Gitaroo Man is PS2 rhythm game originally released way back in 2002 At the time, lack of availability prevented it from gaining anything but niche popularity, but a 2005 reprint by online retailer Games Quest Direct brought it back into the gamer’s eye right around the same time that Guitar Hero was poised change the genre forever.
The increased availability (you could find the reprints at almost any Gamestop) and the game’s quirky Japanese style helped make it into a cult hit that is still revered by those who found Guitar Hero and its ilk to be a little too influential. Even better, the game was released yet again in 2006 as Gitaroo Man Lives! on PSP. Having myself been burnt out on rhythm games for the last year, I decided to see whether this really would be a refreshing change of pace.
Gitaroo Man Lives! plays with a blend of two mechanics similar, though not identical to those found in Guitar Hero and DDR. Each level is staged as an epic battle between Gitaroo Man and his foe, who use their futuristic instruments to deal damage to each other with the Power of Rock. On offense, the guitar notes are scattered across long lines that scroll across the screen in various directions. You trace along the path with the PSP thumbstick, and hit one of the four face buttons whenever a note reaches the center of the screen.
On defense, icons representing the four face buttons fly onto the screen from the cardinal directions, with the player hitting said button when an icon reaches the center. Using these two elements, each level is broken up into phases. The Charge phase lets you play notes to build up your health bar, Attack switches freely between offense and defense, and the Finale lets you play notes to finish off your foe when his health is low. Of course, failure to hit inputs on either offense of defense will lower your own health bar. It is surprisingly simple in execution, as this video might demonstrate, though proper execution is another matter entirely.
As a sanity check, I scoured the ‘net for reviews of the game, all of which agreed that Gitaroo Man is dastardly hard. This contrasts entirely with my own experience. On Normal difficulty, I failed none of the ten single player songs, and earned a score no lower than a B. Since my sense of the game’s challenge appears to be so out of whack, I have been trying to determine whether there was a game related reason, or if I am just that damn good at this one (note that the latter option is rarely ever the case).
I first theorized that is was due to the PSP thumbstick, which has a minuscule neutral zone compared to a Dual Shock, making it easier to switch directions. I still believe this may be the case, but I haven’t found any discussions of this being an issue. That might be a telling sign, as the fans of such obscure Japanese games are usually the ones to find even the tiniest faults in a port or localization.
The soundtrack, handled by Japanese band COIL, is rich and complex, and covers a variety of different genres. Most importantly, each track is the result of solid music fundamentals, with notecharts that work with rather than against them. Whenever the game would throw out a series of triplets or a bit of syncopation, I knew it was coming, because it felt like the right place for it in the song.
The same concept applies to defense as well. In the later levels, the icons fly across the screen so quickly that it becomes a daunting task to hit them in the right order, but they sync up so well with the notes in the song that playing with your ear as much as with your eyes becomes highly beneficial. Finally, the engine isn’t very strict about tracing the note line. As long as you are in the general direction, you do not have to worry about mimicking rapid sinusoidal patterns exactly. Again, this makes it easier to play based on the audio, rather than visual cues.
After years of peripheral based guitar games, this is a welcome change. Over time, Guitar Hero has seen fit to add extra inputs for notes that do not exist, while Rock Band takes the opposite route, taking chord bends and fast scales and condensing them into simpler patterns. For better or worse, Gitaroo Man feels like it is testing your ability to understand the structure of the song, rather than your skill at blasting out chords at a strict tempo. It may make the game simpler for those who are musically inclined, but it also feels more enjoyable and rewarding.
Besides, just like any other music game, beating each song once isn’t enough. There is still the matter of perfect scores and the unlockable Master difficulty, which add needed challenge and length to a single player experience that can be completed in a sitting.
For a game that is all about the music, Gitaro Man Lives! also has a heart. The artwork, done by artist 326, is no longer shocking or different, what with games and anime filled with hip and quirky Japanese kids on the street, but the goofy story and deliberately exaggerated voicework add a level of charm and “believe in yourself!” attitude that Parappa would be proud of.
In regards to the port job, Gitaroo Man Lives! looks to keep everything from PS2 game intact, which says less about the power of the PSP than it does the age and simplicity of the original version. In addition to a solid port, the multiplayer portion can be taken online, and there are two new songs that can be played in the cooperative Duet Mode.
These songs can be played alone, with the computer controlling your partner, meaning you won’t miss out on content due to no one using their PSP online. It also makes it hard to complain that these two songs are the only ones in Duet Mode, since again, a co-op mode that isn’t fleshed out means little on a platform that no one plays online; they are going to serve most players as two nice bonus tracks.
It is very easy to blast through Gitaroo Man and think “is that all?” But the more you play and think about it, the more it grows on you. This isn’t a game that will hold your interest for months on end through great challenge and competition, and there is no chance of future downloadable songs or track packs. Yet in this smaller, simpler experience I found the simple joys and deeper emotions that come from playing and enjoying music.
I hate making the claim that a game is good due to intangible things like it having soul, but as the rhythm genre becomes increasingly about everything but the music, I can’t think of a better way to describe Gitaroo Man. This is the kind of game that you find yourself picking up a few times during the year to play “for the hell of it”, which for me places it in very rare company.