Much more than a mere 'Best Of' compilation, Rhythm Heaven Megamix is a tour-de-force of microscopic, rhythmic ingenuity.
Version tested: 3DS.
Listen carefully and you'll soon notice how existence is filled with rhythmic flourishes. There's the plip-plipping of raindrops on a tin roof, the wobble and throb of a lorry engine idling in traffic, and the wash of timpani whenever a wave hurls itself onto pebbles, fatally. There are the seasons - four beats of the bar that comprise each year. There's the ticking of the clock, holding down an unwavering 60bpm till the end of time, or, at least, of batteries. Rhythm Paradise is a series that seeks to capture these joyous rhythmic oddities in microgames. It's an approach that has served Nintendo's designers well. Rock Band, Guitar Hero and all the other rock-posturing others clutter under-stair cupboards and garages. This series, in which you play, not as Kurt Cobain or Paul McCartney but as a microscopic amoeba, swimming with friends in elegant unison, or as an English interpreter for a Martian octopus, marches on, fortissimo.
The story - and, as the game points out, with typical irreverence, it's not "one of these big serious stories" ("you won't be quizzed on it") - is that you must help Tibby, a bear with rosy cheeks and pink afro, back to heaven, from where he's fallen. You do this, at Tibby's suggestion, by climbing a massive tree. Each of the tree's tiers of branches holds four microgames. Clear each with a passable score, and you can move to the next tier of the tree, and edge Tibby back home. Nintendo's translators once again reveal themselves to be some of the finest and funniest working today. There's comparatively little text in the game, but each new character you meet on your ascent is written with vivid wit (take, for example, Saffron, Saltwater and Paprika, druids who could have stepped from a deleted scene in The Princess Bride, arguing, as they do, about which has the best ominous patois).
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Rhythm Paradise Megamix's best jokes, however, are found within the microgames proper. In one you must pluck hairs as they sprout from the chins of a succession of onions, each one painted with a face ("there's no crop like a well-groomed crop," says the farmer, on successful completion of the task.) In another you play as a slab of concrete, thrusting your belly upwards to create a little molehill whenever a basketball rolls over you, in an effort to fling the ball through a nearby basket. In another, you must help whales swat an ambitious bunny rabbit to the moon ("an absurd dream") by swiping their slick tails in harmony.
The aesthetic may be joyously flippant, but exacting tests of rhythm underpin the absurdities. Each microgame is a Simon Says affair. The game taps out a one- or two-bar phrase and asks that you immediately repeat it in order to progress the action. The rhythm is varied and complicated during each microgame. For example, in one you must catch pieces of fruit as they bounce down a flight of stairs. Each bounce happens on a beat of the bar and you must catch the object by tapping the button on the fourth beat. Different types of fruit bounce at different rates. A pineapple, for example, takes two bars to reach you, despite being heavier than an orange, which takes just one.
While it can be useful to watch the visual cues, more successful players will focus on the soundtrack, and its subtle cues (the game recommends trying to play with your eyes closed to see how doing so affects your performance.). To prove just how rigorous the game is in judging your rhythmic ability, the 3DS touchscreen displays a starburst every time you hit a beat. If the star is positioned dead centre om the screen you're exactly in time. If you're a little ahead, or behind the beat, it will flash, in a much smaller form, to the left or the right accordingly. One beat in every microgame offers a special award if you manage to hit precisely in time. If you're slightly early or late the beat will be counted as a 'hit' by the game, but you won't win the skill star.
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The 'Megamix' of the title refers to the fact that this is a 'Best Of' compilation of sorts. More than 60 of the microgames appeared in the previous three Rhythm Heaven titles (fifteen or so are entirely new), although many appear here with new animations, remixed music, and other novelties. There are even some crossovers, lifted from Rhythm Heaven's cousin, Wario Ware. The game's own internal rhythms are kept interesting with the introduction of some special case challenges. In one standout moment, for example, you have to toss a coin into the air. It disappears off-screen and you must count a specified number of beats before tapping the button to clasp your fingers. Time it correctly, and you'll catch the coin as it tears back onto the screen.
As you progress the story you open up a raft of new, playful opportunities including, most notably. Challenge Land, where you ride the Challenge Train taking on microgames whose rules have been modified. A treetop café can be visited at any time, where you can chat with the barista and passers-by, view items you've collected in the café museum (which is staffed by a laconic curator), buy mementoes from microgames you've completed, and, most usefully, spend coins that you've accrued on additional rhythm games. It's a vast, generous offering. It's also a framework that shows Nintendo's cloistered designers at their imaginative best. The throwaway ingenuity of it all (some of these ideas would have occupied a San Francisco indie start-up for a trilogy), the almost wasteful genius, is startling. You only have to play one of the many odes to WarioWare to see just how difficult this kind of work truly is. Don't be put off by the bargain bin connotations of the Megamix moniker. This is pint-sized virtuosity.