Genre: Rhythm Action
Format reviewed: PlayStation
The crazy rhythm action game that everyone needs to experience.
Gitaroo Man was developer iNiS’s first ever product – and the concept, surprisingly, was inspired by a rather obscure Eighties movie. Speaking to CrispyGamer, iNiS co-founder Keiichi Yano explained where the idea of a guitar-duelling game emerged from.
“As music games came out they were mostly about the rhythm. I like the rhythm, but as a student of jazz, I was always more fond of the melody… So I always wanted to do a music game that had something to do with the melody, and that you were playing with the melody.” Yano had seen the 1986 Walter Hill movie Crossroads, which featured Ralph Macchio playing a character and facing off against the devil in a guitar duel of sorts, triumphing because the character stuck to his guns of traditional guitar playing. Basically, nobody watched it.
Yano then wondered about the idea of doing a game where the characters are shooting beams of light from their guitars, in a kind of makeshift duel. With highly detailed character and setting designs from artist 326 and music from producers COIL, iNiS went about developing a rhythm-action game that would confound expectations of what the genre was about, in the spirit of Q Entertainment’s Rez and NanaOnSha’s Vib Ribbon. Thanks to the reputation of these games, Gitaroo Man got a Western release through publisher THQ, at a time when more diverse PlayStation games were reaching these shores.
Sadly, Gitaroo Man was lost in the shuffle due to a brief print run, but critics picked up on this unique title and championed it, leading to it becoming a cult hit. The game’s hero is a good-hearted loser kid called U-1, who, thanks to his wisecracking dog (obviously) transforms into Gitaroo Man, a guitar-playing warrior who has to save an intergalactic race of Gitaroo people from the villainous Zowie. The fact the story makes no sense is probably intentional, with cut-scenes even having a humorously bad English overdub that recalls the Speed Racer cartoons.
The real star, of course, is the music. Gitaroo Man is one of the stranger games that made it to these shores during the PS2’s heyday, and the tracks that form the crux of the game reflect that. The wonderfully diverse range of melodies in the game – everything from hip-hop to jazz to rock (obviously) – means that the hour or so that it takes to actually beat the story is an irrelevant statistic. Any rhythm game that chooses not to pander to the crowd and have its own distinctive soundtrack runs the risk of being ignored by a wider audience; however, it’s the creativity within Gitaroo Man’s music, as well as the way you interact with it, that makes it so timeless.
Most fights are broken up into three stages: Charge, Guard and the Attack phase. During the first, you charge up your health bar, readying for the enemy attack, by pulling the stick in the correct direction and pressing the O button in time with it. The second is essentially a series of QTE button presses where you dodge enemy attacks, while the third sees you going on the offensive to beat the enemy, with missed button presses damaging your health bar. Each stage feels grand, like a rock concert that always culminates in a huge finish; whereas modern rhythm-action games put the emphasis on point-scoring, the fact that your goal was to win the fight with beat-‘em-up-style health bars at the top of the screen mean that the stakes of Gitaroo Man are wholly different.
Best of all, though, despite Gitaroo Man’s seemingly random direction on the surface, every song matches the style of fight you’re participating in and the look of each level. An alien invasion in a town centre early on is played to the tune of an explosively paced J-pop dance ditty, and, perhaps most memorable of all, U-1 plays an acoustic version of the game’s flagship tune, ‘Legendary Theme’ to his wannabe girlfriend, Kirah, under a tree in the setting sun. It’s truly a beautiful moment that entirely breaks up the pace of the game. There’s a piece of music for everyone to enjoy in Gitaroo Man, and that’s what the game is most effective at to this day: celebrating the love of music and letting you interact with it in the most engaging fashion possible.
Why It’s A Future Classic
The low sales of Gitaroo Man hide how accessible it really is. Yes, the story is completely bonkers, with guitar-throwing dogs and an embarrassed small boy who masquerades as a rock superhero, yet the comfortable simplicity of the gameplay and variation in its presentation results in an inimitable musical experience.
The game also stands out because it was clearly imbued with the personality of its creators. Each character and environmental design feels like it was pored over for weeks, and unusually for a game in this genre, it feels quite cinematic, no doubt a result of the association with the movie Crossroads. Perhaps as a result of the precedent set by NanaOnSha, the level of visual detail is supremely high for the often visually low-fi rhythm genre.
Long after the onslaught of popular rhythm-action games are forgotten and the controllers collect dust in the loft, when U-1 steps up and wins round the crowd with the rock version of ‘Legendary Theme’, you’ll be reminded of why Gitaroo Man represents a previously niche genre hitting its artistic peak.
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