Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 71, Elite Beat Agents
If you haven't played Elite Beat Agents, you have my condolences.
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.
If you’ve played Elite Beat Agents, you know exactly why it’s on this list. You might even be upset right now that you’re reading about it already: the game has real devotees for a reason, you know. If you haven’t played Elite Beat Agents, or even heard of it, then oh boy, I am extremely jealous of the awakening you’re about to experience. But here we go.
In Elite Beat Agents, you play the role of agents from a made-up government agency, authorized to travel around the world (and through time, when needed) to solve the problems of people in need. You yourself do not physically solve the problems yourself, though: the Elite Beat Agents show up to perform motivational dances so that the people screaming for help are then, well, motivated to help themselves. The better the dances, the better the result, both in your score and rank for the level and for the quality of ending you’ll see when you finish it.
Elite Beat Agents is a rhythm game, but you need to think more Dance Dance Revolution than Guitar Hero here to understand what it’s asking of you. This Nintendo DS gem has you using the stylus to tap, slide, and spin different markers to keep the beat of a given song: you’re not playing the individual notes, like you would in Guitar Hero or Rock Band. You’re keeping the beat, and performing different moves in order to do so. There are three kinds of markers: Hit Markers have you tapping the stylus once per marker, with markers numbered, scattered across the screen, and sometimes stacked on top of each other. Phrase Markers have you holding down the stylus and tracking a moving ball across the screen, sometimes back-and-forth. And finally, the Spin Markers, which have you spinning your stylus as fast as you can around a wheel in order to rack up points and points and points.
You, uh, want to have a screen protector for your DS (or 3DS) if you play Elite Beat Agents, by the way. I ordered a fresh one just to dive back into this game for this list.
Each stage is presented in a visual comic book style, and the problems range from figuring out how to handle surprise babysitting a family of troublesome children when the babysitter in question planned to be asking their crush out on a date, to trying to film the perfect action movie, to helping a taxi driver just one more speeding violation away from losing their license make it to the hospital in time for their new fare: one in labor. Oh, and also a meteorologist promised her young son that there would be perfect weather for going outdoors on her day off even though it was actually supposed to rain, so through the power of motivational dance and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” she was able to divert the rain clouds and bring about the sunny day she promised. Normal stuff.
Actually, that’s a good place to show you how intense the rhythm aspect of the game works. This is a video of that “September” stage, on the game’s hardest setting. And it’s hard:
The easier difficulties require nowhere near that level of intense rhythm-keeping, but they aren’t necessarily easy, either. There is real challenge in the game, in getting rhythm and beat just right. Another reason it feels so DDR vs. Guitar Hero is because is has a real arcade thing going for it. It’s not a particularly lengthy game, but since it can be punishing, it’s going to take practice to master even the lesser difficulties.
Elite Beat Agents is an absolutely bonkers game, but it’s entirely aware of its nature, which only fuels the cycle of bonkersdom. Think the weirdness of other Nintendo offbeat titles like Rhythm Heaven and WarioWare, where leaning into it all is part of the reason why those games are so successful and so memorable in the first place. The attempts to ground those games in some kind of reality makes it all the more goofy and enjoyable, because, conceptually, you just can’t ground these games like that.
None of the songs are by the original bands, but are instead cover versions, like in the very early days of the plastic instrument music game fad. So, you’re hearing cover versions of “September,” but also Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi,” the Jackson 5’s “ABC,” Madonna’s “Material Girl,” David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” Cher’s “Believe”… there are 19 tracks, from the 70s to the then-present day, and there was real intention behind their selections, as the game’s designer told Wired back before the title’s release:
"The concept for song selection was this - the roaring songs you would want to hear if you went to a college frat party," says Elite Beat Agents' designer Keiichi Yano. "I used to play in bands like that, and when the whole crowd is jumping up and down to your tunes...this is the essence of our selections."
Even if you don’t necessarily love the music, everything else about the game is just so weird and smile-inducing that you’re not going to mind one bit if you have to hear “he was a punk/she did ballet” a dozen times to master the stage it’s in. How can you not at least fall in love with a game that sends the agents back in time to help a horn-dog Leonardo Da Vinci attempt to woo his muse for the Mona Lisa with Queen’s “I Was Born To Love You” happening in the background?
The only thing wrong with Elite Beat Agents is that we never received a sequel to it. The developer, iNiS, created Elite Beat Agents after the Japanese exclusive DS game Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan was a popular import title: in Ouendan, instead of special agents, you controlled a cheer squad. Elite Beat Agents put a different spin on the formula, swapped out the Japanese pop songs for tunes from English-speaking artists, and dropped on North American shores a year later. While Japan would eventually see a sequel to Ouendan, there has been no such luck for fans of Elite Beat Agents. Which is surprising, even with EBA’s modest sales figures, given it was critically beloved and Nintendo has released three subsequent systems (the 3DS, Wii U, and Switch) that could have handled a touch-based rhythm title since the initial DS release.
You can still play the original, though, and it’s not particularly difficult to find, in the sense that you can snag it on ebay for a pretty reasonable price. And you should, if you have any interest in rhythm games whatsoever: the genre’s heyday might have ended, but Elite Beat Agents remains a stunning contribution to the field to this day. Just don’t forget to buy a screen protector, too. You will regret not doing that even more than you will regret not playing this game in the first place.
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