Saturday, 2 January 2010

Gitaroo Man

Gitaroo Man is a fable of self-discovery, a distinctly Japanese take on traditional themes of adolescent angst, a well-worn tale of good versus evil that places the fate of the world in the hands of one un-assuming, endearingly clumsy boy. It's also one of the most purely enjoyable experiences the Playstation 2 ever threw up: a kaleidoscopic, insane and quite brilliant world of dancing skeletons, talking dogs and a trumpet-playing bumble bee. Despite these wonders (or more likely because of them; the Western mainstream has never truly been comfortable with the rather more eccentric ends of Japanese developers' output. We Love Katamari is a more recent example; PaRappa The Rapper or its sequel, the similarly guitar-based Um Jammer Lammy, more relevant ones), Gitaroo Man failed to capture the imagination of the wider world. 

Fortunately Koei, a software house previously famous for action/strategy titles such as the Dynasty Warriors and Kessen series, ported Gitaroo Man in a tweaked form to the PSP. This also failed to sell. Not that we needed one, but such welcome revivalism, such dewy-eyed nostalgia, gives me an excuse to revisit this most loveable of games, and look at why a young boy who is often picked on at school and constantly passed over by the girl of his dreams should be one of the icons of noughties gaming.

The key to every rhythm-action game, despite whatever choice of interface they may use (from the bongos of Donkey Konga to the decks of Beatmania), is always timing, and in that respect Gitaroo Man is no different. The player must press a button as the small circles that denote musical notes pass over the centre of the screen. The closer to the centre that the note is when the button is pressed, the better the rating, and the more damage caused to the other player (Gitaroo Man is also notable for structuring the combat in the style of a fighting game, with energy bars at the top of the screen for each character). Often these circles will be elongated, in which case the note is not so much a stab at the guitar but a lengthy drawn out imitation of the sort of noises Slash often makes in the middle of Guns N' Roses solos. It’s hardly Guitar Hero, but then Guitar Hero never had a UFO robot playing their own synth.

Much like any rhythm-action title, the spark comes not with lengthy, often convoluted explanation of the game mechanics, but in the actual interaction. For example the arguable figurehead of the entire genre, Konami's Dance Dance Revolution, wouldn't be particularly innovative on paper, but walking into any arcade of the late 90s it was pretty much in-escapable, its exhibitionist style of play suiting both spectators with those just looking to show off. Because it was so simple anyone could play, and so for the first time even hardened gamers, those brought up on endlessly technical bouts of Virtua Fighter and memorizing the enemy patterns in Gradius were on the same level as street-hardened breakdancers and teenage clubbers. Interestingly it’s much the same philosophy that was eventually pursued by Nintendo and the Wii.

So thoughts of Gitaroo Man quickly turn from how to play to what happens during U-I's (Gitaroo Man's human incarnation) journey. U-I is un-aware that he is in fact Gitaroo Man until his dog Puma tells him of his real background: that he is in fact the last in the line of the legendary Gitaroo Men and that his destiny is to save the planet from the clutches of the evil Gravillians family. Thus runs the loose narrative on which to hang ten stages of increasingly surreal encounters.

Despite his axe fixation the music in Gitaroo Man is more varied than a standard rock set-up: it takes in the quaint sci-fi of Flying-O’s level, gothic metal with Gregorio III and the triumphant finale with Zowie, a feedback addled classic that shares more than a passing resemblance to Radiohead's Just. Thankfully the music, the integral component of Gitaroo Man, is uniformly wonderful. If this was an album it’d be a minor pop classic, dazzling in its variety and scope. Something like the last Outkast album or the entire back catalogue of The Flaming Lips. There’s even time for an interlude, the brief two minute chase sequence between Gitaroo Man and Ben-K, a mechanized shark with a penchant for drum and bass.

Ironically though the highlight of Gitaroo Man lies not with these wonders of amplification, but in fact the level most widely removed from the rest of the game. In the campfire segment halfway through U-I plays an acoustic ballad to Kirah, the planet Gitaroo equivalent to human love-interest Pico. Kirah moves from huddled and shy at the beginning of the song, her arms wrapped around her legs, to falling asleep on U-I's shoulder by the end. Here the link between the player's progression and the on-screen narrative development - play badly and Kirah moves away from U-I - is so beautifully executed that the entire three-minute segment stands as one of the more understated and unexpectedly emotional moments in videogaming. Space Channel 5 and, more recently, Lego Rock Band also used similar tricks, but never so well.

Split into just ten stages, Gitaroo Man is unfortunately brief and, on the standard setting at least, only infrequently difficult. Masters Play however, unlocked upon completion of the original, is a steep improvement which actually changes the structure of the songs to ensure a challenge that depends as much on memory as it does speed of reaction. Of course, the stages are so finely detailed and packed with quirky touches that repeated plays on each of them does little to crack their genius. In this respect Gitaroo Man is more the ADD-afflicted crayon-based relative of psychedelic classic Rez, a diminutive, almost perfect marriage of visuals, music and interaction.

In 1999 no less a figure than Shigeru Miyamoto said "I feel that these directors who have been able to incorporate rhythm in their games have been successful" In this respect Gitaroo Man was more than successful: it's still in a field of one.

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