[Review] Rhythm Heaven: The Best Plus
Posted on November 11, 2015 by Patrick(@Patricklous) in 3DS, Reviews
Release date: June 11, 2015 (JP)
Okay, so full disclosure: Rhythm Heaven is probably my favourite Nintendo-published series if not my flat-out favourite game series of all time. For me the core gameplay clicked immediately with the cute and creative minigames that make up the series proving to be a brilliant way to test players’ musical abilities. You could sell me a Rhythm Heaven game that was 75% old content and I’d still eat it up. And that just so happens to be what Nintendo have done this time. The currently Japan-exclusive Rhythm Heaven The Best+ brings rhythm games from the previous three entries in the series to the 3DS along with a handful of new games and some structural changes. It’s a solid compilation of the series’ highs, even if there’s a sense that the developers didn’t quite get why Rhythm Heaven is “the best”.
First off, let’s talk about the game’s story, because there actually is a story this time around. This Rhythm Heaven tasks players with helping Tebiri, a tiny guy with an afro, get back to his home in the heavens, something that can apparently only be done by clearing a series of short rhythm games. You’ll encounter a range of strange characters, all of whom have far too much to say. Apparently during production of Paper Mario: Sticker Star, legendary Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto stepped in and told staff that “it’s fine without a story”. Miyamoto might have been completely off-base when talking about Paper Mario, but I can’t help but wish someone had said something about Rhythm Heaven. This isn’t the kind of game that needs some sort of plot to justify the action; it’s unnecessary and throws off the pacing of the game. Rhythm Heaven is all about flow and constantly jumping to new rhythm games, so the frequent dialogue in between stages interrupts that flow completely. Sure, the writing is kind of cute, but this is a game with baby seals marching and monkey pyjama parties. No-one has ever complained that Rhythm Heaven wasn’t cute enough.
Rhythm Heaven has always been structured as a series of stand-alone rhythm-testing minigames culminating in a “remix” stage that mashes up each game to test what players have learned. This new title bucks this trend a bit by initially giving players a set of four games to work through (three old, one new). There’s still as many remixes as usual, but they don’t come until a fair way into the game, which is disappointing since they tend to be the highlight. Instead the stages are broken up with adapted versions of the “endless” games from earlier entries. Three gatekeepers task players with completing their game and there’s some control over the difficulty level provided you’ve earned enough coins from clearing the regular stages. Even in their cut-down form, these games are still fun (the sole new addition made me laugh out loud), but they’re a poor substitute for the usual remixes.
It’s a slow start to the game that I’m sure was intended to ease less rhythmically-inclined players in, but I can’t see it doing much to keep them engaged. The same problem affects the selection of minigames; the first few levels from previous games have been made even easier with new (often worse) music. Sure, the old versions are still there, but you’ll have to beat both takes on the level to unlock the second wave of stages, so there isn’t much challenge or variation in the early rhythm games. It’s strange to not encounter the easiest stages from previous games until the halfway point.
That said, some of the changes in making the game easier for new players did work out for the better. There’s now a visual indication of the timing window on the bottom screen so players can easily check to see if they were too slow or fast – there’s also a satisfying explosion of sparkles if you manage to hit a note perfectly. The scoring system is much more transparent now, since it finally assigns players a score and lets them know exactly what the cut-off for each rank is.
There aren’t many new rhythm games in this entry, but at least the handful of new stages that made it in are some of the best in the series. Though the games are still very simple, they’re a little more ambitious with varied visual styles that still fit the franchise and in some cases attempt to tell a cohesive (and strangely touching) narrative. Rhythm Heaven finally has its “You’re the Inspiration” stage and it involves a bear binge-eating. The older stages that make up most of the game are generally good picks, although some of the better stages from the Nintendo DS (looking at you, Love Lab) have been left out since they wouldn’t work with the new control scheme. The touch screen controls from the previous handheld entry have been removed completely in favour of using the D-Pad and buttons instead. It isn’t quite as elegant and some of the old games feel a bit awkward with the new controls, but having a consistent control scheme for all of the games makes sense.
Overall the music is a little weaker than previous entries with few of the new remixes standing out, but there’s still a broad range of musical genres represented. For what it’s worth I still find myself randomly singing “I’m a lady now” under my breath. Though a few of the older tracks have been updated (the vocals on the idol concert from the DS Rhythm Heaven have been completely redone), the cues from the original Game Boy Advance entry seem unchanged and the scratchy audio stands out. Almost ten years later I still have no idea what the Space Dancers are saying.
The visuals follow the same template as Rhythm Heaven Fever for the Wii and have a very basic, clean look to them. All of the art from the earlier handheld games has been upscaled but retains the same charm as it did in those entries. I’m a sucker for character designer Ko Takeuchi’s artwork and her simplistic designs suit the series perfectly. As much as I dislike the new characters that keep babbling on about nothing in between stages, their goofy designs are pretty good. Surprisingly, the game looks quite nice with the console’s 3D effect turned on, especially for any stage with baseballs or clouds flying into the screen.
The previous Rhythm Heaven entries had plenty of things to mess around with outside of the main minigames, but you won’t find any rhythm toys or drumming lessons here. Instead the main draw is the Challenge Train – a side mode where players board a train to take on a series of stages, provided they avoid failure enough for the train to make it back in one piece. These courses tend to follow a specific theme, like a series of remixes or a set of games that all involve monkeys, and most are quite difficult. Each stage has a specific requirement that needs to be cleared like reaching a specific score, making it to the end without messing up too much, or hitting enough beats with perfect timing in order to avoid being eaten by a monster. And if that wasn’t enough, they tend to ramp up the tempo as well. These courses can also be played with up to three others locally, although even the download play is region-locked so I wasn’t able to test it. I wasn’t too interested in this mode going in, but the train ended up being my favourite part of the game, adding a lot of tough, optional challenges and reasons to play older stages even once you’ve achieved a perfect rating. It’s quite rewarding too, since the currency earned from clearing courses can be used to buy even more games from previous titles. You don’t have to buy Love Rap if you don’t want to!
Rhythm Heaven The Best+ makes a bad first impression with a slow start and an obtrusive focus on storytelling, but it’s still nails the same elements that made me love the series in the first place. You can really feel your sense of rhythm improving over time, and it’s far less bland than any Brain Training game out there. The story and structural changes are annoying, but they don’t ruin the experience and are a complete non-issue after clearing the game. With the reused tracks and gentler difficulty curve I suspect newcomers will get more out of this entry than Rhythm Heaven veterans, but the addition of the Challenge Train gives players after a challenge access to the hardest stages of any Rhythm Heaven game. As good as they are, it’s tough to recommend this entry for the small number of new games it contains, but I had fun revisiting the bite-sized worlds of dancing frogs and hairy onions. It might not be the best Rhythm Heaven, but the sheer amount of content sure is a plus.