Music has a power over us. The right song at the right time can turn the darkest night into day, lifting us up through the fog our daily toils. There's something hidden between every note that affects us in ways nothing else can. If music soothes the savage beast, it also wakes the sleeping dragon, lighting a fire inside that spurs us forward through difficult times.
Male cheerleaders do pretty much the same thing.
Elite Beat Agents from Nintendo and Japanese developer iNiS combines these two concepts to form the best dancing government agent simulator yet, and it's wildly fun.
Elite Beat Agents is the spiritual successor of Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, a unique rhythm game for the Nintendo DS that was widely imported to North America. The game featured a mostly male, quasi-superhero group that would appear wearing ninja-like outfits during a person's moment of need to help them work through their issues by cheering them on to J-Pop.
Nintendo approached iNiS, the geniuses responsible for the PS2's Gitaroo Man, about a possible North American localization, but since the original game is so heavily dependant on modern Japanese culture, the two companies decided to rework the game. Instead of male cheerleaders solving the world's problems through interpretive dance, it was decided that government agents with anime hair and too-cool-for-school sunglasses would be easier to swallow. When someone is in dire need, an alarm goes off deep in the heart of somewhere, and the Elite Beat Agents spring to action, saving the day with the cunning use of The Hustle.
Each level tells a story about a person in distress, ranging from mundane events (a babysitter needs help controlling her three wards while winning the affections of the star quarterback) to more fantastical scenarios (the son of a car maker has to retrieve stolen plans from a rival company by using his innate ninja skills). The stories are presented in comic book panels, followed by the agents launching into the story to motivate the protagonist.
Gameplay takes place on the bottom screen, where strings of numbered buttons are superimposed over the dancing agents. Each button has a circle converging on it, and the idea is to tap the sequence out at the exact moment the circle matches up with each button. Occasionally you'll be presented with a button that moves when you tap it, which you have to trace with your stylus to complete successfully. As an encore, you'll have to spin a wheel to fill gauges on either side of the screen. Do all this in time with the music and you'll keep your "Elite-O-Meter" at the top of the screen full. Screw up too much, and your agents will lose their enthusiasm and give up. If the image of three spooks with gravity-defying hair shaking their rumps to funk music fills your heart with glee, seeing the agents out of breath and out of step will crush your spirits. Also, the game will be over.
Reading the above paragraph might make you take a step back from the game. Sounds convoluted, doesn't it? It's not. In fact, it might just be the most brilliant use of the DS's unique design to date. The screen-tapping concept gives EBA a hands-on feel lacking in many music games, and while screenshots make the game look excessively chaotic, it's the fun kind of chaos. It's so fun that you'll often be left breathless after a song is done, as if you were shaking your money maker right along with the Agents. This isn't to say the game can't be frustrating. Prepare to fail songs multiple times in the later missions, as tapping patterns get longer and their rhythm becomes more complex. Don't worry, though, you'll keep coming back for more.
The only real negative of EBA lies in its song list. Most of the songs are fun to play along to, although few of them will be stuck in your head afterwards. Some stand out, "Canned Heat" by Jamiroquai being my particular favorite, but there's one song/scenario that is just bizarre. The mission involves reuniting a little girl with the spirit of her father for Christmas, and it's set to the tune of Peter Cetera's "You're The Inspiration." If there were awards for Most Depressing Gaming Moment of 2006, this would take the prize. The song itself is bad enough, but the story playing out on the top screen is enough to make any emo orange reach for the peeler.
Regardless, Elite Beat Agents is a blast, and anyone with access to a DS should give it a shot. Its goofy concept, gorgeous presentation, and unique gameplay might seem strange on their own, but their combination results in a game that you'll be showing off to everyone you know. Should a game about male cheerleaders be this much fun? Probably not. But it is.
Agents are GO!