Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How safe is the rhythm method?

More on handheld gaming today. Since the DS and PSPs arrived at the office, I've been playing Elite Beat Agents on the former (screenshot right) and Parappa The Rapper on the latter. EBA is original and weird and totally Japanese and I'm into it. Parappa is a PS1 classic and excellent nostalgia, and as fun to play as it used to be. So the portables are getting my attention at the moment, and apparently I'm not the only one.

After a lengthy period of lackluster support, on Monday Sony Corp began a major push to put the PSP back in the spotlight it had enjoyed at its US launch in early 2005. A slew of titles were announced, including the debut of Rock Band Unplugged, for which extra songs will be downloadable via wifi. Incidentally, Guitar Hero: On Tour for the DS was the top selling handheld game in the US in 2008, so a miniature Rock Band is not a total longshot. Other upcoming exclusive PSP games include LittleBigPlanet, Assassin's Creed, Madden NFL 10, and Motorstorm: Arctic Edge, all of which of course have their own busy soundtracks. And there will be a Hannah Montana rhythm game, which with any luck will coincide with the end of her 15 minutes. In a very welcome move, the games will also be interoperable with their PS3 console cousins.

Today Gamasutra ran an article titled "Behind The Charts: The Portable Rhythm Game Jam," about the discrepancy between the critic-and-gamer rhythm-action favorites Elite Beat Agent and Patapon, and those games' actual sales figures. EBA was voted Nintendo DS 2006 Game of the Year by IGN and Best Music/Rhythm Game of 2006 by GameSpot. But as of last month it had only sold 179,000 copies (according to NPD Group), when Nintendo had expected 300k in its first month on the market. It's worth mentioning that I don't think this figure includes used-games sales, which I suspect would be high for a game that only takes a handful of sessions to finish. I bought my used copy at Gamestop on Broadway for $10.

I'm waiting for Patapon to arrive at the office to see what it's really all about, but I've heard it's truly brilliant (trailer at bottom of post). Here's the Gamasutra description:

The Patapon... is a warrior tribe bent on reclaiming its land from the enemy Zigotons. Ultimately, the tribe finds meaning in a loftier goal and that quest leads them, literally, to the far end of the world. The player commands the Patapon in battle through a set of four talking drums, each mapped to one of the standard PlayStation controller face buttons. By tapping out command phrases in time with the game's background beat, the Patapon can be instructed to advance or retreat, attack or defend. Keep the beat well enough and the Patapons reach a fever pitch, during which their attacks are exceptionally potent.

Sounds great, but despite IGN's 2008 Best New IP award and GameSpot's Most Innovative Game for the year, and a huge promotional push from Sony, after one year on the market Patapon had sold only 229,000 units in the US. In contrast, Guitar Hero: World Tour, which cost around $50 because of the additional hardware that has to be attached to the DS unit, sold 1.1m copies in its first six months on sale.

So is the problem with rhythm games per se, or did the mighty GH brand make the crucial difference? Is it that handhelds are not well-suited for rhythm gameplay, or simply that the mass market will tend to favor familiar franchises over ground-breaking but unknown titles? The article and its commenters throw some ideas around, but the precise answer is obviously elusive. This will be a busy space for watching break-out hits and lamenting the ones that fell by the wayside.

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