The original Rhythm Tengoku came out on the GBA in 2006 at a time when DS sales were starting to really take off. It was the last game Nintendo developed for the dying handheld platform, and they didn't consider it worth localising for the west. Subsequent sequels for the DS and Wii have been released worldwide; the Wii version in particular is good fun and worth picking up, but neither of them capture the mind-melting simplicity of the original. I believe it is one of the most essential games to play for anyone who is interested in understanding games as a medium. If I was to make a 'reading list' of games to promote game literacy, this would be at the top.
I first played Rhythm Tengoku pretty much eight years ago today. Sean and I were heading down to the London Games Festival, and when I found him on the train he thrust his GBA Micro into my hands, looked me in the eyes and said "Play this game". I put the headphones on and started a level and saw a baseball batter standing in an abstract green room. The music began. Baseballs were being spat out of a small pipe and I started smashing them out of the screen in time with the beat. Then the camera pulled back a little and revealed that the room was flying through space. I fell in love.
With the game, I mean.
The genius of Rhythm Tengoku is the way it unravels these quirky, inventive, sometimes genuinely touching stories out of what is the bare minimum of player input. It's a similar concept to Wario Ware, except with far longer levels that allow the developers to take you on a journey instead of just testing your reflexes. Most levels are played using only a single button, and the player's objective is to simply tap (and sometimes hold) that button in a way that responds to the rhythm of the music; there is a single mechanical 'perfect input' for each level that you could program into a button-tapping machine if you wanted to, but the human experience of playing the game transcends simply matching a beat. Rhythm Tengoku evokes such a range of emotions out of PUSHING A SINGLE BUTTON that it single-handedly justifies games-as-art.
I am not kidding.
When you play Rhythm Tengoku, you feel you are engaging in many little interactive short stories with different styles of gameplay - you are swinging a baseball bat in space, you are tap dancing with monkeys, you are cutting arrows out of the air to protect your lord - but you, in reality, the saggy blob of sentient flesh cradling a block of consumer electronics in your sweaty hands, are always pushing that one single button to do all these different things. It's a profound comment on the nature of games and gameplay! It relates the understanding that most videogames can be 'won' simply by pressing the right buttons at the right time, and that gameplay genres only exist within the bounds of aesthetic context, because ultimately players are just sacks of meat pushing the same plastic buttons regardless of what game is running; but also, that this cold, mechanical truth does not fully capture the typical play experience. Rhythm Tengoku teaches you that there is more to playing a game than simply pushing buttons when prompted.
It's an example of fantastic UX design. One of Rhythm Tengoku's design pillars was to create a rhythm game without any obvious on-screen button prompts, where players will learn to 'feel' the rhythm of the music. This is part of the reason why the minigames' narrative elements are so effective - unlike games like Guitar Hero, your eyes are focused on the characters instead of some ugly button prompt. There are no complicated HUDs to make sense of, no instructions that you can't figure out just from listening to the music and experimenting - it's worth confirming that the lack of localisation is absolutely no barrier to enjoying the game; only a handful of the unlockable bonus features involve any serious amount of text.
It creates a sense of fusion between the music, your input, and the events unfolding on-screen. In a successful play session, it's very easy to achieve a sense of Flow in which you feel as if you are playfully tapping along to the music and, like some kind of zen archer, just happen to be smashing all those baseballs into space, clapping along with your band of musical monkeys, slicing all those arrows out of the air, and so on. Admittedly, success relies on you being capable of tapping a button in time with the music, but one of the game's objectives (spelled out in the lyrics of the Karate Man song on level one!) is to teach players a sense of rhythm.
And - seriously! - sometimes I think the game is actually better off going unlocalised. The experience of navigating menus in a language you can't read supports the surreal aesthetic of the game, in a roundabout way. And sometimes the lack of clear explanation forces you to devise your own interpretations of the bizarre exposition you've just unravelled.
One level in particular, known as 'Night Walk', features the surreal image of a man jumping along across a glowing staircase in space, with stars exploding in the background and little text messages flashing up on the screen. No doubt the Japanese text contextualises it a bit, but without that influence one is left reading ones own meanings into it. I like to imagine that this level represents the soul of a dead person climbing a neon staircase to heaven, with little messages flashing up to give closure to their life - "YOUR MOTHER FORGAVE YOU", "IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT THAT YOUR SPOUSE LEFT YOU", "NOBODY CARES ABOUT THOSE SWEETS YOU STOLE WHEN YOU WERE A CHILD", and so on.
I mean seriously, if this was the afterlife experience being advertised by the church, who would be an Atheist?!
The very first thing I did when I got home from the London Game Festival eight years ago was to jump on Play-Asia.com and order my own copy of the game. That's not really an option any more - after eight years it's long out of print - but you can probably pick it up on eBay for about £25, and I think that's a bargain price for one of the best games ever made. Of course some of you might want to emulate it instead (nb. a homebrew localisation patch is available, if you're interested), but a note of caution on that: If your emulator suffers from any kind of lag at all, the game wlll be pretty much ruined for you. Don't let a bad emulator configuration sour you on the game itself.
Rhythm Tengoku is one of the most beautiful and brilliant games ever made. It's an elegent expression of the artistic potential of 'interactivity' precisely because it strips the concept of interactivity down to its bare essentials. It has more to say about game design theory than any other game I can think of - one thing I haven't even touched on in all this (because I don't want to spoil the fun) is the way the remix 'boss' levels flip previous levels on their head, intercutting brief flashes of gameplay to construct an experience closer to a typical game. It shows you the raw building blocks of what it means to play a videogame, and then teases you with humour and innuendo about how they could be combined.
Play this game.