Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Rhythm Heaven

In case you don't feel like reading this, I've provided a TLDR version:

People who play videogames are annoying. I can make fun of them using real theories from real scientists. You should play Rhythm Heaven for the Nintendo DS.
I haven't been posting much because, hey, the end of the year in grad school is a busy time. Tonight is my first (and probably hardest) exam. Yesterday, my roommate commented, "You've been studying all day, how much more studying could you possibly have to do?" I had to control my rage.

However, I have had a little bit of time for videogames. So let me tell you about Rhythm Heaven.

Or, actually, first let's read the stupidest thing ever written. The author of VG Cats, see, thinks that the world owes him something because he used to be a social outcast for his love of videogames. Actually, for the younger generation videogames have always been mainstream--do you know anyone in their 20s who hasn't played Super Mario Bros. 3? But the really funny thing, besides the comic not containing any actual jokes, is that, yes, I have played a great game recently. A great, wonderful, spectacular game; a game that, only 3 years ago, would never have been localized for the United States, and only those emulator-happy nerds would ever have known how awesome it was.

I say "only 3 years ago" because I'm talking about Rhythm Heaven, the DS sequel to Rhythm Tengoku, a GBA game that was great, wonderful, and spectacular, that never got released in the United States, and that only emulator-happy nerds ever played.

And to top it off? It's a casual game if there ever was one.

In fact, it's nothing but a collection of musical minigames. Each game asks you to do some simple task--tap the stylus to the beat, flick the stylus at the top of a musical scale, repeat some musical phrase by a combination of tapping and flicking. And that's it. The rest is all charm. In a game of ~50 different minigames (some of them repeats, yes), there was only one that I didn't completely love--the only one in which the accompanying visuals made finding the rhythm more difficult rather than less.

I can hardly describe what's so great about it. When you see videos of it, you're more likely to think, "What's so great about that?" And, well, what's so great about it is that 1) There's a whole lot of variety and cuteness, the songs are short, and the game even lets you skip the stages you can't beat, so it's pretty much impossible to get bored of it until you're finally done with the whole thing or you just kinda hate rhythm games, and 2) Oh man the remixes. After you complete four stages, the game gives you a remix stage to play, which cobbles all four previous stages together into one omnisong. The first part of this video is my favorite remix thus far. Maybe that will give you an idea of the diversity and charm on display here.

So anyway, back to that awful comic. Thanks to studying economics and cognitive bias, I actually have a s-c-i-e-n-t-i-f-i-c! explanation for how self-described "gamers" manage to get both the "modern games suck" and "casual games suck" points so awfully wrong all the time. First, rosy retrospection and the availability heuristic. People seem to have a tendency to rate past events higher in the future then they did when the events first happened. They also seem to remember more surprising, shocking, etc. events better than others. This causes them to overestimate probabilities by focusing on what's in their memory and ignoring base rates. If you were to ask a "gamer" the percentage of NES games that were TOTALLY AWESOME OMG out of the total, they'd remember the great games they played, remember some of the especially sucky ones, forget about some of the more mediocre ones, and completely ignore the fact that there are about 800 of the freakin' things, and the case gets only worse as videogames became more popular. (Wait, is the PS1 too late in the game for "gamers" to revere it as still being "hardcore"? I don't think it is, but maybe I'm missing some secret gamer's code or something.)

Furthermore, signaling theory explains the exclusion of even totally great "casual games." Gamers, diminished to a low status by society--and no, my little webcomic author, you did not reject society and become a social outcast for the sake of videogames; you couldn't talk about anything else, and it annoyed people, so they stopped talking to you--sought hierarchies among themselves. Status hierarchies are an extremely important factor in human psychology. We can't get away from it, even when we try. So, trashing casual games may seem stupid to you and me, but to people whose focused status-seeking behavior lies in how they play videogames, it's imminently important to make yourself look more important, smarter, or otherwise better than the unwashed masses who play casual games. The cost of missing out on Rhythm Heaven is lower than the cost of being a plebe. Remember, mockery from the likes of me isn't gonna hurt any feelings; I'm on the "outside" anyway. But a loyal following of webcomic readers who all agree with you puts you higher up on a hierarchy.

Besides, you can always just go back and play Rhythm Heaven on emulator when everyone's forgotten about it. Or, better yet, go back and say that you liked Rhythm Tengoku way before Rhythm Heaven ever came out, and Rhythm Heaven is totally just a watered down version (or whatever) and it's so not as cool. You might be able to get away with this; after all, casual games are totally ok as long as they're Japanese.

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