Agents, then, is able to leverage the Nintendo DS touch screen to find an effective middle ground. Tapping and swiping with the stylus is simple, intuitive, and precise in a way that elaborate peripherals often struggle. And the nature of touch inherently allows for more flair and style than basic button presses. I find the act of tapping and swiping on a touch screen to be highly satisfying, and the controls in Elite Beat Agents are responsive with great feedback; it may be the best use of touch controls I've experienced. It simply feels good to play, which is paramount to any good rhythm game.

GO!!
GO!!

It also allows the game to put the focus squarely on the rhythm itself. With nothing else to get in the way, Elite Beat Agents is as pure a distillation of the genre as any. That allowed me to fully absorb myself in the rhythm, and man, that rhythm is good. So good, in fact, that I couldn’t put the game down until I mastered every challenge it put before me. Let me reiterate this more clearly: I completed every. single. thing. I possibly could. That means for every song, all the way up through the highest difficulty, I got a perfect score. Again, that’s not just hitting every note for a full combo; I hit every note with perfect timing for a perfect score. And Elite Beat Agents is not an easy game. It took some serious effort, but because I loved the feel of the rhythm so much, I was excited to make that effort. I eagerly played each song over and over until I had, quite literally, mastered them. I loved the process of practicing, and the fact that it only had 19 songs was a boon for me. That smaller scope allowed each one to feel unique and hand-crafted, and showcase interesting patterns and design. This was counter to other rhythm games of the era, many of which contained dozens upon dozens of mechanically indistinct songs. Elite Beat Agents’ depth over breadth design, meanwhile, made mastering each song a delight. It remains one of my proudest video game achievements to date, and almost certainly my most impressive from a difficulty standpoint. It’s an incredibly rewarding memory I will always cherish. Even though I’m pretty sure my college roommate would rather die than hear any of those songs again.

Around 2006, when Elite Beat Agents was released, rhythm games seemed unstoppable. Gaming stores were flooded with plastic instruments, and it appeared that simulating rock stardom was the clear direction of the medium for the foreseeable future. But it was a quirky Japanese game about male cheerleaders saving the world that I couldn’t stop playing. I loved its sense of humor. I loved its wacky scenarios. I loved its rewarding challenge. I loved the variety of its songs. And most of all, I loved how it felt. Tapping and swiping was so satisfying, and it allowed the game to put rhythm above all else. I gave myself to that rhythm in full. In return, Elite Beat Agents gave itself to me, and is as much a part of me as any game I've played.

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