Japan is one of the most creative countries in the world when it comes to video game development, but only a handful of their games ever get released over here. Luckily then Eidos have stepped in to change things with their new Fresh Games label, dedicated to unleashing bizarre new Japanese titles on an unsuspecting public here in the west. One of the first arrivals from Fresh Games is Mad Maestro, and what a great debut for the budding label it is too. If you imagine the offspring of an unholy marriage of Rez and Parappa The Rapper, done to a full-on orchestral score featuring some of the greatest classical music ever written, you're still nowhere near understanding just how utterly weird and yet strangely addictive this game is. You take on the role of a young conductor going by the unlikely name of Takt, who has been tasked with saving the local concert hall from demolition by Symphony, a fairy who lives there disguised as a statue. To rescue the hall you must play a rousing recital to remind the people of why music is so important, but first you must assemble a full orchestra. An orchestra which includes a trapeze artist, a guy in a lion suit, a temperamental super-model and a trio of translucent green aliens who play the xylophone. I told you it was weird...
The main part of the game is the Story mode, where you use your "musical powers" to recruit more musicians into the Bravo Youth Orchestra. This is done by conducting pieces of classical music to help the people you're trying to recruit and generally make the world a better place, whether it's by saving a floundering circus or helping a man to win over the heart of a lady after he showed up late for a date. In all there are five lovingly animated cartoon settings to enjoy, each of which you will play in twice during the course of the story as you build up your orchestra ready for the final recital at the concert hall itself. The music that accompanies these levels fits their location and mood perfectly, from romping through The Ride Of The Valkyries and Night On Bare Mountain during an alien invasion, to taking in a fashion show set to the tune of Carnival Of The Animals and playing excerpts from Swan Lake in a beautiful park as flocks of birds migrate overhead. What makes Mad Maestro really unique though is the way in which the settings and the music itself react to your actions. Play a piece perfectly and the sky clears, the sun shines, flowers bloom, the audience does mexican waves, people dance in the street and buildings bounce up and down merrily. Play very poorly and the orchestra follows your lead in fouling up the music as the rain pours down, aliens go on a Mars Attacks style spree of mischief and mayhem, and things generally go increasingly pear shaped until you finally get jeered off the stage.
The actual mechanics of the game are deceptively simple, consisting of merely tapping any of the buttons on the diamond pad of your Dual Shock controller in time with the music. Depending on whether the piece you are playing is in 3/4 or 4/4 time, three or four balls appear on the screen. Hit a button just as the marker reaches a ball and your orchestra gets the timing on that beat correct. Go too fast or too slow and the tempo of the song changes accordingly. To make your life more complicated, in anything other than "Child Mode" you will also have to hit the button harder or softer depending on how loud the music should be at that point, with the colour of the ball indicating which of the three settings you need to aim for. Sometimes you're also required to give a direction to a specific part of your orchestra by holding down the appropriate button on the D-Pad as you hit a beat. If you get every beat in a bar right, you earn a "Good" or "Bravo" and the tension meter on the left of the screen goes up. Make mistakes and you get a "Bad" or "Baaad" and the meter drops. As long as the meter never bottoms out and you can get it back up to the top by the end of the song you'll clear the stage. Given that most of the songs feature tempo changes and wildly fluctuating volumes, this isn't quite as easy as it may sound.
While you can clear the entire Story mode in the space of a few hours by getting a C grade on every stage, that's only a third of the game. If your tension meter is maxed out at the right point in a song while playing on Normal difficulty, you will be called on to switch to a different button on the diamond and tap out the beats. Get the entire bar correct and you go into a different piece of music which you only need to keep the right tempo on. If you complete the medley you'll unlock the second piece of music in the game's free play mode, as well as opening up the stage's bonus game. These vary from simply playing another piece as normal to hitting square, circle, cross and triangle buttons in the right sequence in perfect timing with the music. Meanwhile on the screen one of your musicians may be zapping aliens, racing through a dungeon filled with ghosts or playing a flute as flocks of birds and flowers appear around them. Again, completing these bonus games not only allows you to replay it at any point from the Extras menu, but also makes the appropriate piece of music available in free play mode. If you don't manage to unlock everything first time through though, don't panic. Once you've beaten the final concert (which involves playing three or four pieces of music in the concert hall with no tension meter to show how well you're doing - a tricky proposition) a new Memory option replaces the Story entry on the in-game menu. This allows you to retry any stage whenever you like, and you can continue to save your progress as you unlock new music, medleys and bonus games. You can also now save replays, which is handy as it's hard to fully appreciate the crazy antics going on in the background as you try to conduct a string quartet...
Mad Maestro is one of the most innovative, entertaining and downright barmy games we've seen in a long time. It obviously helps if you have an appreciation of classical music, but with a soundtrack that includes the likes of Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven's 9th, the William Tell Overture and the Toreador Song from Carmen amongst its 34 MIDIfied melodies, you really need to be a total musical yob not to find something here that you like. Go out and buy it now!