Let There Be Rock
These days, I sometimes wonder whether the health of the Japanese economy rests solely on exporting rhythm-action games [oh yes? - Ed]. The latest evidence in favour of this [convenient] notion is Koei's Gitaroo Man, yet another bizarre button-bashing affair set to the strains of excessively odd musical stylings. I won't beat around the bush here - Gitaroo Man is stranger than coherent sentences rolling off David Beckham's tongue on the same day as the wedding of Mario and Bowser.
The abject nonsense of the spectacle is only partially acknowledged by still shots, and only with the epilepsy-inducing graphics and wailing music right in front of you is it possible to fully appreciate the sheer level of insanity on display. It's an extremely endearing kind of insanity though, and from the perky title sequence, through to the menus and into the game itself there is bound to be something that brings a smile to your face.
With the rendered introductory sequence and the sequences between each level, the game attempts to form something resembling a plot, and it goes a little bit like this: you assume the role of the young (and bizarrely named) U-1, our dorky and unassuming hero. His pet dog Puma decides that it's about time his master knew that he was the last of the Gitaroo Men, a kind of guitar-wielding super hero. Luckily from the perspective of the programmers, just as this news is broken to little U-1, the evil Gravillian family sets their sights on capturing all the guitars and taking over the world, and so it's up to U-1 to take care of an array of deranged enemies and defeat the Gravillians utilising his prowess with some, er... gnarly licks. Or something.
The gameplay is a slight deviation from the rudimentary Simon Says button combinations seen in titles like Parappa the Rapper and relies on a sense of melody and rhythm to a far greater extent. As the battle commences, a blue line will trail its way across the screen, with highlighted sections indicating where you should press and hold the circle button, which in turn causes your guitar to emit chords that weave themselves seamlessly into the music.
The tricky part is that as notes bend and wave in the song, you need to guide U-1's focus using the analogue stick and a sort of "field of vision" indicator. Keeping your focus on the meandering line whilst simultaneously pounding out a convincing rhythm can get extremely stressful at times, especially as the game progresses and demands some ridiculously complex button combos from you. Not content with that, you also have to defend yourself and for U-1 to defend against the enemy's melody, he needs to resort to button bashing. Thankfully, the game doesn't rely on defence to an irritating extent, merely a troubling one, and although some of the tasks can seem practically impossible, it rarely strays from offering steep challenges as opposed to descending into sheer frustration.
The presentation is of a generally high standard; the graphics are heavily stylised and occasionally beautiful in their own completely nuts way, and the cut-scenes are wonderfully produced and childishly entertaining. Gitaroo Man is also musically competent, thankfully, jumping to and from genres with reckless abandon, and U-1's guitar parts blend into the tunes instead of perching on top of them.
Gitaroo Man is a genuinely impressive little title with something fresh to offer fans of this rather niche market. As is usually the case, longevity is an issue here with only eleven levels to rock your way through, but the Versus mode is really quite a hoot when you've got an hour or so to kill after the pub. It's not going to be to everybody's tastes, but if you're a fan of Parappa and the like then you could do a lot worse than to pick up this charming example of rhythm-action.