Elite Beat Agents combines beat-heavy tunes and bizarre storylines with stylus tapping, dragging and spinning. It's surreal, funny and highly entertaining and has left me seriously reconsidering my position on videogames.
By way of introduction, a bit of context, I have never played a rhythm action game before. This is mainly because I haven't wanted to. So I can't compare Elite Beat Agents with Guitar Hero or Rock Band or anything else. I am a highly opinionated music lover (is there any other kind?) and a bass guitarist of no consequence. I'm not very good at dancing.
Over recent months I've been gently coerced by Game People into the unfamiliar, but increasingly unthreatening world of gaming, and I'm finding that my knee-jerk reaction to videogames is changing.
Most significantly I have got over my guilt anxiety. My chief objection to videogames has always been that they are basically a pointless waste of time, and that although I could play pretty much any game with a modicum of enjoyment I could never do so with any degree of conviction. There are just too many other things to do that I would enjoy more if only I could be bothered to make the effort.
But I am not ashamed to say that I have spent countless hours playing Elite Beat Agents. I've completed all 19 missions on all four levels of difficulty and now I am going back to try to beat my high scores and to get top ranking. Is that a bit sad? I'm not sure. But I do know that it's been fun.
So what's so good about Elite Beat Agents? It's a brilliant combination of music, rhythm and hand-eye coordination, with a large dose of tongue in cheek humour thrown in.
I'm finding that my knee-jerk reaction to videogames is changing.
The music is pretty mainstream but there's a diverse mix of styles. The songs range from Jamiroquai to The Jackson 5, Village People to Destiny's Child and Sum 41 to Good Charlotte. They are all cover versions which as a rule I would despise, but I can even forgive that. The bass is heavy and the sound is compressed but it all makes perfect musical sense even when you're listening to Jumpin' Jack Flash for the fiftieth time in a row (and to get to the end you will be). There are a few songs that I didn't know, and one or two that I don't really like, but the game's use of them is always engaging.
The rhythm really draws you in. As you do the same mission on each level there is a clear progression. You have to tap along to the pattern of the music and/or vocals and it gradually builds in speed and complexity through each level. Sometimes it's really hard, but never so hard that it feels out of reach. I have quite happily worked away at one song for a whole evening. And you really do have to concentrate. In fact it is completely absorbing. Don't even try to have a conversation with someone who's mid-game. Maybe this is the point I should publicly apologise to my wife and children.
The whole premise of the game is bizarre. A crisis occurs, but rather than calling the emergency services or the A-Team the hapless victims call upon the suited agents who provide encouragement and moral support by dancing, cheerleader style. By hitting, sliding and spinning the targets on cue the player keeps the cheerleading on course and guarantees a successful outcome. The introductory storyline of each crisis is generally eccentric, like a cat protecting an escaped baby through a building site, Leonardo da Vinci trying to impress his girlfriend Lisa, or a lorry driver turning zombies back into humans by firing peanuts at them. If that sounds weird, then it is -- it's basically all a bit silly.
I've invested a lot in this game and I really want someone else to validate my experience.
And it's the silliness, together with the difficulty, and most of all the music, that makes it for me. It's unapologetically trivial, and a really good way to escape from other pressures of life. Unfortunately all of those other pressures don't go away, and after a few evenings of playing Elite Beat Agents they may just have got a bit worse, but let's not split hairs.
As a novice gamer I love that there's no need to work out what to do. It's the same the whole way through. And it's repetitive in a good way, the way the old-style hand-held Nintendo Game and Watch games used to be. You pick it up and you're playing in a minute. No background, no plot, no boring narrative, no rules. Just do what you're told, and then do it faster.
Maybe it's the bass-playing non-dancing part of me that it appeals to most of all. I showed the game to a more talented guitarist friend and he was completely disinterested and rejected the game out of hand. My wife likes to dance (enthusiastically) and treats it with disdain. I confess to feeling a little bit put out about that. I've invested a lot in this game and I really want someone else to validate my experience. Maybe I'm not completely over the guilt yet. But I'm working on it.