Elite Beat Agents | Principal Platforms: Nintendo DS | Developer: iNiS | Publisher: Nintendo | Genre: Music | Year: 2006
When Harmonix released Guitar Hero, its runaway success heralded an explosion of similar titles in the West. Within a few years the fad had turned into the hottest new trend, with major American companies bringing the world of music and the world of video games together as one.
2005 was also a big year for Nintendo. Their new handheld was finding its voice amid a slew of early titles, many of which were experimenting with touch screen technology for the first time. The Nintendo DS wasn’t the ideal tool for re-establishing Japan’s command of the music subgenre, but a developer called iNis would not be deterred, and subsequently struck gold with their handheld debut known as Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan.
A light-hearted portrayal of Japanese cheerleading traditions, Ouendan casts players as a cheer squad who must help several zany characters fulfil their ambitions through the power of music. Even with its strong cultural flavour, the exciting game struck a chord with Western critics who immediately encouraged their readers to import it.
It didn’t take long for Nintendo to capitalize on the game’s unexpected popularity overseas. Plans were quickly made to bring Ouendan to North America and Europe, albeit in a fashion that would better align with Western palettes. And little more than a year later, at the end of 2006, that’s exactly what happened when the game’s official remake, titled Elite Beat Agents, was released to rave reviews.
As with its predecessor, Elite Beat Agents follows the escapades of an emergency response unit whose sweet dance moves and motivating vibes help those in need. Whether you’re rooting for an overworked babysitter, a plucky director trying to make a blockbuster movie, or a washed-up baseball player fighting a fire-breathing golem, the focus of each level is delightfully absurd.
It was a valid concern that too much of Ouendan’s identity would be spliced out, but thankfully the DNA remained strong. Elite Beat Agents’ wacky vignettes are full of vibrant energy despite the limited video capabilities of the Nintendo DS, and the patchwork narrative is still full of memorable characters and funny moments befitting the manga-inspired art style.
It also says a lot about the quality of Ouendan that very few gameplay elements were altered for this remake. Like Guitar Hero, each stage is backed by a well-known American song, and players must strike similar beats in accordance with a set rhythm. The common Hit Markers need only be tapped with the stylus at the right moment, but Phrase and Spin Markers involve holding the stylus down, either to follow a rolling ball along a preset path, or wildly spinning it to build up enough combo points before the note finishes.
Adding spice is the fact that Hit Markers are arranged into numbered ‘tracks’ that must be touched in the correct order. Hitting beats in time with the music replenishes your draining health meter, as well as boosting your combo multiplier if you can nail the beats in perfect sync. At its core, Elite Beat Agents really is that accessible. The systems that save high scores and replay data make getting good and sharing your success easy. I’m generally terrible at these sorts of games, and yet I still conquered expert mode after a week of feverish play.
The reason for that achievement isn’t the result of the game being too easy. Far from it. Elite Beat Agents can be agony on the harder levels, but what will really create a lot of good players here is the difficulty curve, which is incredibly well-judged. Harder gameplay modes remain locked until the easier ones are conquered (Diablo style), and whilst upping the difficulty requires greater speed and accuracy from the player, it also makes the game a lot more interesting. Avril Lavigne’s Sk8er Boi plays very differently at “Sweatin'” when compared to the much easier “Breezin'” for example. Track patterns are unique, not only for each song, but also for each difficulty setting. Even though hearing the same collection of songs inevitably becomes repetitive, actually playing them does not.
Elite Beat Agents is stylish in almost everything it does. A catchy menu sound here, a delightful sight gag hidden in a mid-song vignette there. It adds up, and it’s hard to imagine any player not being won over by its charms. Perhaps the limited song selection helps in that sense. It’s certainly not a game that outstays its welcome, and even then the cover recordings are of very good quality considering the limitations of the cartridge.
The producers did their best to represent the broad tastes of American music, despite the limited storage space afforded to them. Still, the compressed nature of the audio is unlikely to have players yearning for a sound test menu.
If I had to nitpick other areas, then I’d certainly criticize the secret levels. The best stages all benefit from an acute combo of music and narrative; it’s a strange alchemy that just feels right, but the three hidden levels – that unlock as your rank increases – don’t fare as well as those on the main setlist.
Elite Beat Agents is also a game that needs to be replayed for players to get the most out of it. Those who don’t care about conquering difficulty modes or achieving high scores will find the experience lasting them a day, if that. There are some cheap Marker placements in the harder modes too, and the reliance on those awkward Spin Markers can cause discomfort as well as damage to your console’s touchscreen if you press them too hard with the stylus.
Nevertheless, this game remains a cult classic for a reason. From what I’ve said, Elite Beat Agents is already a superb time, but its surprising narrative qualities allow it to impress even more. The game’s director, Keiichi Yano, did a marvellous job in recreating not only the rhythms of Ouendan’s levels, but also the rhythms of their stories. His typical vignette might resemble an especially coked-up episode of Power Rangers, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t made room for the odd tear-jerker too.
And whilst those miniature stories are largely unconnected, the game doesn’t make the mistake of side-lining its brilliant cast once the finale draws near. Indeed, the final level in Elite Beat Agents, which is perfectly backed by a one-two punch of Hoobastank and The Rolling Stones, is among the best final levels ever. A lot of that is down to the storytelling, which never loses sight of the powerful emotions we normally associate with good music, regardless of how crazy things get.
That Ouendan’s spiritual successor would be so impeccable probably wasn’t surprising to its hardcore fans. The disappointing sales figures – that ultimately closed the book on this promising series – would surely have rankled, especially when you consider the chief competition; the inferior yet nevertheless hugely successful, Guitar Hero: On Tour.
After foolishly taking more than a decade to finally play it, however, I can say that Elite Beat Agents is still a music game of beautiful qualities. Its track list may be small, but its heart is enormous.