Rhythm Games - Part 6: Presentation
Part 1: The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You
Part 2: Establishing My Rhythm
Part 3: The Interface of GH2 and EBA
Part 4: Approachability and Learning Curve
Part 5: Song Selection
Presentation is everything that isn't gameplay. Obviously, gameplay should be king: regardless of presentation, if a game is good, it's good, right? While this may be true, presentation can add just what is needed to a game to take it from good to classic. And, if presentation is poor, it can actually take a good game and render it unplayable. (As a side note, I could write a whole series of articles on this concept, particularly pertaining to the "Graphics Don't Matter" mantra Nintendo has been bandying about. But we'll save this for another time, maybe.)
Take Guitar Hero, for instance. I already talked about one reason why GuitarFreaks wouldn't have worked in America: song selection. Well, the other reason it wouldn't have succeeded where Guitar Hero did is the presentation. You can't blame GuitarFreaks for what it did presentation-wise... it followed much of the same design and style as its Bemani brethren: Dance Dance Revolution, BeatMania, DrumMania, etc. However, as a standalone game -- particularly a guitar simulation game -- there is nothing about it that makes it particularly appealing to guitar players or wanna-be guitar players. It's rather bland and generic. That's just another way Guitar Hero got it right. From the speakers that go to 11 and "tips" for rockers during the loading screens to the writing on bathroom walls to sign your initials for high scores to the basements and underground rock club venues where you play your music to the notebook sketches in the song selection menu to the exploding drummers at the end of songs, it all properly immerses you into the life and the mindset of a rising rock star. And it's that presentation that helps make it click with players.
And that's all I will say about Guitar Hero, because I need as much space as possible to discuss Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! vs. Elite Beat Agents. Presentation is largely one of the main reasons why I cannot find myself enjoying one game over the other. But whereas Guitar Hero's presentation obviously appeals to its audience more than GuitarFreaks, it's tough to say whether Ouendan or EBA has a presentation that is more appealing to its target audience. Just like song selection, the presentation of either game may have a stronger appeal to any given person.
However, it is very apparent that the presentations are different for a reason. Ouendan was created specifically for a Japanese audience. Nintendo, I'm sure, believed that Ouendan, as it stood, would not have appealed to American audiences because of the differences in ideals and beliefs -- let alone the fact that the concept of male cheerleaders would seem laughable to those in the U.S. Thus, when Nintendo asked iNiS, creators of both games, to make an American version of Ouendan, they must have specifically told iNiS to construct the game explicitly so that it appealed to American audiences. But this is a foreign company making a game that they think fits the American mind set more. But honestly... do they know how to do that? And as it turns out, Elite Beat Agents becomes more of an interesting case study on what Japanese developers actually think of America.
The ideals of the games have changed drastically. Ouendan largely focuses on the underdog rising to the challenge to succeed. Its characters are mostly your everyday fellow, with little or no extraordinary talents or circumstances. Elite Beat Agents, on the other hand, is largely about fame and fortune. Its characters are usually already in a position of success, and their stories are about how they are taken away from it and then make their way back. And the subject matter is very much the corny version of what America is all about: baseball, football, babysitting, movies, man's best friend, and (as mentioned before) fame-and-fortune. I mean, let's compare storylines.
Elite Beat Agents: Ladies-man Leo(nardo Da Vinci) is a famous painter and ladies man who could have any woman he wants. But he runs into Mona (Lisa), whom he truly falls for, but his affection is rejected. He, with the help of the Elite Beat Agents, tries to the best of his ability to win her over and, in the end, succeeds.
Ouendan: A young, portly boy likes a girl, but he can't compare with the studly, athletic kid in school. After screaming for Ouendan, the Ouendan trio show up to spur him to success in a dodge ball match against aforementioned studly kid, impressing the girl (much to the dismay of her friend) and winning her affection.
Elite Beat Agents: Former baseball star Hulk doesn't quite have what he used to, as his career has gone down the toilet. But when a child who is his biggest fan is attacked by a giant rock monster at the amusement park, he recalls all of his old skills to defeat the monster and save the child and regains the confidence to resurrect his career.
Ouendan: Business man discovers that his city is being attacked by a giant... mouse. When the mouse threatens to hurt an innocent lady, the business man rushes to her rescue on his scooter and... grows to gigantic size to properly defeat the mouse in hand-to-hand combat. The girl tries to thank him, but he has already left to finish his journey home. He needs no reward.
Elite Beat Agents: Oil tycoon Colonel has his oil fields dry up on him, and his wife's exorbitant spending has caused him to go bankrupt. When she angrily kicks him out of the house (which is conveniently under her name and, somehow, she still owns) because he can no longer provide her with money, he goes and, thanks to the Elite Beat Agents, amasses himself a second fortune. Having regained his wealth, he gets back his with wife and the two live richly ever after.
Ouendan: Local restaurant owner just can't get any business nor any luck. Finally, when his only customer is a cat that relieves himself in his restaurant, the Ouendan team, already there (and appalled at the menu), decide to help him turn his restaurant from a wasteland to a thriving business, as well as helping turn the cat from defiler into a pet Lucky Cat.
Elite Beat Agents: Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie have nothing on the Carrington Sisters. Blonde, beautiful, and famous, everyone loves the siblings. But when an accident strands them on a deserted island, they must rely on their beauty, sexiness, and bouncing bosoms to seduce the local wildlife to help them survive until help finds them and returns them back to their lifestyle of riches and fame.
Ouendan: Secretary is overworked. Not only that, but she's at the bottom of the office ladder. Which means that the office manager will never notice her and ask her out to the office dance, especially when her three coworkers pile work onto her, making sure she can't make it to the dance and keeping the studly manager to themselves. But their plans backfire, and when she finishes all the work, the manager is so impressed that he asks our Cinderella to the ball.
And so on and so forth. Though there are some examples of people achieving fame in Ouendan and examples of underdogs winning in Elite Beat Agents, the general themes and mood are obviously very different. What I think iNiS failed to realize, however, is that America is barely different than Japan. They should remember that America is where Buster Keaton, Charlie Brown, and Peter Parker come from. We love our underdogs. So I'm not sure why the focus became so materialistic when they shifted to make the American game. We have ninja sons trying to rescue his father's successful business secrets instead of a teacher trying to win his class's respect. We have movie directors trying to make a hit movie instead of a horse trying to catch a thief. And I think it's something that makes the storylines not work for me. I've always connected more with underdog tales, and the stories in EBA feel less genuine because they don't feel as human anymore. It's just a manufactured version of what iNiS thought Americans would like.
Also, a lot of Ouendan's humor gets lost by the transition as well. Every story follows the same arc in both games. In Ouendan, a character gets presented with an overwhelming situation. They became angry, cry out "OUENDAN!!!" and, the majority of the time, Ouendan is already there, ready to help. They inspire the hapless victim with their cheering so that the victim goes into a fiery rage, complete with flames in their eyes and fire in the background. In EBA, a character gets presented with an overwhelming situation, to which they cry "HELP!!!" A man at a giant computer sees them and sends out his agents to rescue them. The agents arrive via all sorts of random transportation methods, and they inspire the hapless victims by getting them to wave their hands in the air (like they just don't care) with their singing.
Ouendan and EBA thrive on their humor. It's one of the things that makes them stand out. Though it is just be a matter of opinion, I just do not find EBA's setups as funny. For example, in the story in Ouendan where the teacher cannot get his class at the all-girls school to listen to him, he cries out for Ouendan. And where are they? They've been at the desks in the classroom of the all-girls school this whole time. When the restaurant owner screams for Ouendan, they are already customers in the restaurant, looking at the menu. It's one of my favorite running gags from the game. On top of that, the people who are in trouble yell for Ouendan. It's like somehow these people in trouble know that if they yell for this mythical cheerleading squad, they will arrive to help them achieve victory. I mean, they literally yell "Ouendan!!" Who would ever cry out such a thing in actual situations like these? The whole thing is so ludicrous and far-fetched that you just can't help but laugh.
Meanwhile, in EBA, you have "big brother" watching, who sends out his agents to aid people who yell out "HELP!", a cry that some people may actually yell out in real life. And then the agents arrive by car or jet pack or boat or whatever works. And, I dunno... I don't find any humor in that. And because everyone big brother helps seems to already be somewhat important, you get the feeling that the plights in Ouendan wouldn't even be good enough for big brother to send his agents out to.
And you know what? I love the fiery rage. It's my absolute favorite presentation factor of Ouendan. The fiery rage gets me every time. The arms waving thing in EBA? It just doesn't work for me. Not when compared to fiery rage. Pardon my netspeak, but fiery rage owns all.
So when all put together, the presentation of EBA just doesn't click together for me. It feels too calculated, too aware of trying to appeal to a certain culture rather than appealing to human nature. In that way, it loses a lot of warmth to me. And so even though EBA has a few improved gameplay elements that is missing from Ouendan, they can't outweigh the mental connection I get with Ouendan. I enjoyed watching the secretary get to the dance with her manager every time, which made me not mind playing the stage over and over again. I did not enjoy (and in fact was actually kind of appalled by) the fact that oil tycoon gets back with his wife instead of kicking her out instead. My drive to keep playing EBA just wasn't there.
The true test has yet to come. Ouendan 2 has been announced for Japan. If it comes out, and I get sucked into it as much as I did with the first one, then I can honestly say that presentation is what killed EBA for me. I still have the sneaking suspicion that EBA was less appealing solely because I burned myself out on Ouendan, but I don't think that's the main cause. I really do believe that there is something about the presentation that just didn't work for me in EBA.
And I just really missed the fiery rage.
Next up: Learnability