Here we are in 2015, anticipating a resurgence in the music game genre including a double-header from Harmonix with a Kickstarted Amplitude and a fan-focused Rock Band 4, and Activision are getting back in with a shaken up and FMV-heavy Guitar Hero Live. It’s been a while since we’ve had an embarrassment of music game riches, but back in the early 2000s we were inundated with music games of many types and origins, and Japan led the charge.
Gitaroo Man did kind of join the party a little late, releasing in 2001 after Space Channel, PaRappa the Rapper, Samba de Amigo. Maybe it learned from those games and plays better, maybe not. To be honest, I’m not sure how it stacks up because that whole genre passed me by back then. What I do know is that it really holds up now and is worth playing today.
The entire soundtrack is an original and eclectic mix of j-pop and rock, and each level plays out as a battle between whiny weakling U-1 and the various enemies he meets on his unlikely journey to save the world. Both sides contribute to the song as it progresses, charging up the power bar before fighting back and forth. Gameplay really comes in 2 flavours: follow the track with the stick and hit Circle in time, then hit the correct button as it reaches the centre of the screen. The tougher levels flip back and forth between them to test your skills.
The story is of little consequence, but the characters you meet along the way are entertaining and endearing. Check out the backup band! Check out Puma! Check out dumb little U-1! It’s kind of a psychedelic trip, drifting between charming cutscenes full of colour and childlike energy, and the significant challenge of the game played against the backdrop of sweeping visuals popping off around you and the eclectic soundtrack pulling it all together.
The game is quite short, but there’s an additional difficulty mode that’ll take time to get through, and there’s of course the inherent replay value of going through the playlist again, to go for a better rating. It’s a great fit as a quick fix, or to fill time on your commute. There are 2 versions of Gitaroo Man: the PS2 original from 2001, and a 2006 PSP re-release called Gitaroo Man Lives! which features 2 more songs and a multiplayer mode. I picked up Lives! so that it could be my on-the-go game for a while, and it stuck good 'n' proper.
The PSP multiplayer seems pretty cool especially in the co-operative Duet mode; I haven’t played it with another person, but it smartly lets you battle against or partner with the AI, so none of the content is restricted for individual players.
There are a couple of downsides worth bringing up, neither of which are actually the game’s fault, bless it. Firstly, it’s a shame it isn’t readily available on any digital service. It’s the kind of thing you’d see existing on the PlayStation Store, playable on a Vita. Unfortunately, it isn’t except for in Japan, and that then means playing on a PSP, which consistently gave me an awkward cramp in my right hand no matter how long I spent playing in a single session. It’s physically demanding, which would probably be fine with a larger controller or maybe if you're just sitting at home with it. I'm usually playing it whilst running the Madrid Metro gauntlet, after all!
The PS2 version doesn’t have as much content, and isn’t portable, but seems like it plays a little smoother, loads faster, and is probably more comfortable to play as well. I picked it up new on Amazon for less than €8, which felt like I was practically stealing. It seems like the price fluctuates, and that I got lucky, but it’s worth more than I paid so keep an eye out. Developer iNiS went on to make Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! which got a western spin-off under the name Elite Beat Agents, and did wonders with the Nintendo DS' touch controls, owing plenty to a foundation set by U-1 and his loyal pet, Puma.
Gitaroo Man is perfectly playable, a forgotten classic that I highly recommend.