Version tested: GameBoy Advance
Navigating a game in Japanese is never exactly an easy task for the uninitiated, but upon first glance Rhythm Tengoku might appear more daunting than most. You switch it on, perhaps whilst bored on a plane to France or, more likely, because someone's stolen the newspaper from the bog, and there's a nice friendly blue title screen and some lovely silly music. Then a robot samurai appears and spouts all sorts of nonsense, of which, thanks to my extensive training in Japanese (consisting entirely of Taiko Drum Master and DDR), the only words I could understand were DANCE, DRUM and something that looked disconcertingly like INADEQUATE. Following this brief monologue, the robot samurai subjects you to a sort of rhythm test - pressing A in time to a beat with varying degrees of complexity - which highlights your musical inadequacy with Kawashima-esque chilling bluntness. But not to worry. By the time you've worked your way through all 50-ish of Rhythm Tengoku's ingenious and gently insane mini-games, matters will be much improved.
It must be understood that Rhythm Tengoku belongs more in the WarioWare family than the psychedelic, high-energy, possibly stimulant-fuelled world of rhythm-action. It is much simpler and nowhere near as challenging as most modern music games, but its appeal is altogether more universal. Its rhythm-based mini-games work in a ladder system - complete the five little challenges in each ladder and you unlock a remix, which is a combination of all of them with a new musical twist. Completing remixes unlocks new ladders of games, which offer either new, more difficult twists on earlier mini-games or new rhythm concepts. None of them require anything more than timed button-presses from the player, and all of them, from the clap-along singing to bunny-marching to the extra-terrestrial baseball, are wonderfully bonkers.
We're not talking boring, hackneyed, wow-look-how-Japanese-this-is bonkers, either. Rhythm Tengoku has a genuinely stimulating take on the surreal. Musically the mini-games are extremely simple - keep the beat, basically, or repeat rhythm sequences that never get too complicated - but visually they are much more engaging. Dancing with monkeys, plucking hairs from giant onion-faces, marching to the commands of one of the strange globe-faced bunny creatures that occasionally popped up in WarioWare - coupled with their irresistibly simple, not un-cheesy tunes, they all bring a smile to the face. The remixes are a different challenge altogether, combining the previous five games into one quick, mixed-up sequence that requires quick reactions and adaptability, but even these feel fresh throughout; often they will apply a stylistic redesign as well as a musical one, applying a seventies theme to match a disco tune or putting gleeful leaping rabbits or falling penguins against soulful sunsets for a ballad. The way that Tengoku matches visuals to music is genuinely inspired - the musical challenges themselves are tame compared to those offered by most games under the rhythm-action banner, but the visual feedback and delightful bizarreness of the whole thing is what will keep you playing.
Really the only thing about Rhythm Tengoku that could possibly inspire anything except giggly delight in the average world-weary Eurogamer browser is its structural identicalness to WarioWare - right down to its complete lack of longevity. Aside from getting a perfect score on each of the games, a challenge whose appeal fast fades, there's little to do with Rhythm Tengoku once you've worked your way through to the end. Getting high scores earns you medals that are used to unlock a delightfully random selection of musical toys and drum lessons, but the games just aren't hard enough to provide a lasting challenge (it took me three days to unlock all the drum lessons, which by the way are far and away the hardest part of the game. Damn that robot samurai and his finger-bending drum solos). This, though, is a handheld game through and through, designed to pick up, play and have a marvellous time with for ten or twenty minutes at a time, and played on that basis Rhythm Tengoku will last longer than one might be inclined to give it credit for. Intelligent Systems has established itself now as a master of the portable game, and Rhythm Tengoku is a fine example of the form.
The genius of Rhythm Tengoku is that it's so very, very easy to enjoy. There's none of the tiresome investment that has come to characterise gaming as a whole these days, with its obsessive character creation tools and its gradual rewards and online integration and drip-fed incentives (a horrible, dour word that has nonetheless somehow made its way into every game's press release over the last year). All of that has its place, but it's just wonderful to play something silly from time to time. Like WarioWare before it, Rhythm Tengoku is exceedingly simple, and like all the best Nintendo games it is effortlessly entertaining. This is a super little handheld title whose daft exuberance and unforced likeability more than make up for its brevity; and now that there are SIX different ways to play your GBA games, there's really no excuse for missing out.
8 / 10