Review #1 by Michael Motoda
- David Byrne (of The Talking Heads), 1989.
Ever since the success of SCEI's phenomenally creative PaRappa the Rapper back in late 1996, gamers have been left pondering as to what the next game would be in this exciting new genre. Almost everyone placed their bets on PaRappa the Rapper 2, since the original game's ending said that a sequel was coming soon. "But when?" was undoubtedly a question that went through most gamers' minds. To make matters worse, at a recent PaRappa the Rapper party in Japan, the game's principle designer Matsuura Masaya (of the popular JPOP band Psy*s) reportedly stated that they weren't working on a sequel; other sources report the complete opposite. Whether this is true or false remains debatable, but the fact of the matter is that if PaRappa the Rapper 2 is indeed in development, we won't see it for some time.
That's where Enix comes in. Last year, Enix announced several games that were in development, including the much-anticipated RPG, Star Ocean 2. Bust A Move was also announced, but it didn't garner much attention. Most gamers were more interested in Dragon Quest VII, one of the most popular RPG series ever in Japan. However, as pictures and previews of Bust A Move started to hit publications like Famicom Tsushin and PlayStation Magazine, curiosity was stirred among the gaming community. Personally, after seeing some of the character designs, I was a little worried. Bellbottoms with flames on them, yellow mohawks, and camouflage pants adorned the characters I saw, and therefore, my friends and I weren't feeling too optimistic about it at all.
As the game's release date neared, more pictures and movie files began to hit magazines and websites, and after finally seeing the game in motion, my anticipation for the game did a complete 180. Having been nearly a year since I had played PaRappa the Rapper, I was eager to see someone else do a game that was similar to it, yet at the same time be original enough to stand apart from SCEI's magnum opus. So when Bust A Move finally arrived at my house, it was time to find out if it was going to live up to my expectations. Several days and many, many hours later, I'm happy to say that it's just as original, fun and entertaining as PaRappa the Rapper, and in some cases even more so.
The game starts off with a high-quality MTV-style CG movie, showcasing the various dancers and locales in the game. It's all synched-up to the accompanying music and does a good job of setting the tone of the game.
The game's interface and menu systems are simple, without a word of Japanese text to be found. Options are standard, which include difficulty settings, volume levels, memory card options, and sound tests. Nothing extravagant, just the essentials.
Bust A Move's gameplay is a fusion of PaRappa the Rapper and puzzle games like Puyo Puyo. There are even traces of fighting game tactics to be found in here. Your primary goal in this game is to complete dance moves and combinations given to you on-screen on a 4-beats-per-measure basis. As an example, during the first three beats, you must input a directional pad combination that's displayed, such as Up, Down, Up, Down. To complete this move, on the fourth beat, you have to press the button it displays (either X or O). If you don't press the button precisely on the fourth beat, you won't complete the move, and you'll be penalized, and you'll usually have to start a new combination from scratch. However, if you are successful in completing a move, another combination will be displayed, and you'll have to do as it says, making certain that you hit the right button on the fourth beat. By successfully completing these moves, you create exciting dance combos, as well as attracting the attention of the audience. In other words, a better and longer dance will keep the game audience's eyes on you, and that's what will determine whether you win or lose a round. It takes some time to get used to, but once you get the hang of the basic play mechanics, it becomes infectious.
But that's not all you have to be worried about. The game is set up in a competitive nature, and as such, you'll be doing more than just dancing against your opponent. Your character is equipped with a meter which slowly fills up, depending on how good you're doing. And likewise, it will slowly empty if you're not dancing well. Once this meter fills up, you'll know that you're dancing great! You can also attack your enemy with your character's signature special attack. By pressing the Triangle button on the fourth beat of a measure, you will send an attack at your opponent on the following measure. If you successfully hit them, they'll be rendered immovable for a short time, allowing you to do several moves while they recover, giving yourself a competitive advantage. "That's cheap," you might say, but if you press the Square button on the fourth beat of the measure that follows their special attack, you'll jump out of the way and avoid being hit, allowing you to resume dancing without being penalized (and thus, wasting their special attack). Your characters only have 2 special attacks per round, so it requires some thought and strategy in executing them. Most of the time, you want to implement a special attack when the other player has a difficult combination coming up. Because now, in addition to having to avoid the attack, they will have to immediately follow that with that same complex combination, which gives this game an intense and unpredictable competitive flavor.
Additionally, if you successfully complete a difficult combination, your character becomes invincible for a full measure, so if your opponent decides to attack you when you're invincible, you don't have to worry about getting out of the way. Sometimes your opponent will even counter your attacks this way, and you then have to jump out of the way to avoid being hit by your own attack. I've only actually seen this once, and what this does is force you to pay attention to your opponent's combo count. There will also be times where it's just you dancing. During these times, you can't send a special attack against your opponent, and if you try it, you'll get penalized just as if you did an incorrect move. It's important to keep that in mind, otherwise your opponent will pull ahead of you when the camera's on them.
As stated before, to succeed in this game, you have to press the button combinations that are displayed on-screen. So, if it displays Down, Down, O, doing that combination is probably the best thing to do. But you aren't limited to what's being displayed, and you have to be very smart about which moves you pick. During my first several hours of play, I thought I was just limited to the ones being displayed, and I got tired of the game after a while. However, after some experimentation, I found out that I was wrong all along. If the screen displays Down, O, you can press something like Down, Down, O and get credit for it, if it's a move your character can normally do. I've also noticed that you can get ahead in your combos by doing things like this. By staying one step ahead of the moves being displayed, you can advance your moves into the higher levels quickly, giving yourself a distinct advantage over your opponent. I've gone from a Down, Down, Down, O combo to a Left, Left, Down, Right, Right, O in one move, allowing you to do complex moves earlier. However, you can't go from a Down, O combo directly to the example 6-step one shown above. Your increments have to be pretty close to each other, otherwise you'll be penalized. Additionally, you'll have to try and find out which moves actually help you out more, which ones simply keep you dancing, and which ones you can't do. It can also be used as a recovery tactic, and this is where it works the best. Many times, if you mess up on a hard combo, and then input it again right afterwards, you'll pick up right where you left off, so effectively, you could go from a level 1 move to a level 4 move in one step. The combinations are rather exhaustive, yet at the same time being very tricky to figure out. Therefore, inputting random button combinations is not condoned, and you won't get very far by doing them.
This aspect of the game is what sets the game apart from PaRappa the Rapper so much. In PaRappa, you were encouraged to do wild button combinations in sync with the music. Depending on how creative you were, the game either rewarded you or penalized you. Certain combinations worked better in some levels as opposed to others, and it was up to you to figure out the best patterns for each level. However, your move variations were pretty much limited to 6: L1, R1, O, X, Square, and Triangle. These, used in conjunction with the directional pad yielded 6 different phrases per level, while giving you an almost unlimited number of potential combinations. As a contrast, in Bust A Move, your characters have a huge assortment of different moves to choose from, but a limited window in which you can perform them. The times at which you can do them may be limited, but at the same time, this forces you to think and prioritize your moves as opposed to just pulling off the hardest ones all the time. The game simply won't let you. You can create shortcuts to get to them faster (outlined above), but you just can't go off and do your own thing from the beginning. This has been a point debated heavily by those who have played this game, and I am of the opinion that there is nothing wrong with this, and in fact makes the game more challenging.
The argument against Bust A Move is that you can't improvise. Some players are also upset that your directional pad inputs are limited to a finite number of moves and combinations. What these players are not realizing is that first of all, you don't have to do exactly what is being displayed on the screen (most are inputting combinations that simply don't exist in the game), and you can do better moves if you know them. Second of all, if you could input your own original directional pad moves and button combinations a la PaRappa, that would result in a virtually unlimited number of combinations. For this game, that would be impossible, as each character has many moves that have been motion captured (not just 6). Therefore, there simply has to be a finite number of moves, otherwise the developers would have to put together a table of every combination conceivable and have a move linked to each one, potentially motion capture more moves, and that's a completely unfair expectation. It's like the linked throw combinations in Tekken (this is where the fighting game similarity comes in). You have to input them correctly, otherwise they won't come out right. Random button presses almost never yield in a successful complex move in any game, and I'm glad Enix did it this way. After discovering the above techniques, the game became a lot more fun to play, and I encourage you to try the same things to enhance your enjoyment of it as well. As I said with PaRappa, don't be happy with simply doing the minimum. Experiment with what you're given and have fun!
At this point, this review is sounding more like a FAQ than a review, so before I get even more carried away with explaining the gameplay, here's some other information that you're probably curious about:
Graphically, this game is phenomenal. The character models are smooth, Gouraud-shaded wonders with hardly any noticeable seams or polygonal clipping. They seem to be employing a similar type of polygon meshing that Namco is using in Tekken 3. The results are breathtaking, with joints that don't overlap or warp at all. The look bears some similarities to Dream Factory/Squaresoft's amazing Tobal 2 models (smooth legs/arms and simple texture mapping, but no fingers) and Tecmo's upcoming PlayStation version of Dead or Alive. The game runs at a respectable 30fps, slowing down ever so slightly during complex camera movements and animations. Additionally, the backgrounds are fully polygonal and exhibit a high amount of animation.
Speaking of animation, the motion capture in this game is second to none. This is the best motion capture in a game I've seen since Tekken 3 in the arcades. Moves are done by the in-game characters in a super-smooth fashion, and are linked to one another flawlessly. Each of the 10 initially selectable characters have a slew of original moves that will win you over almost instantly. They come to life to the beat of the music and you find out who your favorites are after only a few minutes of play. If you dance good in a level, your characters also go into a mode called Fever Time, and they then proceed to do a quick little freestyle routine to round out the level as a reward. Colors in the game are superb, and there are many fine and subtle details that will impress even the most critical eye. For example, in one stage, floor lights shine on the characters and light them up realistically from underneath. But that's not all - these lights also light up a disco globe hanging from the ceiling. The colors of the light change, and as such, the light sourcing reflects these changes. Wind blowing in your level? Check out your character's hair - it'll be blowing realistically in the wind, all while you're dancing. How about a large ceiling fan with a light above it? Do you think it casts a rotating shadow on you and the floor itself? See for yourself; the results are exactly as you think they are. Laser lights in a club, cars driving around in a city, reflections, projections, shadows, etc. They're all here, which goes to show just how much the developers cared about the game's little details.
And then there's the music, produced by Avex Trax, the company responsible for popular JPOP artists and groups such as Globe, TK Rave Factory, Amuro Namie, Kahala Tomomi, and so on. The music in the game is very high quality, and all are accompanied by vocals, giving this game a very unique and extremely polished feel. The music styles include house, funk, techno, pop, disco, hip-hop, and many others. They're all very fun to listen to and could easily be passed off as songs you'd hear on the radio or in clubs. Because of the wide variety of music, each level in the game requires different skills. Beats differ quite a bit from level to level. Sometimes they're straightforward, sometimes they're a bit more complex. Regardless, each song will have you tapping your toes to the wonderful beats, lyrics, and melodies. The rapping and voice-overs for some of the songs are commercial and at times a little hard to listen to, but they're undeniably funny to listen to if you're willing to cut it some slack. And that's another nice thing about the game. You're given the option to play the game with lyrics turned off if you prefer, so if you don't like the rapping or some of the Japanese lyrics, just switch them off and you're ready to go. Some of the Japanese songs are absolutely great, though, such as Kitty N and Shorty's theme songs. They're really well-produced tracks and are my favorites.
Sound effects are also commendable, albeit just a bit too muffled for my tastes. However, the details again are what make them stand out. Your shoes squeak, click, and echo, depending on what type of floor you're standing on and what type of shoes you're wearing. It's a really nice touch! There's also a high amount of ambient sounds, which add to the atmosphere of the game.
Other bonuses are also available, such as additional characters that become unlocked from various modes of play and an area where you can create your own dance for those characters you've completed the game with. There's also a practice mode where you can practice moves for any character in the game. This is a fun area to check out, as you can test yourself to see how many combos you can do and to also test your timing for a certain style of music. The game also has CG endings for all the characters, although they're somewhat short.
Finally, and this is what makes this game stand out, you can play this game two-player with another person. Playing this game with several friends is incredibly fun, and adds great replay value. If you have friends that like to go dancing, introduce them to this game and they'll no doubt fall in love with it almost instantly.
Overall, there is very little fault to find in this game. At first I thought I was extremely limited in my gameplay options, but after some exploration, that's simply not the case. This is an excellent first attempt from Enix at this new genre, and I hope that other companies will follow with equally as impressive, original, and fun games of this caliber. I'd love to see what companies like Square, Capcom, Konami, Sonic Team, Treasure, or Nintendo could do for this genre. But in the meantime options are limited, so as the game says, it's time to get your groove on and Bust A Move!
Score Breakdown: ================
+ Highly original character designs. + Awesome character models with very little polygonal clipping. + Stunning motion capture for all characters. + Fully-polygonal and highly animated backgrounds. + Backgrounds also change drastically throughout the duration of a round. + Excellent color usage, level design, execution, and special effects. + Lots of small graphic details. + Nice CG anime-style rendering. + A wide variety of camera pans, zooms, and other movement. + All character movements are synched up to the music. - Short end movies. - Slight slowdown during complex moves and camera movements.
+ One of the best soundtracks I've ever heard in a game. + Wide variety of music. + Great vocals, composition, and instrumentation. + Environment-specific sound effects. - Slightly muffled delivery of sound effects; a small price to pay for the amount of data in memory. - End song (credit roll music) feels out of place.
+ Lots of moves to choose from and perform. + Reminiscent of PaRappa the Rapper, but not a copy. + Special attacks, dodges, and counters keep gameplay interesting and unpredictable. + Refined amount of moves that can be performed per measure. + Different songs and characters require different strategies. + Lots of different characters to choose from. + Several nice bonuses to be uncovered. + Highly entertaining multiplayer mode. - Some may find the gameplay limiting.
A fun and very original game, Bust A Move is among the best of 1998 so far, along with Capcom's Resident Evil 2/Biohazard 2 and SCEI/Polys' Gran Turismo. It's only February, people. This is going to be one heck of a year.
Review Copyright © 1998 by Michael Motoda (firstname.lastname@example.org). Please feel free to email me with your comments, questions, or criticisms about my review. Thank you very much for your time.