Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan (Nintendo DS) (iNiS, 2005)

Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan

Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, literally translated, means something along the lines of "Yeah! Fight! Cheer Squad," an ouendan being a sort of cheer squad in Japan, serving a similar role as cheerleaders, rallying fans at sporting events in support of the home team. Fittingly, iNiS's 2005 Japan-only DS release, wherein you play the part of a group of ouendan that take their duties very seriously, is one of the most cheer-worthy, feel-good games I've ever played.

The eager-to-assist Ouendan in Ouendan do not work only sporting events. Rather, any time someone is in need of encouragement—be it a struggling student trying for the umpteenth time to pass his college entrance exams, a budding restaurateur desperate to attract patrons for his ramen shop, or a young man trying to impress a cute girl against the efforts of her protective father—the afflicted need only shout "Ouendan" to the heavens, and the Ouendan team will miraculously arrive to answer the summons and cheer them through their struggle.

Backed by mostly sentimental yet infectious Japanese pop songs of the era, the ensuing rhythm-based gameplay is not the most sophisticated. As the Ouendan on the bottom screen, players are limited to tapping and tracing with the stylus. Meanwhile, on the top screen, the scenario develops in bold manga-style comic panels, characters either succeeding or failing at their goals, depending on how well you perform in cheering them on. It's a neat trick having the action on one screen dynamically directing the story on the other, and the art and music are also perfectly matched with the narrative throughout. And the stories themselves—conceptually comical yet emotionally sincere—are surprisingly stirring. The player, as the Ouendan, is supposed to be the one encouraging the story characters through their hopeless situations, but I found that it often worked the other way around. That is, it was the characters and their situations (and the consistently rousing song choices) that motivated me to perform as well as I possibly could, because I genuinely wanted to deliver them to their happy endings. On that note, I consider Ouendan's greatest success to be its inventive approach in achieving a satisfying narrative that does not revolve around characters or objects smacking against one another, such collisions often appearing the inescapable golden thread in the web of video game narratives.

Consider a most basic game setup, wherein you have two blocks, one of them representing the player, and the other an NPC. Now, there don't intuitively appear to be very many different ways this block game can play out. The blocks can join together, at which point it becomes a puzzle game, or the blocks can collide against one another, at which point it becomes an action game. What you're not going to get is any kind of meaningful dialogue with the NPC block. I mean, it's a block, for God's sake. Alas, even the most complex video game NPCs are more like blocks than they are like humans, and you can't have meaningful dialogues with them either. Current video games simply don't have interfaces or AI sophisticated enough to facilitate that kind of interaction, and so what you find most often instead is much simpler physical interaction, usually in the form of combat.

Ouendan gets around this by having the narrative and gameplay sides of the experience be almost tangential to one another. The rhythm gameplay would work the same even if there were no story at all. Meanwhile, the story, despite being one step removed from the player, is no less engaging for it. Certainly, performing better yields more positive narrative outcomes, but the relationship is somewhat indirect. The Ouendan do not, after all, fight the needy characters' battles for them; they only cheer them on and inspire them to overcome their obstacles. In this way, it doesn't really matter how the blocks get along within any proposed narrative, because you're actually playing with them apart from (or, at most, alongside) the narrative. How you perform at the gameplay does affect the course of the narrative, but the gameplay and narrative are not one and the same, as in, say, a more typical action game, where the narrative arc might be you conquering your enemies, which, in gameplay, would be represented by you conquering your enemies (or, rather, the order there should probably be reversed, with the action gameplay determining (and limiting) the narrative). In Ouendan, distancing the narrative from the gameplay experience allows players to participate in all kinds of different stories far removed from the violent realm of most action game fodder, and the game is neither less fun nor the narrative less rewarding for it. On the contrary, I many times found myself intensely invested in some of Ouendan's stories, precisely because the subject matter, despite being heavy on Japanese cultural references, felt more real-world and relatable than the average convoluted sci-fi or fantasy video game plot. And, again, watching the characters steadily gain confidence as I cheered them on, from initially hopeless to finally heroic, was consistently one of the more deeply fulfilling experiences I've ever had in gaming.

Ouendan was followed by both an English-language spiritual sequel/extensively localized counterpart, Elite Beat Agents (2006), and a bona fide sequel, Moero! Nekketsu Rhythm Damashii Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan 2 (2007). They're mostly more of the same—just different stories and songs. I didn't quite enjoy either of them as much as the original, maybe because I didn't find the song choices as inspired, or maybe just because the concept no longer felt as fresh. I'll also say that Elite Beat Agents, despite some imaginative efforts to break down the cultural barriers by recasting the cheer squad as eccentric secret agents, somewhat lacked the charm of the Ouendan games, which, for us Westerners, were so bizarrely captivating precisely because of how steeped they were in manga aesthetics and overall Japanese-ness. Still, as the only one to get a release outside Japan, Elite Beat Agents remains a worthwhile experience for those not into importing.

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