Chords and Kawaii: The State of the Music Genre – Part 1

I am going to describe two scenarios to you. For the first, imagine yourself walking along with me, as we enter my last DDR Rave I mentioned in yesterday’s introduction. We’re about to step into a college reading room, essentially a student lounge of sorts with comfy chairs and a large television. Normally the room is well lit and welcoming; you can go here to study and have some coffee.

How to make anything much lamer: add Mario.

Tonight, however, the space is pitch black. Before you even see it, you can here loud, pumping music of a strange sort. Techno? Maybe, but there’s something else to it. As you walk in, you look at the TV and are immediately hit with a barrage of lights, colors and a strange mix of …stuff. You aren’t sure what it is, other than being distinctly Japanese.

There’re a few cases of Mountain Dew on the near table, and a quite a few people sitting in couches by the screen, looking like pale and timid ghosts in the shadows, their faces only partially revealed by the glow of the TV. The people in front of it are of course playing DDR, but they aren’t just manically stepping around on the pad….they’re also waving glowsticks in the air. It’s a strange orgy of light, sound, and obscurity, and unless you are used to this scene, you may find it more than a little strange. Let’s just go to our next stop right away.

Our next scene is a small lounge in a freshman dorm. It is a quiet night, and someone in a group of friends has brought over some DDR to pass the time. The friends look at the pad with puzzlement, as if the plastic and foam pad may swallow them up. The owner does a few songs to show everyone how it is done, and of course she then offers the pad to someone else. Awkward giggles and rejections go around, as no one wishes to either embarrass themselves (or maybe they’re still afraid of being eaten by that pad). Finally a brave soul steps up, and begins the awkward motions that accompany any first time player. He tries a few more, his friends cheering him on, and he himself getting a little less awkward and a little bit better. It seems as if the game is growing on them.

This scene started at 9:00 PM. At 9:30, it is over, the PS2 is switched off and the pad is packed away. So much for a night of DDR. Maybe it was the game’s strange style, or maybe they just couldn’t find a song they knew or liked. All I know is that I saw this event occur with a group of non gaming friends, many of whom were in dance teams, drama productions, and choirs. They all loved music, but only one seemed to love DDR.

So THAT’S what Naoki looks like. Wait, who the hell is Naoki?

Thus I present my first problem with DDR; despite the popularity, it is far too niche for true mass appeal. The games have a very distinct and quirky Japanese style, and the soundtracks consist largely of Japanese pop and techno (well, just techno in general). Anime characters, hearts, teddy bears and lord knows what else flash on the screen in epileptic glory.

Of course, it makes sense to see this kind of stuff in a Japanese game. But I’ve never been certain as to why it remains almost intact in the American version. There seems to be no reason for this other than for doing it the sake of it. The fans all seem to eat it up, either because they are from a younger generation that has grown up with the rising wave of anime and Japanese culture in America, or because many older players also seem to be otaku of one form or another.

Personally, however, there’s only so much I can stand of the sugary sweet and psychedelic presentation, or dancing to songs I can’t understand the lyrics to when they never really enticed me in the first place, something a lot of people probably agree with.

No mass appeal? That’s not what this 8 year old girl said after she kicked my ass.

This isn’t to say that the game or its fans are uninviting on purpose. Quite the opposite in fact. Fans are more than willing to show you the ropes and encourage you as you play (the game itself has one of the most optimistic and kind announcers out there). I might not like DDR much these days, but I’ve never had a bad experience with the fans themselves, who generally seem to be good, friendly people.

No, the problem is that the game and the community are too damn entrenched in their niche. The best way to get more people to play the game in America would be to give players something they’re familiar with. Yet every time an American DDR release cuts out songs from the Japanese release (even if its due to licensing issues), every time American/European/Australian? songs are put into the mix, or if the style and interface are changed even a little bit from the Japanese originals, someone out there is complaining. For many of the diehard fans, “Amercianizing” the game is sacrilege.

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18 years ago

hey Christian, Dom here

Interesting take on the whole DDR thing.

The problem with raves is that newbies are far too intimidated to step up and learn during the event, and that DDR takes tons of practice to get to a usable level. In my experience, even if they were ecstatic about the rave and the game, they still don’t get much better unless they play the game on a regular basis, which not a lot of them get to do unfortunately. The ones that do, however, come back time and time again and become masters themselves.

Think instead if the game were Street Fighter or Soul Caliber: Yes, people would love to jump in or think the game is excellent, but they are still going to get beaten by the more experienced players that have logged more hours.

As for being a niche game, HELL yes, I couldn’t agree more. DDR is about as niche as you can get, considering to even play the game you need a nice set of pads, the game, and all the songs unlocked (or a nice chunk of quarters and no fear of practicing in front of others)

Fecitious as it sounds, while one fun thing about DDR is playing it, another playing it for a crowd. DDR is fun alone, but the game becomes exponentially more fun and realized when you are being watched, and is truly what DDR is all about. DDR succeeds as a spectator sport in the way that no other game has, with perhaps guitar hero as a sole exception.

Comparing DDR music and guitar hero music is, I think, a fruitless exercise.

DDR music, a mix of crazy japanese, english, and god-knows-what is designed to do one thing and one thing only: Be fast paced, furious, weird, and good to dance to. And, let’s be serious, by dance I mean stomp. It’s excellent, fun stomping music if there is such a thing.

A song like Break Down or Max 300, which sounds to both player and observer like a japanese trainwreck on crack, is not the kind of thing you play in your car or your iPod. It’s silly. It’s the kind of thing you play to make a DDR player do insane things on a pad and kill themselves with.

DDR music doesn’t need to be Americanized to be good stomping music. Konami’s attempts, with a few noteable exceptions, of bringing American music to DDR have been miserable, worthless additions to the game. (Brittney spears? BRITTNEY SPEARS? You couldn’t pay me to dance to that.)

I don’t know who Naoki and Captain Jack are, nor do I care to purchase their music or join their fan clubs.

The fact is that most American music which might make good candidates for DDR songs are just too slow to even have good steps or be challenging.

American music is listening music, not stomping music – which is exactly why it works so well for Guitar Hero. Guitar hero is realized best when the people watching think that the person with the guitar controller is really, actually, playing a song that they love. That stops and grabs people’s attention in the same way that seeing someone do Max300 heavy, double, stealth, backwards, blindfolded, and handcuffed does.

If Konami wants to revive the DDR series, they need some more weirdass japanese techno-on-crack type of songs that are fun to dance to. Is it niche? You bet your ass it’s niche, but DDR is one of those games, like Katamari Damacy, that operates without the need for precedent.

18 years ago

Good comments from a real DDR player. Excellent.

Being someone knowledgable of the fighting game community, I agree with your comparison. I also feel that one of the reasons that fighters have fallen into their own little corner of the world is due to the community. They are secluded, and far too harcore for anyone to keep pace with. Its not enough to get a port of a game; if it isn’t 100% perfect they’ll go import the game so they can play it on a stick they built themselves with Sanwa buttons and switches. That’s just silly.

DDR is much the same way, like you said; good pads, sometimes import copies. That’s a tall order for a lot of people. The difference is, it doesn’t have to be this way. DDR does not have to be niche. The fans just want it that way, and as long as that mindset is in place, it can’t move forward.

Also, I don’t agree with the idea that American music is not appropriate. There is tons of European and American techno that could be used. Just look at Harmonix’s own Frequency for a taste of some of it. I hear plenty of fast rock songs that could be put in the game. A lot of DDR clones are popular elsewhere in the world for their use of Latino music. There’s a whole world out there, and the fact that Konami insists on using music from a few corners of it doens’t mean that this is the way it should be.

Also, I don’t get your point about playing DDR with a crowd. I don’t think I ever discussed it in a single player sense. Of course its better in a crowd. The point I’m trying to make with this series of articles is that there is even better things to do in front of a crowd. Unless you are a DDR fan in the first place, there isn’t that much fun watching someone stomp to the beat. Its more of an….odd curiousity more than anyhting.

I was really nervous about doing this series of articles, for fear of pissing people off and that I may not get my point across very well. I simply believe that

1) DDR isn’t going forward.

2) This can be changed. An even bigger Amerian audience can be attracted to dance games, if only Konami and the fans would break out of the niche.

3) I believe that Guitar Hero and other games are doing a better job of capturing what the genre is about than DDR does. Bemani doesn’t look to have much of a say in the future of this genre.

Tomorrow (today?) is part 2. Maybe that will clarify things.

You have my eternal gratiude for taking time to read this article.


18 years ago

Congratulations to anyone who can decipher the above post. I need to stop writing things on the ‘net when I’m half awake. Makes me look like more of a moron than I actually am.