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.