About the game
“Rhythm Tengoku”, translated into English as “Rhythm Heaven”, is the first game in the now beloved series and was never released outside of Japan. For that reason, the game is popular with Game Boy Advance collectors because it is easy to play even without any knowledge of the Japanese language.
Why is this game a hidden gem?
If you had to describe “Rhythm Heaven” or its mechanics with one word – “elegant” would be an appropriate choice. Even though you spend 90% of the game just pressing the A-button, it is one of the most entertaining and addictive games on the market.
At first sight the formula may look incredibly simple – program a few mini-games and in each game the A-button must be pressed in rhythm with the music. Impressive, however, is the sheer amount of different experiences the developer is able to create from these simple mechanics. Additionally, most of these games don’t really have to be explained; after one or two games no more tutorials are needed, because the player can anticipate variations in the rhythm as if by magic. That’s why even people who don’t speak a word of Japanese can play this game – the mechanics explain themselves.
Adaptive difficulty and the learning curve
Hardcore as well as casual
Usually, games have a few difficulty settings that are set in the beginning. This is not necessary here, as the entire game serves as a tutorial for the “final game”. A final game that can only reveal itself, if your ready for it. As the video shows, the “main games” can be finished without much effort in just about 2 hours. This progress is almost guaranteed.
Repeated failures are prevented in two ways: firstly by showing tips on the Game Over screen and by the “Rhythm Cafe”, where you can skip the most difficult levels. However, all of this only serves as a tutorial, because the better the player gets, the more often the chances for a “perfect game” are offered: a hidden mode in which the player has to finish the respective level without making any mistakes.
This mechanic is so elegant because it does not prevent bad players from finishing the game and it offers good players a real challenge they can sink their teeth in.
Game Feel and Animation
Performing button presses to a rhythm is only satisfying, if it the game gives the appropriate visual and auditory feedback. Rhythm Heaven has mastered this art – every successful beat is emphasized with a satisfying bang or clap. The animation may be rudimentary, but it is extremely precise and exaggerated. The player knows at any time whether he is playing good or bad. It does not require a point system on the screen: You can just see and hear it.
Comedy and peer pressure
Probably the most effective motivator, besides the game feel, are the characters themselves. Each level tells a little story, where players are usually just one member of a group. Your teammates always let you know once you’ve failed at something: with exaggerated frowns or condescending looks. This is not only visually funny, but also an astonishingly effective motivational tool. Seriously, play the game for yourself and you will see, how frustrating these looks can be.
Conclusion: Valuation from today’s perspective
Rhythm Heaven as a series has since arrived in the West – but in my opinion, none of the games after this one have surpassed it in terms of elegant design. This is mainly due to the more complex controlls in later games (e.g. the Wiimote or the DS-Stylus). More complex controls just detract from the simple joy of the core mechanics. The heart of Rhythm Heaven lies not in performing difficult maneuvers (like Guitar Hero), but in perfecting a simple rhythm through fast repetition. It doesn’t matter whether you play the game for 10 minutes or an hour, the short levels always keep the frustration level low. This experience between casual and hardcore, simple yet profound, is what Rhythm Heaven 2006 still does better than most.