The door closes behind you with an ominous click. It’s bright in here — too bright. Before you can get your wits about you, your host begins to speak.
“We hope you’ll enjoy finding your own rhythm,” she says, all smiles. “So have fun and enjoy all the game has to offer.” With that, she leaves the room.
The walls and floors are painted white, and it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. It’s just you, a small video game controller with two buttons, and a television monitor. On the screen is a video game called Rhythm Heaven Fever. Welcome to Hell.
You might think that with an intro like that, I’m about to talk about how much I don’t like Rhythm Heaven Fever. But oh, how wrong you’d be! I actually really like Rhythm Heaven Fever. I also hate it. It cracks me up. It terrifies me. I can’t stop playing it.
Like the game itself, my feelings are both simple and complex. Let me explain.
Rhythm Heaven Fever is a rhythm game in its purest form. It’s the third game in the Rhythm Heaven franchise, and the first one for the Wii — the first two came out on the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS. It derives its purity from its control scheme: There are no guitar or drum peripherals, no touch-pads, no fancy dancing mats or motion-sensing cameras. There’s just you, the game, and two buttons on a controller. It’s really just a tiered collection of 40 rhythm minigames, and players are tasked with matching their presses of the Wii’s A button or both the A+B buttons in time with various animations.
It’s that simple. But oh man, it is not simple.
Every minigame is different, and all rely on two basic input variations: a “light” beat and a “heavy” beat. Usually, the A button controls the light beat while the A+B buttons control the heavy one. The visual cues tell you which beat is coming: In one game you’re hitting golf-balls thrown by a monkey, the next you’re assembling robots or stabbing flying peas with a fork. The animations and art are bizarre and cute, and the visuals provide excellent feedback to how you’re doing. When I perfectly skewered a flying pea or perfectly screwed on a robot-head, the visual and auditory cues combined to provide an almost physical rush of success.
That’s in large part because Rhythm Heaven Fever is an unforgiving game. Right when you start it up, a couple of smiling cartoon animals will put you through a “rhythm test,” which has you pressing the button in time with the beat of the music. You’ll quickly find that your rhythm is not as good as you think it is — I was consistently registering both early and late hits, doubtless due in small part to getting my head around what appeared to be some tiny lag from the wireless controller (or from my TV, or something), but largely just due to the fact that Rhythm Heaven Fever has a very specific groove that isn’t quite compatible with other grooves. Like, say, my own.
Specifically, Rhythm Heaven Fever sits on top of the beat, and quite deliberately so. Much of the music I play and listen to lays back; the hits happen a fraction of a second behind the beat. Games like Rock Band, which allow players to mimic more laid-back rock and funk, have forgiving “windows” during which players can hit the pad or strummer, letting players feel like they’re playing the music with a groove that matches the performance. This is… not the case with Rhythm Heaven Fever.
As a result of its pushy groove, Rhythm Heaven Fever feels super caffeinated at all times. In order to register a hit properly, you’ve got to be a hair ahead of the beat, and it takes some getting used to. It never quite feels comfortable, but I sense that that’s by design. This is actually the sort of music game designed more for people who are good at video games than for people who are good at music.
Play a few minigames and you’ll immediately see what I’m talking about — the game is profoundly picky, binary in how it defines “right” and “wrong.” You’ll fail time and again, and only through extreme focus on that one button, on that one beat, will you find success. Rhythm Heaven Fever is a brutal taskmaster, but if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be nearly as distinctive or fun.
Rhythm Heaven Fever‘s greatest success is in how it merges visuals and music. The art is vital to gameplay, and every time I tried playing it with my eyes closed, I found that I wasn’t as good. It’s possible to play it reacting only to the auditory cues, but it feels entirely different and doesn’t feel right. The visual feedback is amazing, occasionally distracting, often maddening, and is a crucial part of the experience.
Everyone will have levels that they love and levels that they hate. For me, I adore “Screwbot Factory,” where you screw on robot-heads, as well as the wicked-groovy “Working Dough.” Others stymied me utterly — one game that involves matching a monkey’s tambourine beats is so infuriating that you’ll want to grab the little bastard, tie him to your controller, and throw them both out a window. Another one, “Monkey Watch,” is like injecting yourself, Inception-style, into a metronome’s nightmare.
A couple of years ago, I taught myself drums. For a while, I was content to just figure out beats, work on limb independence, and have fun with the instrument. But eventually I decided I needed to work on fundamentals. I’ve long been a fan of Ted Reed’s book Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer (seen to the side here). Don’t let the cheesy dude on the cover fool you — this is one of the hippest, most comprehensive guides to syncopation money can buy.
The book is set up in a long series of simple-looking patterns. Just single notes on the snare drum, with a steady beat on the bass drum. (You can see these on the cover.) Page after page after page of eighth, quarter, and sixteenth notes. And yet when you play through it with a metronome (on any instrument, not just drums), you’ll find yourself lost in an endless ocean of rhythmic possibilities. One note can be played so, so many different ways, mathematically displaced by fractions. The possibilities are essentially limitless.
Rhythm Heaven Fever feels this same way. The input is incredibly simple, the beats are basic, the cues are always the same. But once those fundamentals are set, the game methodically twists, skews, and displaces them until you’re playing all manner of funky, surprising beats.
The game has features adjacent to its focused single-player — there is a multiplayer mode that lets two players fail challenges together, and each set of five levels is capped off by a challenging “Remix” that combines all of the five games before it into one super-groove. There are also unlockable bonuses like songs and rhythm toys that, while goofy and entirely inessential, are fun enough to provide incentive to earn medals by hitting perfect scores on the various levels. (No small feat, that. I’ve only earned a few medals.)
The cheery, borderline creepy art is winning and distinctive. Like the smilingly menacing imaginary test-giver I described at the start of this review, the game will taunt you with its extremely high standards, calling you funny names for failing while simultaneously telling you that you’re doing okay! And don’t give up! It’s all so peppy and colourful (and merciless) that it gives Rhythm Heaven Fever a more-than-faintly psychotic edge. This game pretends to be colourful and charming, but at its heart it is 100% Not Fucking Around.
I wouldn’t want to play in Rhythm Heaven Fever the band, but I had a great time playing Rhythm Heaven Fever the game. It’s refreshingly brutal in its simplicity of design, and for all its family-friendly colour, it is one of the most hardcore games I’ve played in ages.
It’s hellish; it’s a rush. It’s maddening; it’s joyous. My thumb literally has blisters on it. I can do no less than to give it a wholehearted recommendation.