There has been a tremendous shift in the rhythm-action genre over the past four years. It's changed from a Japanese-dominated world of intimidating, adrenaline-fuelled, twitch-based challenge gaming in the arcades, to an all-inclusive living-room pastime, a paradigm shift instigated by Guitar Hero and fully realised by Rock Band and its contemporaries. Preposterous Japanese techno and superhuman difficulty have been replaced with licensed, popular tracks and a no-fail option, and the genre's popularity in our part of the world has skyrocketed beyond all sane expectations.
It's a great thing, this, for long-term and new disciples of the genre alike, but there's a special place in my heart for old-school Japanese rhythm-action. The sensory overload of bright, flashing, impossibly fast patterns and far-too-loud hyperactive music becomes a special kind of addiction over time, and it's best fed in an arcade, surrounded by other beatmatching junkies with fingers as fast as yours and pocketfuls of hundred-yen coins.
Nestled amongst the established Beatmania, Pop'n Music, DanceDance, GuitarFreaks and DrumMania machines in the Konami rhythm-action corner of Japanese arcades, you can now find newcomer to the beatmatching scene in the form of jubeat - or Ubeat, as it will be called in the US and Europe to avoid any uncomfortable ambiguity as to the pronunciation - a gorgeous machine that looks like something out of a seventies vision of The Future, and offers a purer rhythm-action thrill than any of its competitors.
Jubeat stands out a mile in the ADD-addled, garish world of Japanese arcades - the sleek, unusual design of the arcade machine itself, the spaced-out, floaty blues and greens of the interface screens, the absence of a wacky peripheral. Not that it needs one - it looks crazy enough without. The machine looks a bit like two floating cubes, one at head-level that mellowly glows blue and red and green, and one around waist-level with which you actually interact. The screen under your hands is divided into 16 touch-sensitive quadrants - each is actually a separate little screen itself, but the display stretches across all of them - which you use to navigate the menu, pick songs and play.
Jubeat is easier to explain in pictures than in words - the appropriately slick website gives a decent impression of what the machine looks like and how it works, and there's even a cute little demo. Once you've selected an appropriately hyperactive song to play, little expanding green circles appear on the touch pads, and you touch them in rhythm with the music. There's about half a second between when the circles first appear and the optimum time to hit the screens, at which point the word TOUCH! blooms across the blue background. The lower difficulties are easy to follow, only challenging you with one button at a time in simple rhythmic patterns, but the game quickly has you touching three or four or five buttons at once and in quick succession as the difficulty ramps up. A giant number in the centre tracks your multiplier so that you can't help but be aware of it, which of course makes losing your streak all the more heartbreaking.
It's incredibly instinctive, and addictive as a consequence. Jubeat really puts you in The Zone, and after a song or two you begin to feel the rhythm of the song in your hands rather than just react to the visual prompting, playing from instinct rather than having to think. The display is mesmerisingly beautiful, high-definition and space-agey in design; the calm blue background is the perfect complement to the fast-moving flashing circles. It also has the effect of making everyone who plays it look like a baton conductor on cocaine, with mad staring eyes and insane hand flourishes, except directing J-pop and ridiculous wailing-guitar versions of fast-paced classical music rather than an orchestra.
It's the combination of the jubeat's tactile nature and its captivating sights and sounds that makes it unique in the rhythm-action world. There's such overwhelming sensory feedback whilst you're playing, it's easy to completely forget your surroundings and end up emerging, blinking, from a challenging song to find that you have a small audience of impatient people waiting to play. Thankfully, it's a great spectator sport - watching others' technique is entertainment in itself. It's also damned hard, in the correct and old-fashioned way - it expects you to memorise patterns and pull off impossible feats of dexterity to compete on the upper echelons. There are three difficulty levels, all accessible from the start and all clearly labelled so you don't find yourself failing out on the first song because it was unexpectedly difficult.
It rewards you the more you play, as well, provided you have an e-Amusement Pass - a magic piece of plastic that gives you one unified account across all Konami arcade games. It saves your name and progress, pushing you further up the rankings the more songs you complete. Periodically you unlock rewards, such as new, near-impossible songs, or spacier alternatives to the blooming circles for the display. Stats are all tracked online, but unless you've managed a perfect score of 1000000, don't expect to see your name up there.
The machines are also capable of online and local multiplayer; they come in pairs at the arcade, enabling to challenge the person playing next to you, or someone further away online if you're not feeling so bold. The community's active, and there are frequent online tournaments and offline events. It's only been out since last August, so they're not quite on the same scale as the massive Guitar Freaks tournaments and unveilings, but jubeat is establishing a community for itself nonetheless - it's perhaps only limited by its comparatively small song selection (30-odd to established bemani games' hundreds) and the difficulty, which many players have already comprehensively mastered.
Jubeat was perhaps always going to nestle comfortably in the bright, loud bosom of Japanese arcades, but whether it will fit in over here next to the nine-year-old DDR machines and OutRun2 cabinets in a bowling alley in Neasden is another matter entirely. Jubeat had a location test in the US and Europe towards the latter half of last year, with songs like 'Kisu Shite Hoshii' and 'BLOOD on FIRE' replaced by Barbie Girl and Take on Me (though a selection of the maddest Japanese offerings is likely to remain). It also made a rather low-key appearance at ATEI 2009. As of yet, though, there's little word as to when and where it might start appearing. Even in Japanese arcades, jubeat's innovative nature distinguishes it from the endless near-identical iterations of other arcade machines; in the context of our anaemic, novelty-starved arcade culture, its charm would be all the more appreciable.
Check out our jubeat gallery for photographs of the units.