ELITE BEAT AGENTS / Nintendo / DS
Yes, some of the music that they picked for this particular incarnation of Ouendan is really not very good. However, you pretty much have to have been born without a soul to dislike this game on that basis. It's just bursting with such positive creative energy that it overcomes being saddled with covers of ragged-out Madonna and Village People songs.
But first, a quick history for those who are not obsessive game nerds. This game originally began it's life as a title called Ouendan in Japan, which had similar gameplay, but featured male cheerleaders and J-Pop music. It was one of those games that attracted a strong following among the import crowd, and soon there was a vocal movement to get it translated, but of course there was the dilemma of the soundtrack being composed entirely of Japanese music that no one (outside of the sort of people that watch Adult Swim on Saturday nights) had ever heard before (or would be able to comprehend). Nintendo and iNis's solution to this was to build a whole new incarnation of the game using the same engine - one that swaps out the male cheerleaders for smooth dancing government agents, and the music for a selection of gaijin-friendly karaoke pop hits.
Each level sees the titular agents coming to the aid of some poor soul who has come to the end of their rope and is hollering for help. Through their smooth synchronized dancing, they inspire their target to overcome their problems. Your role in this is to hit circles in time to the rhythm, and also occasionally follow a sliding ball or spin a record with the stylus. Good performance keeps the agents dancing and scoring big points; miss your cues, however, and things start to get out of hand rapidly. If you let the "rhythm meter" at the top of the screen deplete entirely, your target meets with a grim fate and you must start the song over.
The game works so well mostly because of the presentation - the story of each of your targets is told in over-the-top style, with comic book panels and bizarre non-sequitor humor. The agents seemingly do not discriminate, and come to the aid of anyone in dire straits, as you help everyone from a high school girl trying to summon up the courage to ask her friend out, to an oil baron trying to replenish his fortune so his gold-digging wife will take him back. Most of the sequences are genuinely funny, but there are a few that are surprisingly emotional, and the game concludes with a giant rally by the agents and all the people they've helped to rebuff an attack by music-hating aliens. The game can also be surprisingly dark - failing even the silly missions usually ends on a dark cut-scene that implies a rather grim death for the character, and both the agents and humanity are annihalated if you fail the final level. The range of emotions and ambience that the game creates is, I think, possibly it's greatest achievement.
Fortunately, the gameplay is pretty good too, and has a fresh feel in a market increasingly full of play-it-safe clones. It's simple, but it works well, and there's a wide range of difficulty levels (only two to start with, but more are unlocked in short order) to make it accessible for everyone from youngsters to old folks. I had a bit of the gripe with the "beat maps" that go with the songs - usually they are fairly solid, but they don't always stick to the rhythm of the song. They sometimes sync with the lyrics or melody instead, and there are some instances where there are beat points that are just out in the middle of nowhere and not synced with anything. This cheesed me a bit as, this being a rhythm game, getting into the flow of the music is integral to the experience, and it sucks to just suddenly shift from rhythm to melody, or to just suddenly have a bunch of points to tap that are just inexplicably *there* when nothing in the music is really going on. However, such moments really are pretty much few and far between.
The soundtrack skews towards bubblegum pop and commercial alt-rock, basically targetting the whole "Hannah Montana" demographic - Avril Lavigne's "Sk8erboi", Sum 41's "Walkie Talkie Man" and that one delightful song that Ashlee Simpson wrote when she was a teenager about being dressed up as a maid and fucked violently ("La La"). You've also got some moldy oldies that you'd probably rather not hear yet again - Madonna's "Material Girl", "Y.M.C.A.", and Chicago's "You're The Inspiration" amongst them. The soundtrack is rounded out by a few decent choices however - Queen actually gets some representation with Freddie Mercury's "Born To Love You" (the recently redone version where the band took his original vocal track and added new music to it), and there's some other halfway listenable stuff like David Bowie's "Let's Dance", "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by the Stones, and "September" by Earth, Wind and Fire. The game actually uses covers for all of these songs, presumably as a cost-cutting measure; they're pretty faithful to the originals though, usually indiscernably so (unless you're some sort of huge fan of one of the artists).
* Cultural observations on Ouendan and Elite Beat Agents
* Gameplay Video