The Escapist heads to Los Angeles to check out the next big thing in arcade rhythm games on test.
As my flight descends into the city of Los Angeles and the endless suburban grey stretches as far as the eye can see, I try and remember the last time I travelled specifically to play a new rhythm game. Was it 2001, back when Arcade Infinity was the sole proprietor of Beatmania IIDX: 6th Style? Regardless, it seems like far too long for someone who used to travel all around to be one of the few to enjoy these games in the United States. Much has changed in the past few years, with Harmonix and the advent of Guitar Hero doing everything that the likes of Japan and Korea could not: make rhythm games a fully-blown, chart-topping cultural phenomenon.
Recently, however, there's been a new breeze of momentum flowing once more from the East. Pentavision of Korea and their DJ Max Portable series have brought hardcore rhythm games back to a global audience, thanks in part to the ease of importing, accessibility of the PSP platform and their acceptance of gamers from all around the world with international versions of their games. The world of DJ Max Portable is coming to US shores in January thanks to PM Studios, but part two of their invasion plan involves the arcades and their new touch-enabled rhythm title, DJ Max Technika.
From a visual standpoint, Technika looks like a giant, over-powered Nintendo DS (check out my flickr for photographs from the test locations). It features two LCD screens mirroring the action, with the bottom screen being a touch-screen for gameplay and the top screen displaying the action for spectators, albeit at a slightly higher resolution. The point of this is to not only give the audience a clear view of the game without having to lean over the player's shoulders, but to show off Pentavision's outstanding production values as well. Each song features a high-quality video being played in the background and in a variety of different styles to match the action. For example, the chip tune "Hard to Start" features a gang of adorable CG blobs bouncing around a real forest, complete with hikers marching through the mud. Songs from the Korean pop sensation, Clazziquai, utilize clips from their actual music videos while other songs feature everything from cel-shaded to hand-drawn and CG animation, all of which looks incredible and running at a much higher resolution than those seen in games like Beatmania IIDX.
Technika is extremely impressive and eye-catching on its visuals alone, but for fans of rhythm games, its equally so when it comes to the gameplay mechanics. While DJ Max on the PlayStation Portable plays like your average Beatmania or Guitar Hero title, Technika with its touch screen plays a lot like the Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! or Elite Beat Agents series on the Nintendo DS, with a slight twist. A timeline scrolls across the screen, which is divided in half horizontally, and bounces from right to left as it reaches the edge of the screen, while the appearing notes take turns alternating from the top and bottom half of the screen respectively with each pass. This creates a very distinct flow to the game as your hands move from one side of the screen to the other in a circle pattern, making the appearing notes easy to follow and your hands always in the right position. The screen utilized by Technika allows for multiple touches at once (something a Nintendo DS can't do), so the use of both of your hands is not only encouraged, but also necessary.
There are a variety of different note styles to be found in Technika, some of which may be familiar to Ouendan and Elite Beat Agent players. Along with the basic single-touch notes are Pause notes that must be held down, Connect notes that require you to hit a stationary button to the beat and Trace notes have your finger following a set path. Both Basic and Pause notes can be turned into doubles that require two fingers at once, but all of them can be layered over one another in more difficult songs. At its easiest, Technika utilizes only the Basic and Pause notes, though at higher levels expect to be tracing lines down the play field while still tapping other notes with your free hand. In our time with the game, we saw players of all different abilities tackle the game and while it seems quite welcoming to newcomers, it also holds nothing back for experienced rhythm gaming veterans.
Musically, Technika is possibly the best in the series, sporting a mix of songs from the DJ Max Portable games as well as new tracks. When it comes to the Portable entries, I always find that I gravitate towards about ten or so songs that I'll play to death and ignore the rest (don't worry, I do the same to Pop'n Music releases too), but with Technika, selecting new and unfamiliar songs was actually rewarding, as opposed to getting a shot full of ear venom. At both of the test locations I visited (UCLA and Long Beach), the most popular songs were those by Clazziquai and DJ Max favorites such as "Ladymade Star" and "Oblivion," though the real winner was the Daft Punk-esque, "Play the Future," as its hard-hitting beats made for a great showcase of the machines sound capabilities. Personally, I found myself ending each game with "Motion," as I'm a sucker for anything Jazz-Funk in rhythm games (I'm looking at you, "Make Your Move").
Pentavision's US handlers, PM Studios, will be conducting further tests at different locations throughout the United States, with tests in Northern California and New York coming soon. Acknowledging that arcades in the US are few and far between, PM Studios is aiming towards more mainstream friendly locations like movie theatres and Dave & Busters to pick up the title, with these tests providing the necessary numbers to make it happen.
For everyone else, there's always home ports or this case, the handhelds. Michael Yum of PM Studios has already confirmed to both Siliconera and The Escapist that a Nintendo DS version of DJ Max Technika is currently in-development, but Yum also informed us that an iPhone version of the game is currently in the pre-production, research phase, as the iPhone could better support the title's multi-touch gameplay and high-resolution graphics. Both platforms do present their own advantages and challenges for the team in Korea, so for now it looks as though the arcade may be the only place to get the true Technika experience. For everything else, come back to The Escapist tomorrow for our full interview with PM Studios producer, Michael Yum.