Elite Beat Agents is a music game for the DS. It takes its mechanics and much of its style from a Japanese game called Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan; apparently, however, Nintendo of America thought that my country’s youth would prefer secret agents to male cheerleaders dressed in black, and American pop to J-pop. (Imagine that.)

The cool video game bloggers all disagree with NoA on that score, and I suspected that I’d prefer the original, too, but I didn’t feel like ordering it from an import store. And the US version has gotten reasonably good reviews – clearly its sense of style hadn’t entirely vanished in translation.

I was a bit dubious about the idea of a rhythm game on the DS, but the mechanics turn out to work rather well. Numbered buttons appear on the screen, with shrinking circles surrounding them; you’re supposed to tap the buttons when the circles shrink to the size of the button. There are also some paths which you have to move your stylus along as the speed of a ball. Pretty basic stuff, kind of artificial, but I’m not sure it’s any more so than any other rhythm game out there. (It just doesn’t have an alternate controller hiding the artificial nature.)

It begins with two difficulty levels opened up; I tried the harder one. And I was glad I did: the first few songs were quite easy. Fun, though – I didn’t mind the music, and the illustrations that went along with them were pretty funny. (My favorite one is when you play Leonardo da Vinci trying to woo Mona Lisa with your fabulous drawings and inventions.) Five or six songs in, though, it starts getting harder: I was working just to survive the songs, let alone to get a good rating on them. (Depending on how you’re doing during the story interludes in the song, you’ll get a good result or a bad result in the interludes: Mona Lisa may like you or spurn you, etc.) The last three, plus the one where you’re a car company heir dressed as a ninja sneaking into your competitor’s factory to retrieve some plans, are all really tough.

After which I unlocked the third difficulty level, and had to start all over again. Again, the earlier songs were really easy, but the later levels were quite tough. This time, though, when I got frustrated with the later levels, I went back and replayed them on the second difficulty level; they’d magically gotten quite easy in the interim. Which is a good sign on the gameplay mechanics: there is a real learning curve, you do get better as you go along, and getting through the tough ones is more of a matter of skill than luck.

And by the last level on the fourth and hardest difficulty setting, I needed all the skill I could muster. I think it took me something like three hours to make it through that level, and the part of my finger where the stylus rests was starting to get sore. But I never (well, almost never) felt that it was being unfair: I just had to do a better job of memorizing the tricky bits, and not losing my concentration over the course of the four or five minutes that it took to get through the song.

Liesl likes it, too: she’s banging her head against the third difficulty level now. (Or maybe she’s just finished that, I can’t quite remember.) When I finished it, I thought I’d go out and get the Japanese version, but I’m holding off for now; I’m in the mood for more J-pop (my entire collection of which consists of the two Katamari soundtracks, plus a greatest hists collection by Tsuji Ayano containing the excellent theme song from The Cat Returns – any other recommendations?), but the one video I’ve watched of a level on the Japanese version didn’t immediately grab me. And I have enough other games on my maybe-play list that I should give other genres a try.

Recommended; not as wide a range of songs as DDR, I suppose I like the controls in Guitar Hero a bit more, but worth playing.

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