Retrogamer: The Inspiration
Michael B. Tager
When my friends Hattie and Peter moved away to Seattle, they asked if I wanted their DS. “We don’t play anymore and thought you might enjoy it.”
“Well, sure,” I said, mentally amending my motto of Never turn down a free meal, drink, or ride—you never know when another will come along. “I’ll definitely play it.” The day before they left, they gave me a red-and-white DS bag, an extra stylus, a well-kept black DS and a Yoshi carrying case with eight games.
I looked through them, curious. They had Brain Age, Super Mario Bros., Mario 64, and an assortment of others, some interesting, others less so. They also had a little game called Elite Beat Agents. “What the heck is this?” I replaced it and proceeded to play every game around it. It would be years until I touched it again.
It’s currently three a.m. and I’m downstairs in my living room, the cats staring at me from atop their cat palace. Leigh has been asleep since ten o’clock, when I said I was “gonna go downstairs for a few minutes, maybe watch some Hulu.” Indeed, the TV is turned on and set to Hulu, the screen endlessly cycling through the options Hulu’s algorithm wants me to choose from.
But I’m not watching TV. Nor am I playing with my cat or reading or writing any of the articles and essays and short stories I should be writing. I’m not preparing for the class I have to teach (my first class as a professor) either. No, I’m sitting in the semi-dark playing my DS, my thumb slowly descending into agony from gripping the stylus too hard and tapping the screen where indicated, like the most well-trained rat. Music pipes from the speakers and as I’m playing and playing and resetting and trying again, I mumble along.
“I’m a survivor/I’m not goin give up/ I’m not goin stop/ I’m goin work harder. I’m a survivor/I’m gonna make it/I will survive/Keep on surviving/”
Thank you, Destiny’s Child and thank you Elite Beat Agents. This is not where I imagined I’d be a few weeks ago. Lost inside the pixels and rhythms of a game I thought I wouldn’t like, that I’m not sure is good, that certainly isn’t complex. But here indeed, is where I am, utterly lost and engaged. Not bad for a whimsical try-out. All I thought, when I inserted the cartridge was, well, I can play for a couple minutes, until I figure out what I’ll watch.
In my video game career, I’ve played a few rhythm games. An ex-girlfriend owned Leisure Suit Larry and I spent a day beating it and emerging with my soul covered in a light coat of slime (for those who don’t know, Leisure Suit is about getting laid—yes, it has nudity and animated sex). When the Rock Band craze hit, I too had a set in my efficiency apartment, whacking the drums in time with Weezer, Garbage, The Clash, Pixies, and the Who.
Despite those occasional dips into the pool of rhythm, I (used to) agree with the students attending Video Game High School: rhythm games are dumb, pointless, lowest common denominator crap. They aren’t “gaming”—they’re merely pressing buttons.
I don’t know why I thought this. There wasn’t any particular reason for my distaste. I vaguely enjoyed Leisure Suit Larry and I was all about Rock Band for the year I played it. Hell, I still like Rock Band, and if someone asked me to play it right this second, I probably would. In 2008, I threw a New Year’s party in downtown Baltimore. We had every intention of leaving the house to see fireworks and barhop, but all 50 of us stayed in the living room, taking turns on Rock Band and singing along when it wasn’t our turn. There’s nothing wrong with a little interactive karaoke. Is there?
Elite Beat Agents is a simple game: colored dots appear on the screen as pop music plays. Concentric circles appear around the dots and close in on them as the beat approaches. Touch the stylus to the dot just as the circle encloses them and the beat hits for maximum points. Miss a little and points accrue, but less so. Miss entirely and an X appears; ya done messed up, son. Every success adds a multiplier to the score and every miss ekes closer to failure. Win and advance to the next level with a high score; fail and the Agents fail with you. And sometimes they die.
Who are the Agents? They’re the suited, stylish ambassadors of rhythm and dance who sing and dance in the background of the screen. They’re the Player Character. Why are they singing and dancing? Obviously it’s to inspire the bankrupt oil baron. Or to help the cat successfully babysit a baby at a theme park. Or to assist during an alien attack.
This is simple, first day shit. Gaming 101. How could I not have seen that coming?
No, Elite Beat Agents is decidedly a weird game. Not the basis of it; the agents are based on the Japanese ōendan, who resemble de-sexualized cheerleaders (both men and women), and rely less on athletic routine and more on chanting. No, they make sense. It’s everything else that’s odd. The aesthetic is anime-strange with big eyes and gaping mouths, bright, hyper-unrealistic color schemes. The leaps in logic fail in any way to be logical, with the aforementioned babysitting cat to peanuts that cure zombieism. Sexuality is oddly omnipresent, even delving coyly into hints of bestiality. And the fantastical is but one fingertip away: how else to explain the oil baron discovering Atlantis under Mount Rushmore?
Despite the crazy, it’s a weird game only in the trappings. At the heart of it, it’s a simple rhythm game set to pop music. And what pop music it is. There’s David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Cher and Chicago; there’s also Avril Lavigne, Destiny’s Child and Jamiroquai. The Jackson Five, Queen, and Earth, Wind & Fire bring their classic pop power and almost seem like also-rans. Pop music is the heart and soul of the game and the developers knew it, because they saved the best for (nearly) last. No game is complete without Hoobastank.
Even typing that list felt odd. In no world should those all line up together. But they do and it works.
When I finally pick up Elite Beat Agents and slide it into my DS, it’s for no other reason than I’m looking for a few minutes to kill. I had read an article earlier that day that posited that it was the best rhythm game out there and one of the best games on the DS, full stop. I thought, What the hell? What’s the worst that can happen?
Almost immediately, I discover that the worst that can happen is full-scale obsessive enjoyment. The goofiness and the low stakes. The off-brand Men in Black agents with luscious afros and pompadours. The nonsensical missions. All of the elements somehow warm the cockles of my heart.
In the first mission, they sing backup to a girl who is trying to get through a baby-sitting gig so she can smooch with a jock. Or maybe they’re busting moves to inspire the jock to come correct; it’s not entirely clear. But as the music continues and my tap-tap-tapping progresses, the babysitter and jock get closer to that first, triumphant kiss. And I’m enjoying myself—when the jock catches the baby football-style, I snigger. And at the same time, I’m stoked, because I managed to get a nearly perfect score my first time. I’d only missed the beat once.
The developers missed a chance by excluding the Go-Gos, I tell you. Get it together, guys.
The early stages are easy and perfection comes quickly. There’s not a ton of challenge in the helping a waitress become a singer through pizza slinging (the real challenge is listening to “Believe” by Cher more than once). Nor are there problems in foiling the casino burglar with the help of dance, set to the Stray Cats “Rock this Town.” While the challenge remains small, I’m able to contain my playing to small spurts: 5 minutes here, fifteen there. I play it while waiting for Leigh to get ready or while waiting for the bus.
The trouble, as it were, comes later, with Jamiroquai and Chicago.
“Canned Heat,” as evidenced by Napoleon Dynamite’s triumphant dance sequence, is a helluva song. There are twists and turns and unpredictable stops and starts—the beat changes from measure to measure. The level in Elite Beat Agents follows suit. What works in one ninja sequence (because this stage is about a fat ninja stealing car design plans for his father’s company, obviously) does not work in the next. The beats are designed to break skulls and set foots to tapping. It’s the first time I spend longer than twenty minutes on a level. I spend hours, working on just the right intricacies and slides and taps. “Gotta start over,” I say multiple times after the very first screen brings a giant red X. Because failure isn’t failure without giant Xs.
When I finally succeed, I fist pump. I am the beat-master. I am invincible … oh look, here are three more stages of escalating difficulty. Let’s get to it. Here’s “Let’s Dance” by Bowie, which just effs my head. Here’s “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child, the reason I’m awake at 3 in the morning. And here’s “You’re the Inspiration” by Chicago, a brutally escalating level of syncopated madness. This is the one, the level that gave me fits and nightmares. This is the level that bruised my thumb from holding the stylus. Here’s the level that I heard in my dreams.
This level also made me like Chicago. It used to be that if a band had the name of a city or state (e.g. Boston, Kansas), they obviously sucked. But after hearing “You’re the Inspiration” at least a hundred times, it’s changed. It went from annoying to kind of good to oh my god, I can’t listen to this song anymore, to kind of neutral white noise, back to kind of good. And after triumphing (and resurrecting a father in time for Christmas, incidentally), it’s somehow achieved a place in my heart heretofore only reserved for Prince songs. I love it more than anything. Who knew that these suited cheerleaders could do so much?
By the time I get to the end sequence a few days later, I’ve heard all the songs at least a dozen times each, because I decide that if I’m playing, I might as well try to perfect each stage. The excitement in beating a stage is replaced by the satisfaction in mastering it. When I meet the (terrible) Hoobastank song and beat “Jumping Jack Flash,” I’m good enough that I win after only a few tries.
I’m just about to get around to perfecting the end-game when I notice something: multiple levels of difficulty. I’d been on Normal. Now, here is Hard mode, open for glory. The pompadour-rocking lead Agent has been replaced by a giant Native American named, appropriately and offensively enough, Chief. Oh my. Come now, game developers and/or translators. That’s the best name for him? You couldn’t have come up with literally anything else?
Whatever Game on. An entire new round of perfection. More days slip past. And I’m enjoying it all.
There’s a lot I don’t “get” about gaming, about the games that other people choose to play. When I was younger, I was much less strict about what I would and wouldn’t try. I played Zelda and Double Dribble with equal intensity. There were games I didn’t like, sure, but that was incidental to the kind of game it was. Sometimes I’d pick games up randomly and find an entire new genre that I suddenly loved. It’s how I got into RPGs in the first place—I thought the box art looked cool while wandering around Blockbuster Video. That’s how it worked.
Now, I’m not saying that rhythm games are my new jam, because they’re not. But I see now how games with low stakes and minimal “gaming” can still be fun, satisfying and, ultimately enriching. Will my newly enhanced rhythm skills be useful and applicable in other places? Maybe not. But didn’t Arkham Asylum start as a rhythm game? I picked it up once while over Brian’s house and did remarkably poorly. Meanwhile, I watched him press buttons as they came up on the screen, in a certain order, on a particular beat. Different?
I see people on the metro and on their lunch breaks playing casual games like Kandy Krush or Angry Birds. That’s not “gaming” to me, but does it have to be? Why does everything have to be important or significant? Sometimes it’s pleasant to just exist in the moment and play casually. That’s why the Wii sold so many damned copies in the first play. And I’ve played Wii Bowling. Shit’s fun. I could happily kill some time mastering that. Where is my Wii, anyway…?
Part of my whole reason for picking up video games again is to branch out and explore new avenues that I’ve been neglecting. Instead of playing the same dozen games over and over again (Tactics Ogre, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Chrono Trigger), I want to discover undiscovered enjoyment. I wasn’t expecting anything from Elite Beat Agents and I got a lot from it. It’s like going to a house party, filled with people you don’t know and having an unexpectedly good time dancing to an impromptu DJ and meeting someone you’ll date for a couple months. I’m a marginally happier person having played Elite Beat Agents than I was before I played it. That’s a good thing. That’s the point of doing anything, isn’t it?
It’s a little after 3 in the morning again. On the higher level of difficulty, I’ve finally beaten the Hoobastank stage that was driving me crazy with difficulty and terrible music. “Survivor,” the Destiny’s Child jam (set to a zombie attack and a peanut-tommy gun) is far in the past, though I still play it for funsies. After playing “Jumping Jack Flash” again to foil the alien invasion of earth, I breathe a sigh of relief. A new difficulty is available, but after a cursory play, I realize it’s a bit too far out of my skill level. That’s okay. I’m not much of a completionist, anyway.
I put Elite Beat Agents and my DS away and, instead of going to sleep, contemplate trying something else new. I’ve spent a couple dozen hours rocking this new entertainment of mine and maybe I can replicate it. But then I notice a copy of Fallout 3 lying next to the PS3. I don’t need to play it as I already dropped 100 hours into it a few months back. But I think, well, maybe just for a minute.