Elite Beat Agents

“If music be the food of love, play on,” says the Bard. What is it about music that moves us so, that soothes the savage beast, and makes penguins break out into song and dance with happy feet?

Whatever hold music might have on you is the same magic that will happily keep you glued to your Nintendo DS as you help three government agents save the world, one dance step at a time, in the outrageously funny and scarily addictive rhythm game Elite Beat Agents. Think Men in Black meets The Blues Brothers, and you’ll have an idea of the craziness that awaits you.

When you fire up the game, you’ll undergo a training session conducted by Commander Kahn. Like other rhythm games, the key to success is timing, as you must keep in sync with the music and tap the screen with your stylus when prompted to perform an action. Instead of a health meter, you have an Elite-o-meter that you must prevent from dropping, which happens whenever you flub an action. Perform too many mistakes, and your Elite-o-meter is completely drained and the game’s over. Note that the Elite-o-meter is constantly draining by itself as the song is playing, so you have to counteract it by successfully hitting the markers and getting high scores through combinations.

The actions are divided into three types: Hit Markers, Phrase Markers and Spin Markers. Hit Markers are the most common, requiring you to tap numbered circles in sequence. A timed circle surrounds each numbered marker, and you have to tap it just as the timed circle converges with each numbered one. How good your timing is will determine the score you get for tapping the circle, and if you keep successfully hitting the sequence of markers, you’ll boost your score with combinations.

Meanwhile, Phrase Markers are numbered circles that release a ball after you tap it. You must keep your stylus glued to the ball as it moves, following it as it makes its way to the other end. Some of these Phrase Markers will have the ball returning to its original starting point, or even moving back and forth like a game of table tennis. Lastly, Spin Markers are discs that you must spin using your stylus when they appear.

While you have these visual cues, as you become immersed in the game you’ll have to learn to depend more on the beat of the song, particularly during the more challenging stages. Every time you flub an action, your Elite-o-meter not only goes down, but the Elite Beat Agents themselves literally fall flat on their faces, disrupting the dance routine. Each mission requires you to complete a song, and is divided into multiple stages that you have to hurdle. The missions basically revolve around different people crying out for help. Rushing to the rescue, the Elite Beat Agents must supply them with the energy to complete their tasks by dancing their way through the song.

If you’re successful in keeping your Elite-o-meter at the end of each phase of a song (a “Yes” on the meter as opposed to a “No”), you’ll be rewarded with a picture of the person successfully accomplishing one of the steps needed to complete his or her objective. If the meter turns red, however, meaning it’s in the “No” range, a different picture will be shown, depicting the person you’re trying to save suffering a setback. Depending on the mission, this could mean anything from being chased by wild animals to being stomped on by a giant stone golem. Yes, these missions are surreal.

Humor is very much a part of Elite Beat Agents, and I can tell you from experience that it has a number of laugh-out-loud moments. The missions unfold in manga or comic book fashion, complete with panels and word balloons. Just as in anime, you have a signature battle cry — I never get tired of Commander Kahn’s cracked English call to action whenever the Elite Beat Agents receive a mission: “Agents are…go!!”

Elite Beat Agents is actually a spiritual successor to the Japanese DS game Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, which was released last year by the same developer, iNiS of Gitaroo Man fame. Instead of simply porting that Japanese game, which has been a popular import title for DS owners, Nintendo and iNiS decided to create a different game that doesn’t have the same characters or plot as Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, but which was created in the same spirit. After playing Elite Beat Agents, I’m now dying to also find a copy of Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan and immerse myself in the quirkiness of J-pop (Japanese pop music).

It’s understandable why the developer felt that J-pop and Japanese pop culture references wouldn’t attract a big audience for the game in the West, but still, it’s interesting to see how many anime mannerisms and instances of quirky Japanese humor remain. The titles for each mission can give anime episodes a run for their money. How about finishing “Trio of Mayhem! Love and Boyfriends!!” to the tune of “Walkie Talkie Man”? Or “Batter Up! Home Run Hero Makes a Comeback!!” to “The Anthem”?

The game makes use of covers of the songs, but they’re pretty good ones and span the gamut of Western pop and rock and roll. The pop culture references are amusing, including the Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie parodies who are perfectly cast in the mission that features the song “Material Girl” — would that their real-world counterparts be stranded on a deserted island to learn the true meaning of “the simple life”! Elite Beat Agents even has a surprisingly heartwarming mission — “A Christmas Gift,” featuring the song “You’re the Inspiration.”

The game features 16 songs to start, plus three more which aren’t part of the missions but which you can unlock when you progress in ranking. When you start the game, you’ll have two modes — Breezin’ (Easy) and Cruisin’ (Normal). Finish Cruisin’ and you’ll unlock the more difficult Sweatin’, and if you finish that, you’ll unlock Hard ROCK! Mode. You’ll also unlock new playable characters for the different modes.

I can’t get enough of how great Elite Beat Agents is, from the slick anime-like presentation, to the good selection of songs, to the excellent use of the stylus. This is a game that you’ll have fun playing for a long time, and even though you’ll have to keep replaying the song during the more challenging stages, you’ll always feel that you can do it, if you try just one more time. It’s so fun that you won’t really get frustrated. Well, OK, that’s not entirely true — I’ve grown to hate “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” — even so, I can’t get the song out of my head.

So, want to have a great time with your DS? In the words of the immortal David Bowie, “Let’s Dance.”

RATING 9 / 10
PopMatters