Why am I wasting my time on a third-rate rhythm game that never demonstrated a meaningful moment in its life and is perhaps known for its use as an upgrade in existing Dance Dance Revolution cabinets, leading Konami to sue Roxor out of existence? Well, there’s this magical fairy land known as “teh hardcores”, and when In the Groove was flown in the backs of flying pixies, expert rhythm game players declared it out and out superior to the game it liberally borrowed from. Not because it was it was the clear and superior upgrade, but because it was harder. Longer songs, more notes, more complexity, more difficulty. In the Groove‘s “superiority” was less about proper game design and more about acting as a vehicle for the human competition that was being compromised by Dance Dance Revolution‘s easier song lists.
So why has it been so difficult to explain what a waste of time In the Groove really is? The first reason it that, so far as I know, nobody has written a decent review of any rhythm game in the Bemani lineage, so it’s not like newcomers and veterans of the rhythm game can pull from the exhaustive, well-researched body of documentation that is common to the more popular genres. The second is that rhythm games are such an abstraction of the videogame experience, that in the absence of an obvious aesthetic foundation, the player’s focus invariably falls on the mechanical elements. It’s not hard to see why the game that caters to an audience that is pathetically obsessed with the pursuit of high scores would be all ears to “it has harder and more challenging mechanics, so it’s the better game”.
But here’s the important question: What has always separated dance games like Dance Dance Revolution, Pump it Up, and Para Para Paradise from the more complex and challenging game series like Beatmania, Pop ‘n Music, and Guitar Hero? It’s not merely that the dance games allow you to get your entire body involved, positioning them in some weird dead zone between videogame and fitness software. Dance games live and die by their ability to flexibly use mechanics in a way which does not compromise the aesthetic presentation. In this case, the input (“dancing to the beat”) is an abstraction of the output (instruments, vocalists, soundboards), giving these games significantly superior flexibility for level design when compared to the instrument-based rhythm games that are synchronizing input and output.
This obviously isn’t a golden ticket for rhythm game design, as witnessed through the generally stagnant and repetitive designs that plague games like the Project Diva series. You still need to make the most of that flexibility, editing and trimming the music to end up with an appealing base for your levels. And with this flexibility, the most interesting moments in dance games demonstrate a rigorous appeal to arcade design sensibility: Short, focused designs that quickly ramp up the challenge with varied and diverse routines. While games like the Guitar Hero series are at the mercy of audiences who are more concerned with “playing their favorite music”—instead of whether the songs are worth pursuing in the Guitar Hero model—dance games can “switch between instruments” in the pursuit of a single tightly-focused level, freely changing input as the mood and tempo of the song command those changes.
With this in mind, it’s not hard to figure out why In the Groove shits the bed. After all, we’re talking about a dance rhythm game centrally designed around four buttons. There’s nothing complex about the controls or the game systems. So naturally, the fastest, most frenetic interpretation of the genre—as played through the repulsive levels found in amateur projects like Stepmania and Flash Flash Revolution—is still going to be less complex and less interesting than the competing Bemani or Harmonix titles! So why in the hell would you use the dance game to try and match the difficulty, challenge, and complexity found in those games? That’s precisely the reason you don’t play a dance game with a keyboard or a controller in the first place: You’re using your feet to increase the physical complexity in lieu of the limited videogame interactions. (And it’s precisely the reason that Stepmania, as played with a keyboard, may very well be the worst videogame ever made.)
In the Groove entirely opts against the strengths of the dance game in order to pursue the weaknesses, and the decision to go longer, harder, and faster is nothing less than a total disaster. Notecharts wade into the same sort of nonsense that “teh hardcores” would hold to high regard in Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, with plenty of notes to nail but little variation and imagination in their construction. Songs run longer than their Dance counterparts, and while the additional length does not preclude the creation of playable music, the extra half-minute is merely tacked on to the existing theory of song design. Groove commonly fills this time and energy with a second stanza that simply compromises the pace and flow of the music. The game also flaunts its interface customization as a key feature, but its use in the creation of self-imposed challenges has never been anything less than a gimmick. Combine this with the transformation of a colorful, quirkly, energetic Japanese aesthetic into a sterile Western knock-off, and there’s hardly any praise worth spreading around.
The few interesting contributions to the generally stagnant dance game model brought to the floor by In the Groove—particularly its use of three- and four-step combinations—are inevitably washed away in a cacophony of sloppy design. The only thing keeping In the Groove from sharing airtime with forgotten games like Dance Factory and Flow: Urban Uprising is that Groove found a niche following from capable players. And the proof of this failure is that the same people who championed In the Groove as an evolution of Dance Dance Revolution tend to become awfully quiet when you ask how the game’s easier music holds up. When forced to compete with Pump and Dance at the things that those games are already doing, the game is exposed for exactly what it is.
“Oh, you’re just mad because you couldn’t hang with the best players!” Fuck off, asshole. Rhythm games can be properly dissected and analyzed by anyone with a decent grasp of music, math, and videogames, and the argument of expertise and skill—the idea you can only judge In the Groove if you have burned your way through death marches like Vertex and Pandemonium—crumbles to the wayside faster than it would with any other genre. If the only thing your game has going for it is “it’s competitive” or “it’s more difficult”, then you don’t have a game worth playing. And with it, it doesn’t matter whether I’ve met your nebulous criteria for “expert” play. What matters is whether the game is good or bad, and even within a genre whose quality and philosophy are largely suspect, In the Groove makes a demonstrable and resounding case for the latter. Burn it.