The popular rhythm/music genre has never really had a representative game on the various handhelds, as they often require their own specific wacky peripheral, whether it is maracas, bongos, a guitar, or a dance pad. Of course, the argument could be made that the Nintendo DS [b]is[/b] a wacky peripheral, so perhaps it was inevitable that the twin-screened device would receive some rhythm gaming before long. Sega actually dabbled in it a bit with its [i]Feel the Magic: XY/XX[/i] launch title, which featured a [i]Space Channel 5[/i]-style “repeat the pattern” minigame as one of the stages. However for most hardcore gamers it was Japanese import Osu! Tatake! Ouendan!, released by Nintendo earlier this year (and developed by the same team that gave Gitaroo-Man to the PS2… via Koei). That was really the first such title on the system. [i]Elite Beat Agents[/i] is the westernized version of that game.
The titular [i]Elite Beat Agents[/i] are (essentially) a team of male cheerleaders that motivate people to get through extremely tough spots in their lives via the power of music and dance. The situations you will encounter in the game range from helping a babysitter handle three rowdy children while trying to convince her football-obsessed boyfriend to go steady to assisting a washed-up baseball player in repelling an attack from a bizarre lava golem at an amusement park — and then there’s the final stage in which your dance moves just might save the world from a music-hating alien invasion. There are sixteen stages in the single-player game, plus three additional stages that are unlocked as you accumulate points and ranks, for nineteen stages/songs total. Each scenario is colorfully presented in a comic book style prior to the gameplay, and each completed segment of the song yields a development in the plot that will be either good or bad depending on how you performed; if you clear all the branches successfully, you will see a better ending than if you merely survive the song before the game gives you your final score and grade (along with other statistics, like longest combo).
There are three specific actions you need to master in order to show off your awesome moves. The first is the basic tap: you use the stylus to hit a numbered button on the screen when the ring closing around it reaches its edge. The second is the phrase bar, which starts like a basic tap but has a long path connected to it: you must keep your stylus on the screen and drag it along the path as the on-screen ball rolls along it. Some phrase bars u-turn back the way they came once you reach the end (indicated by an arrow), and later on they oscillate back and forth several times before finishing. Finally, there are spin targets: you have to circle your stylus around the screen often and fast enough to fill up the meter glowing behind the target before the ring closing around it reaches the center; if you fill the meter with time to spare, extra spins earn you bonus points. These three targets are usually grouped in like-colored “beats”, and if you manage to hit every target in a beat with good timing, you’ll get an additional bonus to your always-decreasing life meter — and if you nail all targets with perfect timing, you score an “elite beat” which brings an even bigger life-boosting bonus. Meanwhile, every target you hit sequentially increases your combo score, which in turn yields higher and higher points. Every target you miss, however, resets your combo to zero and causes your life bar to take a major hit; obviously, when your life bar is empty, you lose the stage — and get to witness the results of your failure. You’ll also get the option to review the last five seconds of gameplay to see if you can figure out what went wrong, which is a useful feature.
The songs themselves cover as wide a range as the stories that accompany them. Classics like the Jackson 5’s “ABC” and The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” stand alongside rhythm-genre mainstays like The Village People’s “YMCA” and David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, along with more recent titles like Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi” and Good Charlotte’s “The Anthem”. While all nineteen songs in the game are covers, many are very good soundalikes (I thought that the cover of “Canned Heat” was actually being performed by Jamiroquai, for instance), and only a few fall flat. Many could even be considered improvements — I’ve never heard Ashley Simpson’s version of “La La,” but I don’t think it could possibly be as good as the cover in the game*. Also, the songs are nearly all full-length, with only a couple being abbreviated to “radio edit” length; only one stops abruptly about 2/3rds through, but that’s part of the story associated with it. Even if you can’t stand the original tunes, the simple but engrossing gameplay [i]will[/i] keep you replaying levels often enough that you will have these songs stuck in your head for a while. Well… the engrossing gameplay, combined with the at-times brutal difficulty.
When you first start up [i]EBA[/i], you have two choices of difficulty: Breezin’ (easy) and Cruisin’ (normal); completing Cruisin’ earns you access to Sweatin’ (hard), and completing that level gives you the right to access Hard ROCK!(called “Insane” on the Japanese original — that’s a fair warning). But even on Breezin’, the last few stages are incredibly challenging, with whip-fast beats arranged in tricky (and sometimes lengthy) patterns piling on top of you, putting both your rhythm and your reflexes to the test. If you don’t own a DS Lite, I recommend picking up a larger stylus before you play [i]EBA[/i], as you will appreciate being able to keep your hand from covering up part of the screen and possibly hiding crucial targets from you until it’s too late; the game is hard enough without having to overcome physical obstacles [i]outside[/i] the software. Oh, and you may occasionally need to remember to blink and/or breathe, as things tend to get intense.
Outside of single-player mode, there are a couple of other options. Multiplayer can be done either cooperatively, competitively, or on teams; single-card play only features a sampling of songs, but multi-card play allows all players to access any song unlocked by the host system. You can also play Vs. mode against ghosts of your saved runs; you can save one replay per song, and whatever difficulty that replay was saved at will be the performance you play in Vs. The multiplayer stages themselves have their own unique scenarios, usually a head-to-head competition, even though they use the same songs as the single-player mode. Other options include the ability to watch your saved replays and send them to other players, a record of your high scores per level, and your current ranking (which includes how many points you need to reach the next rank). There is no online component to [i]EBA[/i], however, nor is the microphone used for anything (which is fine by me — the less I have to blow and/or shout into my DS in public, the better), but neither capability is missed much (lag while playing online could be devastating).
Overall, [i]Elite Beat Agents[/i] is a title that anyone can play and just about everyone will enjoy. Simple gameplay, catchy tunes, and a great sense of humor all combine to make this title nearly perfect, with only the sheer difficulty bringing it down at times, but even then the frustration generated is more of a “one more try” and less of a “screw this”. [i]EBA[/i] may very well be the best DS title of the year and is easily among the best ever on the system.
*[size=9]Before I submitted this review, I looked up the video on YouTube and started playing it. I was right.[/size]