Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 70, Rhythm Heaven
There are quite a few games in the Rhythm Heaven series, but the Nintendo DS' release stands out.
I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
There are multiple games in the Rhythm Heaven series, and they’re all at least good. None of them stands out as much as the titular Rhythm Heaven, though, which, you might think is the first game in the series given it is also the name of said series, but no. It’s the second! The first Rhythm game was a Japan-only release titled Rhythm Tengoku, for the Game Boy Advance. Whereas Tengoku used button presses, Rhythm Heaven — the game, not the series — is entirely stylus-based. The 2009 release is a true Nintendo DS classic, and an easy choice to represent the series as a whole in these rankings.
Now, the Rhythm games that focus on button presses are still real good, but there is something so much more satisfying about the use of the stylus when keeping rhythm. A button press is just a button press, but with the stylus, you can vary the gameplay that much more by incorporating both tapping to the rhythm at the appropriate times and what Rhythm Heaven calls “the flick.” Flicking the stylus across the screen is integral to not just mastering the individual stages, but to completing them in the first place. And that action is so much more satisfying to perform than a different kind of button press is, like on the Wii’s Rhythm Heaven Fever, where you press the A and B buttons simultaneously sometimes.
It helps, too, that this game, where timing your taps to the rhythm of the music is what it’s all about, is on the Nintendo DS, a handheld system that allows for you to use headphones. Rhythm Heaven Fever is real good, as I said, but there’s a little bit of a focus disconnect there for me, when we’re talking about a rhythm game that plays from your television’s speakers or soundbar or whatever vs. a setup you can get all moment of zen with on a handheld with headphones.
Your own mileage may vary, but rest assured I appreciate and enjoy your favorite Rhythm Heaven title, too, whatever it is.
Now, what is Rhythm Heaven? A rhythm game, yes, but a very distinct one, as it doesn’t borrow from pop music at all in the way that Guitar Hero, Rock Band, or even Nintendo’s Elite Beat Agents (ranked number 71) do. The songs in Rhythm Heaven are originals, from highly successful Japanese songwriter Tsunku, as well as Nintendo’s Masami Yone. The songs are performed by Japanese recording artists, both for the Japanese version of the game as well as the English version, and the only way to successfully hear the songs played in full is to play along with them, tapping and flicking when necessary. You’ll play this game in that rarest of styles: with the DS held sideways, like a book, giving you a larger range for flicking the stylus, and you can set it to right- or -left-handed play.
It’s not a constant mash of color-coded on-screen prompts like in Guitar Hero, nor is it like Elite Beat Agents, where you’re following the beat while tapping, sliding, and spinning at progressively more difficult speeds and configurations. In Rhythm Heaven, the songs have levels designed around them. In an early stage, you’re controlling a robotic arm in a factory that is piecing together widgets. In order to actually build those widgets, you need to do so at the appropriate time, which you do both with visual cues — one piece of the widget coming down the conveyor belt — and with audio cues — the song in the background. You follow with your eyes and your ears to flick the robotic arm at just the right moment, and insert a second piece into the first piece as it rolls by, successfully creating the widget.
The stages all take this kind of basic premise of watching and listening, but vary the gameplay considerably. You can play as part of a small singing group, where you hold the stylus down until it’s time to sing: then you lift it and allow the singer you’re controlling to follow the other members of the group in song. Close that mouth again in time with the rhythm of the song, though, or else the other members of the group will be visibly upset with you, and your score will drop. Aliens are invading, and you’re in a spaceship, firing lasers to the rhythm of their entry. You’re a bird in the military doing drills, but also the drills are dancing and pecking in tune to music. You are creating music by playing table tennis to the rhythm of the song in the background, which is not usually how you make music nor play table tennis. Here, though, it works.
There are 50 of these stages, split into 10 groups. The first four songs in each group are all individual styles of play, like the different stages described above. After completing each of those, though, you then unlock a Remix stage, which will play a different song that combines elements of the previous four stages together. So you might have mastered when to peck as that dancing military bird, but can you make that work right after the game had you controlling a singing moai statue, which happened right after fending off alien invaders with the power of rhythm? Getting the top scores on these stages is much more difficult, as it requires you to not only be a master of each kind of rhythm the game throws at you, but to be able to switch up the rhythm on the fly to the tune of a new song.
You can advance to the next songs by getting a “Just OK” or an “OK” grade, with the game telling you what you could have done better and maybe even giving you a hint as to what you should be listening or looking for in order to do that. A score of Superb gets you a gold border on the stage in question on the level select screen, and levels with a Superb become eligible for a random attempt at scoring a Perfect. You unlock more goodies with more Superbs and Perfects, like rhythm toys, endless style games, and even some guitar lessons, but even if there was nothing outside of the pride you get from securing a perfect play of a given song, you’d be happy to do it. It all seems so attainable, so very “just one more try,” and it keeps you coming back.
The songs are also great, which helps with the desire to replay the stages. The art style is often reminiscent of what Nintendo does with something like WarioWare, where it can be both simple and adorable at the same time, and even though it’s all over the place in some ways, it all somehow works and makes sense together under one project’s roof. It’s easy to look at, it’s actively enjoyable to listen to, and you don’t need to be literally perfect with it in order to enjoy it. Though, again, you might want to try to be perfect, anyway, because the challenge is enticing.
Now, as I implied, you can play any of the Rhythm Heaven titles and come away pleased. Rhythm Heaven Fever is on the Wii, as well as the Wii U’s Virtual Console service, which supports a small number of Wii titles. Rhythm Heaven itself isn’t too difficult to find, but you’ll want a screen protector on your DS to play it: all that flicking can leave its mark. There is also a 3DS Rhythm Heaven release, Megamix, that is something of a greatest hits title, with songs from past games reworked and remastered, but the default is to play with the button setup like with Fever and Tengoku. You can play with the stylus instead, but it’s not quite the same setup as it was in Rhythm Heaven, which is how a greatest hits-type game for a series like this one didn’t get the nod for me over one of the individual games.
Again, your mileage may vary, but chances are good that if you like one Rhythm Heaven game, you’ll like them all. The initial Rhythm Heaven remains my favorite of the bunch, though, so if you’re just getting started with the franchise, it’s not a bad place to begin.
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