I’ve been learning to play Dance Dance Revolution. I know this isn’t my usual type of game to review, but it’s been a very interesting process.
I needed a couple of weeks to get over the whole “getting in shape” aspect of the thing so that I could play more than a handful of rounds in a row without needing to stagger away and stave off a heart attack. Now I’m to the point where I can play for a half hour or forty five minutes at a stretch and I can focus on actually learning to play.
If you’ve never played DDR before, the process is pretty simple. It’s basically Guitar Hero that you play with your feet. Directional arrows scroll upward from the bottom. You’re standing on a dance pad with four directional arrows on it. Step on the appropriate points of the dance pad as the on-screen arrows reach the top. As with Guitar Hero, there will sometimes be points where you have to hit two buttons at once, or where you must hold one button for several beats while you press other buttons. Continue this process until you pass out or someone comes in and laughs at you and you’re forced to shamequit.
When your attempt is over, the game will grade you based on your performance. It uses standard American-education letter grades: A, B, C, D, E. (Do they use letter grades in other countries? Heck, do they still use them in the U.S.? It’s been two decades since I was in school.)
It’s not as easy as it sounds. At least, not if you’re playing like you’re supposed to. If you’re a base coward you can play with a standard controller and the game is basically a medium-pace quick time event that telegraphs the buttons you’ll need to press. It’s about as challenging as dialing a phone number and half as fun. But if you’re playing with the dance pad it suddenly becomes a game. Your feet don’t move as freely as your thumbs, and you have to contend with annoying stuff like gravity that will humiliate you if you’re so busy pressing buttons with your feet that you forget to use them to keep the floor away from your ass.
Your thumbs aren’t supporting your weight, and so they can push buttons at will. But non-Kryptonian players will need to have their weight on at least one leg at a time. Here is a full second and a half of DDR gameplay:
But my hilarious, furniture-smashing dance moves aside, the really interesting thing about DDR is how it requires learning everything from scratch. This is what it feels like to be a completely new gamer and have nothing on which to build. People who sneer at the Wii for letting all the stupids into the hobby need to jump on a DDR pad and try the game at the second-tier* difficulty. Stripped of all of your dual shock controller experience, you can once again discover something you likely haven’t felt since childhood: A complete inability to react in a sensible manner, even if you know what you want to do. Gaming requires some amazingly complex muscle memory, and most gamers learn it at childhood and then take it for granted forever after.
* I’m calling it second tier because annoyingly Konami seems to rename the difficulty levels between iterations and I want to be clear which mode I’m talking about. In DDR Universe, you could be forgiven for thinking you want to start on Basic mode. But that’s actually “normal”. The lowest difficulty is “Beginner”. Then tier three is “Difficult” and four is “Expert”. It’s terrible. Some names describe the gameplay and some describe the player. And other versions of the game have different names for these.
After a good DDR stumble you’ll be able to see how a newcomer ends up bumping into walls and aiming at the floor in your typical shooter and how they can die in the tutorial on easy mode. The gamer coaching them will shout helpful stuff like, “Up! Look up! No, that’s forward! LOOK UP!” But of course their brain hasn’t leaned to associate “look up” with “move right thumb”, so the coaching is just noise and stress.
|This is what the game usually looks like. There’s a flashy music video dance thing playing the the background. But that makes it hard to see the arrows, so I always play with it turned off.|
Everyone who claims I’m trying to “dumb down” the hobby by advocating easy mode needs to try DDR for the first time on second-tier. When they stagger away and the game taunts them for being a failure they can see how much fun gaming is without an easy mode for people trying to learn. And then they can realize that most games have six times as many inputs as DDR. (Groups of four buttons: D-pad. Shoulder buttons. Face buttons. Left analog stick. Right analog stick. Then L3, R3, Start, and Select make the final group of four.) Gaming has become too dang insular, and this macho hardcore nonsense is childish and detrimental to the hobby.
I’ve been gradually working my way through the process of building up the needed DDR muscle memory. Of course, learning would be a lot faster if fitness wasn’t part of the equation, but it’s been generally rewarding. It’s nice when I’m working on a single tier of difficulty, because I can see myself improving every day.
The only bad part is moving from one tier to the next, because there’s actually a really huge gap between difficulty levels. It’s possible to be able to get an “A” (best) on one difficulty and yet get an “E” (complete failure) on the same song just one level harder. I really dislike this about the game. It sucks when you step up to the next level and you hammer away at a song without seeing any improvement in your grade, even when you’re actually getting better. Hearing the same taunts isn’t very fun, either. The other thing that would help would be either adding more “grades” or spreading them out over the spectrum more. You can go from missing 75% of the notes to missing 25% of them, and you’ll still be scoring an “E”.
I realize DDR is descended from a device which was designed to devour quarters, but for the home version I really wish they had slipped at least two more difficulty levels in there. In particular, the jump from tier two to three is brutal, with the inclusion of eighth notes. These are often introduced in the densest part of the middle of songs, and I had to hunt around to find one where I could practice them in isolation. (Most other kinds of games know better than this. The player should not be trying to learn new gameplay concepts under duress.)
I am curious if I’ll be able to reach the final difficulty tier. Making the jump from two to three feels frustrating and impossible now, but I’m sure in another day or two I’ll be able to attain non-embarrassing scores. Still, the transition to four feels like a long, long way off.
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