Nintendo DS Essentials: Rhythm Paradise

I’ve liked rhythm games ever since I played Bust-a-Groove on the PlayStation. And I particularly like rhythm games that do something a little bit… odd.

Nintendo’s 2009 title Rhythm Paradise (aka Rhythm Heaven, Rhythm Tengoku Gold or Rhythm World depending on where in the world you are) is certainly very odd indeed at first glance… but it’s also an incredibly solid music game that both demands and helps train a good musical ear and sense of rhythm.

It’s also a fine example of the Nintendo DS doing what it does best: providing distinctive, experimental experiences quite unlike the games you find on any other platform.

Rhythm Paradise is actually the second game in the series, following 2006’s Japan-only release of Rhythm Tengoku for Game Boy Advance. And it’s worth looking back at that game to understand where the whole concept came from.

Rhythm Tengoku was the brainchild of a Japanese producer, songwriter and vocalist known as Tsunku, who approached Nintendo with the concept on the grounds that they could probably make a better game than he could! He proposed his bold idea of a rhythm game that relied on auditory rather than visual indicators; this would immediately distinguish it from other entries in the genre, many of which were drifting towards the “falling notes” approach initially popularised by Konami’s Beatmania in the late ’90s. Rhythm Tengoku would demand that you listen rather than watch, and would be made up of a series of themed minigames rather than applying the same mechanics to a variety of different musical tracks.

Designer Kazuyoshi Osawa from Nintendo’s Software & Planning Department (SPD) took an interest in the project, but was concerned that the idea of there being no visible on screen “musical score” would limit the game’s appeal somewhat. Nonetheless, Tsunku persisted with his idea, and Osawa ultimately agreed to work on the project, choosing the Game Boy Advance as the host due to its small screen and portability.

Portable devices are pretty great for music games generally because they allow for a direct connection between the player and the game — almost feeling like an “instrument” in the player’s hands when handled well. This idea of direct connection between the player and the music was key to Rhythm Tengoku, and would continue to be explored in Rhythm Paradise.

The series’ move to the Nintendo DS — following a surprising stint in the arcades on Sega’s Dreamcast-like Naomi platform — maintained the portability of the original while allowing for a different style of control thanks to the device’s touchscreen. Rather than just pressing buttons, now the possibility was there to use gestures as well as simple taps. It was also one of the several games that required you to hold the DS vertically like a book, allowing for two tall rather than wide screens — a good format for how the game worked.

Tsunku, Osawa and the team at Nintendo SPD didn’t overcomplicate things with the new possibilities the DS offered; all you really need to understand in order to enjoy Rhythm Paradise is the difference between a tap, a hold and a flick. Each of the minigames that make up the complete experience associates the gestures with a clear action and auditory cue that makes sense; for example, in one game, you’re controlling a bird soldier and, at various points, will have to tap your beak on the ground (by tapping) or jump in the air (by holding, then flicking).

The gestural control gives a nice sense of physicality to the game without feeling gimmicky. The moves assigned to “flick” are typically the most satisfying, dramatic ones, resulting in flourishes, jumps and all manner of other effects depending on the game you’re playing at the time.

And there’s a ton of variety in the games, too, both in terms of their presentation and how they play. Some are as much a test of your reactions as they are your rhythm; others benefit from you practising a few times and memorising the sequences required of you, which are the same each time; others still challenge you to maintain more strict rhythms without getting distracted.

The games are split into groups of four, unlocking one at a time as you obtain at least a “Just OK” grade in the previous one. Once you’ve cleared all four games in a group, a “Remix” stage opens up; this consists of a unique piece of music, and a challenge that rapidly switches between the four different games that have led you up to this point. Once you clear that, a new group opens up.

The grading system used in the game is one of its more interesting aspects in that it doesn’t follow the typical approach of rhythm games by grading you on score and accuracy. In fact, there’s no score display visible during gameplay at all; you have an overall “flow” rating to grade your overall performance, but outside of that, it’s purely a case of obtaining one of four grades for each stage: Try Again, Just OK, OK and Superb.

Rather, whether or not you obtain a Superb rating is dependent on you clearing up to three specific objectives during a stage. This usually involves demonstrating your skills at that particular game in different ways; in the very first game, for example, you’re tasked with flicking bolts into items on an assembly line, and towards the end you have to do it in the dark, relying only on the musical cues to time things correctly. On top of that, the final note is very awkwardly syncopated, making it very awkward to hit. To get the Superb rating, you have to perform generally well in both the light and the dark, then hit the final note flawlessly. You don’t have to be completely perfect; just demonstrate your skills in the appropriate areas. It’s a nice approach that puts the high ratings within the reach of anyone willing to put in the practice.

While Rhythm Tengoku’s original concept was to rely primarily on auditory rather than visual cues, that doesn’t mean the games skimp on visuals. On the contrary, they have a wonderfully distinctive aesthetic thanks to character designs by Ko Takeuchi, who is perhaps best known for his contributions to the Rhythm series’ stablemates in the WarioWare franchise. Whenever the game has need for cute, stylised girls, Takeuchi is ready and willing to provide; elsewhere, the game features a variety of different visual aesthetics, including pixel art, stylised low-poly 3D and line-art “doodle” styles. You can certainly tell there’s a lot of common DNA with WarioWare here.

And, in keeping with the way Nintendo has traditionally handled this sort of game, there’s a ton of additional content to unlock as you play; it’s far more than just a simple minigame compilation. Obtaining Superb ratings on individual stages rewards you with medals, and at various medal milestones you unlock “Endless” games that you play for high score, rhythm toys that allow you to make noises in various pleasingly tactile ways using the touchscreen and some bonus games that allow you to truly test your skills. On top of that, seemingly at random a game you’ve previously played will challenge you to “Go for a Perfect”, allowing you to unlock the music from that stage to listen to at your leisure in the game’s “Cafe” screen.

Rhythm Paradise is peak DS-era Nintendo; it’s accessible, friendly and fun, but also packs a serious challenge for those willing to get their hands dirty. It’s beautifully presented, hugely enjoyable to play and monstrously addictive. What more could you want from a handheld game?

More about Rhythm Paradise

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