Version tested: PSP
Help! It's the middle of summer! Nothing of any note's being released! We need an emergency pointless introductory paragraph! Something to stop us inserting exclamation marks in the name of faux excitement! Contrary to Tina Turner's misguided assertions, we do need another hero. A Gitaroo hero. Eh? What is a Gitaroo Man anyway? The Jimi Hendrix marsupial experience? Now that would be some game.
Some of you might have briefly pondered this question when KOEI's charming little rhythm action fest sauntered surreptitiously onto the nation's sagging PS2 shelves back in summer 2002. Then you promptly didn't buy it. S'okay. Things have changed. The guitar is BACK. 50,000 people gathered in Hyde Park to windmill in unison last Sunday as decrepit old rock warlords The Who played a triumphant set, and the time is ripe for all the frustrated axe heroes to take their primal urges out on another game that celebrates the joy of the six string. The sequel to Guitar Hero is still months away - hence the perfect opportunity to find out what you missed from iNiS' forgotten cult classic. Essentially it's a direct port, so existing fans will be entirely familiar with pretty much everything on show (apart from the new wireless multiplayer 'Dual' mode).
Despite being cast in the flaming pit of death that is the rhythm action genre, Gitaroo Man Lives! is nothing like RedOctane's celebrated effort. Not even similar. There's no 'rocking out' to familiar classics required, nor any use of innovative peripherals to add to the novelty, but thanks to an endearingly oddball cast, some fine tunes and a solid, original control system it's well worth a strum. Probably the best way to describe it is as some sort of musical beat-'em-up, where each of the 10 stages in the game require the player to face-off against progressively tough opponents. Both you and your foe have an energy bar, and the 'bout' takes place to the strains of a generally hilariously over-the-top tune (penned in-house) while a lavish and ker-azy animation sequence takes place in the background. Constructed around a series of riffs, you generally take it in turns to attack and defend, throwing licks at one another in the hope of draining your opponent's energy bar.
Have Gitar, will travel
Constructed around an increasingly daft plot, the star of the show is U-1, a shy, retiring young boy whose pet dog Puma decides to inform him that he's the last of the Gitaroo Men. Before he has time to even question his disgustingly cute canine friend, the nefarious Gravillian family appear on their mission to capture all the guitars (and take over the world) and we seamlessly segue into the first battle.
The gameplay is ludicrously simple, but immensely addictive for reasons that probably have more to do with our love for toe-tapping tunes and gurning guitar refrains than genuine admiration for the concept. When you're on the attack (or, occasionally, charging your energy bar) the general idea is to follow the direction of a wobbly red line using the analogue nub and hit any one of the face buttons for the required burst of time. Designed to visually approximate the bursts of guitar, the line approaches the middle of the screen from any given direction and trails its way around in keeping with the note changes. It's easy enough to keep up with the direction of the line, but the tricky part is coming in on cue and tapping the button for the right amount of time in order to chip away at your foe's energy bar. Rather like a dance-mat game, your timing is rated accordingly, and you get awarded a grading at the end based on your accuracy.
Meanwhile, when it's your opponent's turn to strike back, the game switches to defend mode, which uses the more familiar mechanic of tasking the player with pressing the right symbol button at the right time. But very quickly it becomes a monumental task to keep up with the blizzard of symbols approaching the centre of the screen at the same time and your energy is quickly eroded if you can't keep up.
For those about to rock...
And so the formula continues until either you or your opponent is defeated and the song comes to an end. It's basic, simple, but highly enjoyable for a few hours while you work through the main stages, and at times is very challenging indeed, particularly once you unlock the Master mode upon completion of the game (which is the same game, just faster and more complex to play along to). Sure, some of the songs are absolute aberrations, and family members, flatmates or commuters might have grounds to question your sanity, but there are some corkers in there too, with fabulous riffs that are hilarious in the context of the wacky face-off animations that play out in the background.
Where the game has its greatest long-term appeal is in two-player - a mode that made the PS2 original a party favourite for many (which actually supported up to four players, remember). However, as is always the case, finding a willing PSP owner with a copy of the game is likely to be the main stumbling block for anyone that wants to team up and defeat the CPU in the duet mode or go for straightforward versus battles (both essentially the same as single player in concept). If you can, then wireless matches using a bunch of other characters awaits, based on the songs of your choice. You can also play these 'multiplayer' matches against the CPU, if you just fancy some one-off fun outside of the main single-player story mode.
Needless to say, the PSP version suffers slightly in the loading department, but not to any debilitating degree - and restarts are practically instantaneous when you (inevitably) fail. On the upside, the cutesy, stylised visuals have translated beautifully to the PSP, looking far crisper and more vibrant than you might remember them.
Despite the questionable long term appeal, Gitaroo Man Lives! is one of those games that you'll cherish while it lasts, but only truly get the most out of if you're lucky enough to be able to engage in multiplayer. For the right price it's one of the most endearing and unique handheld titles around. You'll love the songs, cackle at the bonkers storyline and dig the glorious riffs - there really is nothing else quite like it.
7 / 10