Jam With The Band
Nintendo's astounding handheld rhythm action game is one of the hottest experiences on DS. Here's why...
The effects of rhythm-action games upon serious fans of the genre are roughly analogous to those of certain drugs. They leave you twitching your fingers until two-o-clock in the morning, staring, bloodshot eyes fixated straight in front of you, rhythm patterns dancing along the walls.
For the tremendous high of controlling the music with your frantic fingers, though, it's worth it. Obsessive players of the PS2's Amplitude and Frequency - and oh, there are many of them - will know exactly what I'm talking about. The genre is addictive by nature; at their best, rhythm action games send any player effortlessly under their spell with the sheer magic of making music and the challenge that the genre presents to even the most lightening-fast of reflexes.
Jam With The Band, (or Dai Gassou! Band Brothers, as it's known in Japan) is all of this, and more. Anybody can pick up the game with immense ease and play along on its simplest two-button setting, but masters will be pulling off flats and sharps and four-beat-a-second combos, fingers moving almost too fast to keep track of over the DS' ten buttons (four on the D-pad, four on the right and two shoulder buttons). It's a marvellously simple game to get into and absolutely anyone is guaranteed to have a ball playing along, whatever their skill level - and as we are all no doubt well aware of by now, up to eight people can play together on any of the game's forty-odd tracks by use of only a single cartridge.
The first thing that one inevitably notices about Band Brothers is its unique and psychedelic presentation. Brightly-coloured, stylised Japanese leaps out of the screen along with bizarre cartoon characters, including a large-breasted bat-woman called Barbara who appears to have something of a crush on you (as far as this non-Japanese speaker can tell, in any case). The manual that accompanies the Japanese release comes in the form of band flyers and the whole thing is set around the premise of the opening of a new record store. The player can choose from the 40-ish CDs hung up on the wall and, subsequently, choose an instrument to play. Each song has up to eight instrument tracks on it, which makes for over 200 different individual tunes to try out. The game's selection of music and challenges is comprehensive, ranging from j-pop to classical to anime; themes to contemporary, from soaring midi-fied violin lines to hard-as-nails six-beat-a-second rock'n'roll drum lines.
The game steadily steps up the difficulty at just the right pace, allowing adequate time to learn and adapt to challenges before moving on to something slightly tougher. New levels of difficulty are unlocked by doing stints in Barbara's recording studio. Get through three songs adequately and some new tracks will be unlocked. Master the game, and you'll be given the option of Pro mode, which adds extra complexity to the songs via the addition of the shoulder buttons, which make notes an octave higher or flat depending. By the time the player reaches the end of the game's pre-set challenges, they'll be using their DS as a fully-fledged musical instrument with no automatic adapting of notes to help them out whilst playing the songs.
Edit mode allows you to record your own songs, which is an absolutely brilliant addition for truly hardcore players. The fact that Nintendo is currently sponsoring a competition on late-night Japanese radio where contestants send in their own creations to be played live on air is testament to their new console's adaptability - the DS becomes a proper synthesiser in the hands of the right player.
Speaking of the DS' adaptability, the qualities of the console do not cease to surprise and delight. The touchscreen is used particularly entertainingly here, serving as a little turntable to navigate through songs and select options and tempo in Practice mode. When certificates of merit are presented upon unlocking different difficulties, they must be signed with the stylus and then thumbprinted. Little dancing skull-things can be poked and prodded with the stylus or a finger, and it also plays a part in the songs (which, sadly, necessitates filthying the screen with one's thumbs).
Difficult though it is to tear yourself away from JWTB for ten minutes, its well worth picking up the phone and calling a couple of DS-owning friends round for a bout of multiplayer jamming. Playing with friends is unequivocally the best fun you can have with a DS. Eight people's groans of irritation at a missed note, laughs of triumph at a nailed solo and friendly digs at the incompetence of the poor bastard stuck with the near-impossible drum track almost drown out the actual music. What's more, everyone can choose their own difficulty, which prevents people of lesser skill being unable to keep up and thereby excluded from proceedings, a common problem with rhythm action games in multiplayer. People who've never seen the game before can happily play with pros and it all makes for an inclusive and excellent multiplayer experience.
The music itself is all synthesised and the songs have a strange electronic charm to them, despite what is arguably lost in bass and sound quality due to the handheld system on which it is played. At least, however, it's not the hip-hop rubbish that plagues much of Amplitude or the horrendously cheesy singing of Donkey Konga. The sound quality may be quite a far cry from Gitaroo Man's infectious rhythm and enthusiastic guitars, but in the end, none of the fun of controlling the music is lost.
JWTB is a must-own. Though subsequent American and European releases of the game might be tailored to better suit the musical tastes of the West, it may be months before we see one. As for whether the game will come with the retro cardboard box and set of Nintendo headphones that grace the Japanese version... well, I'll leave it to you to calculate the odds, but I'm willing to bet they aren't high. Language barriers are pretty much non-existent and the style of the game is a treat to the eyes - and hey, if it turns out the western editions have better songs on it, you can always buy those too.