Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The home version of IIDX 15 is completely absurd

beatmania IIDX is probably the hardest video game ever made. It was already the oldest and most stoically difficult music game out there, but the recently released Playstation 2 port of the 15th(!) arcade installment, the absurdly themed DJ TROOPERS, has a few new additions that push things right over the top.

IIDX is a hard game. I often describe it to people who are only familiar with Guitar Hero, Rock Band and the like as "Everything Hero." On the hardest difficulty (called "Another," for nebulous reasons), you play every part of the song, or close. It's far more like real-time sequencing than DJ'ing, really. Here, as an example, is autoplay of a song from the home version of DJ Troopers with an uncharacteristically Japanese title called "Child's Sketchbook." The tune's originally from Drummania/Guitar Freaks, another Konami music game series. Folks refer to songs that jump from game to game like this as "transplant songs."

Man, isn't that ridiculous? Especially 0:48! This is, actually, kind of the norm for hard songs in this game. Not necessarily in terms of sheer numbers - there are still lots of easy, or at least, easier songs - but there are more memorably virtuosic songs out there with every new version. It's hard for them not to dominate your impression of the series as a whole.

Now for some attempts at providing context: IIDX has always been about catering towards the fairly small group of people that obsessively play the game in Japanese arcades, or wish they could. In the arcade, you buy a card that keeps track of your scores. The card also allows you to set other players as your rivals, comparing your scores with other players in minute detail - you can play "against" other players' scores as ghosts, like in a racing game, with a little +/- number keeping track of where you are scorewise with an opponents' best score on a song, and a score graph that lets you easily compare your performance with others and yourself. There's even a database included in each of the home versions with score data for every player registered in Konami's system from a certain date before the game's home release, giving everyone a shot at something resembling live competition.

Another concept that I feel is integral to understanding the people who play this game is that there's almost no memorization involved. Guitar Hero and Rock Band have convinced quite a few people I know that music games are all about memorizing the note patterns for the super hard songs and practicing them over and over again until muscle memory takes over. IIDX can be played like that, sure, but the vast majority of players opt to focus on honing their reaction time to a razor's edge.
There are a number of options, adjustable before and during every song, to let you do this. The first is "Hi-Speed," (adjustable from 0.5 up to 5) which spaces the notes out and makes them scroll faster. If you've played Rock Band with the "Breakneck Speed" option turned on, it's a little like that. The difference is that it's totally controllable. Hold down the start button in the middle of a song to bring up a list of the available hi-speeds (seen above). Press the top row of buttons on the controller to increase the hi-speed, and press the bottom row of buttons to lower it. It's pretty dang handy.
The other helpful feature is called "Sudden+," which causes a square pane to appear over the area where the notes appear (seen above). Hold down the start button and spin the turntable up and down to adjust how much of your view is obstructed. Combined with Hi-Speed, you can make the notes scroll at any speed you like, depending on personal preference, the song's BPM, etc. The result of all this is that you eventually learn to read notes that scream from the top of the screen at speeds that seem, initially, to be entirely unreadable.
There's a second phase to all of this madness, and it's called "Random." Like Hi-Speed, it's turned on before you start a song. Do so, and the default note patterns of the song (a big reference list can be found here) get randomized. Any note that normally appears in the 3rd column gets swapped over to a random other column, and so on for every other note in the song. In the above picture, the left side player has random turned off, and the right side player has random turned on.

The result is that every song can remain surprising for many, many plays. More importantly, you get to play a huge number of different patterns that don't necessarily exist in any song by default (I'm not even going to start talking about "s-random," which randomizes every single note, as opposed to just swapping the note columns around). A common topic of conversation among beatmania players is the notion of songs having "good randoms" or "bad randoms," or being more prone to either. It's a fascinating extra layer of gameyness.

Ok! Why's the home version of IIDX 15 so especially nuts? The reason is: they added a new, harder difficulty for around 20 songs, one of which was already one of the hardest songs in the game.

Let's compare. Below is a video of Mendes, which was already the "boss song" of IIDX15. On the left side of the screen is the Another difficulty setting (previously the highest, above Hyper and Normal difficulty). It has 2000 notes in the span of 2 minutes. On the right side of the screen is the new difficulty they added for the home version, which no one's really sure what to call yet ("Danger" difficulty and "black another" are frontrunners). It has 2626 notes in the span of 2 minutes, and is the closest thing yet in this game to a challenge that is genuinely physically impossible. As of this writing, there are an estimated 5 people in the world capable of clearing it. I think it's a good place to stop at, really:


concrete_d said...

Very nice writeup on IIDX. The PSP's DJ Max series imitates beatmania on almost every level, and while I'm not sure it gets as soul-crushingly difficult as IIDX it gets close. It's a good way to get the beatmania experience without shelling out too much or having to go to an arcade.

subatomic brainfreeze said...

Seeing all this makes me miss IIDX a little bit. I stopped back at IIDX 11 when the difficulty finally elevated to the point where I was no longer having any fun. I probably would have bought Rock Band a long time ago, but having hit IIDX and Pop'n so hard makes me feel kind of burnt out on the genre in its entirety. I don't think that has ever happened to me with another videogame.

Jason Moses said...

concrete_d: I like DJ Max a lot and plan on writing something about the two new portable iterations of the game once I get a copy of Black Square sometime early next year.

Thank you for your readership!

Reginald Gaudalupe-Rodriquez Leif-Ericson ||| said...

I'm only familiar with IIDX at a casual player's level, so I can say that this was a very informative and genuinely good read. (I play DDR/ITG2, but can only pass some stuff on Normal on IIDX)

Yesterday someone that lives down the road from me won a IIDX Distorted cab at auction so I'll probably try and pick up this game. With that said, knowing that the black anothers are potentially not even the hardest charts I'll have available down the road is pretty intimidating.

tl;dr Nice article.

videoCWK said...

I'm pretty sure Lisu doesn't memorize songs.
Anyway, IIDX isn't like most music games where you can pick it up fairly quickly, it does take practice and more time to get good at it. I bothered to do it because the harder songs looked like they'd be really fun if you could actually do them, and so far that's been right. It's less fun when you first start, but as you progress it gets more and more fun. It does take time and patience, but considering how much fun it is to do harder songs I'd say it's worth the effort.
And I'm not even great yet, I'm just getting into 7k 10s. So there's a lot more fun to be had.

Also, Rock Band/Guitar Hero players memorize the notes? Seriously? That sounds like it would take more effort than it'd take to just learn to read notes in IIDX. I applaud these people for having the patience, though.

Jason Moses said...

Re: Lisu - A few years back, several players from the forum previously known as VJArmy went to Japan and found Lisu playing in the wild. Long story short, they asked him a lot of questions about the 6th Style Tatsujin videos, and Lisu said that he memorized the patterns the same way he would memorize the fingerings for a piano piece. Take that as you will.

As for Guitar Hero and memorization, that's just what the people I've spoken to at tournaments and the like have told me. Not all of them, mind you. Just the really obsessive top players, and only in the Denver area or thereabouts. It's entirely possible that my impression of the subject has been skewed heavily as a result!