US: 20 Jul 2010
Rhythm Zone would be a lot of fun if it had a community.
Rhythm Zone would probably have a community if it were a lot of fun.
This, of course, is the circle of death for games whose greatest reason for being is a social one.
As it is, Rhythm Zone is a toy, albeit a fairly entertaining one. Its look and feel is that of Guitar Hero-lite, four gems traveling down a track toward a bar that indicates when you’re supposed to push the button that corresponds to the correct color. Instead of the machinations of a rock ‘n roll show, however, we are offered background animation in the form of psychedelia, a constantly throbbing and shifting pastiche of bright lights, swirly lines, and the occasional flowers or skulls, depending on the mood.
The kicker, Rhythm Zone‘s primary selling point, is that the music is yours. Rather than taking the reins of a predefined tracklist, you will be providing the music. There are a scant few tracks available at the outset, which truly makes it up to the player to provide the depth that these sorts of games so badly need to survive more than just a few playthroughs.
The first thing that you notice then, as you try to import your own song into Rhythm Zone, is that the import process is not a quick one. For your typical three or four-minute song, you’re going to be waiting a solid minute to create the note chart, and for longer tracks, you could wait up to three. You then have to wait again as the game loads up the playthrough, adding up to a solid two or three minutes between each track that you play if you want to play the music as you add it. Given that most of the songs aren’t any more than five minutes long, this means that for approximately one third of the time that you’re “playing” Rhythm Zone, you’re really waiting.
That said, once the import process does happen and you’re actually playing the game, it’s good fun. The charting of the songs, done via algorithm rather than by human hands, is actually fairly good and on-beat, and it’s an interesting listening exercise to try and discern where the game is drawing each of its tracked “notes” from. Does the track at all resemble the melody of the song it’s emulating? Well, no, unless there are a number of notes of the same pitch repeated, in which case the machine typically suggests that the same button be pushed for each note. Still, even without the benefit of being able to see the melodic line of a song, Rhythm Zone‘s charts are pretty decent, sharing much more in common with, say, Dance Dance Revolution (or, more closely, the amazing free flash game Flash Flash Revolution) than the games its visual style most closely evokes.
Still—there’s no narrative here, no progression of songs to be played. The difficulty, the songs, the play time, it all depends on the player. While this level of freedom is nice, there is also very little in the way of motivation for the single player. It’s something for your fingers to do while you listen to your favorite songs, but that’s about it.
Where Rhythm Zone really starts to show its potential is in the smart integration of the massive Last.fm database. Using Last.fm and an apparent best-match algorithm, Rhythm Zone builds online leaderboards for every single song that any user decides to upload. It’s a similar idea to that of Audiosurf, which also allowed for the importing of songs from the player’s music library, but we haven’t seen it applied to a pure rhythm game format like it is here. The idea of being the champion for your favorite songs is an appealing one, and it should work. Unfortunately, when you have absolutely no competition for 90% of the songs you import, it kind of kills the drive to compete. Those “#1” rankings look nice, but they’re hollow. You’re racing your shadow.
What Audiosurf has that Rhythm Zone doesn’t is a game (as opposed to a toy) attached to the imported songs. While there is no underlying narrative in that game either, the play is gripping and fast paced; rather than simply playing the notes when they arrive, Audiosurf players are whipping around a racetrack.
The distinction is subtle, yet palpable: by giving such a novel context to a game based around music, Audiosurf offered a sense of novelty for its bargain price. Generative racing gameplay based around the music in your library is a neat idea—though Audiosurf is a fantastic game, it could have been awful and people still would have wanted to play it to see how it worked. This initial curiosity-based push led to well-populated leaderboards, and the game was granted the longevity it deserved.
Rhythm Zone doesn’t deserve to be forgotten or left out in the cold, but we know how it works. We’ve seen its kind before. There’s very little to be curious about, because the gameplay is exactly what we’ve come to know from the genre. It’s having a hard time attracting attention, and for those whose attention it does attract, it’s not maintaining their interest because there’s just no competition to be had. Even if you’re initially motivated by the ridiculous number of Steam achievements it contains, it quickly becomes obvious that very few of those achievements are skill-based; they simply pop up after you’ve played for long enough. These are exactly the types of achievements that get left to die when a player isn’t otherwise interested.
If Rhythm Zone does manage to eventually attract an audience, it will then be a fun and competitive gaming experience. In its current state, however, it’s unfortunately a mildly-entertaining toy that’s just a little too easy to forget.