Rhythm Heaven Fever, a brilliant new tempo tester for the Wii, highlights the challenge that Nintendo and other established game makers are currently facing with the rise of cheap downloadable games for phones, tablets, and other platforms.
It's a collection of about 50 short and simple rhythm games each of which involves just one or two buttons. It starts with a golf game that has players tapping the A-button on their remotes to hit balls tossed them in predictable cadence by a pair of apes. Beat this challenge and you'll find yourself screwing heads onto robots on an assembly line by pressing two buttons in time with a different tune. Pass this game and you'll gain access to a seesaw challenge that involves tapping a button each time a stickman lands on his end of the board.
That's about all there is to it. We unlock one quick and whacky rhythm challenge after another until there's nothing left to unlock. There's no narrative and no grand objective, save perhaps to deliver as many medal-winning performances as possible (medals grant access to bonus modes, "rhythm toys," and musical tracks that we can play in a virtual café).
This isn't a complaint. The game's simplicity is inspired. When you're in the zone juggling widgets or slicing shadowy demons, Rhythm Heaven Fever can be satisfying in a way that only the best, purest game experiences are. Plus, the music – a mix of retro digital tracks and corny Japanese-flavoured pop – is devilishly catchy. Don't be surprised if you find yourself humming the hooks from some of its better ditties.
I'll admit there are times when it can be frustratingly challenging. Some games require more precision than others, and the lack of an onscreen performance meter means we don't know how close or far we are to earning a passing grade. Plus, the graphics are often no more complex or compelling than the drawings in an off-brand Dollar Store colouring book.
Still, these issues hardly matter once you enter a Zen state, rhythmically high-fiving the paws of monkeys marking the seconds on a giant watch face.
So what's the problem? It's just not worth the $30 Nintendo is asking.
For better or worse, we now live in a world in which there are two types of games: Those that cost $1 to $15 (downloadable games for tablets, phones, and home platforms) and those that cost $30 to $60 (boxed games for consoles, PCs, and dedicated handheld game machines). Rhythm Heaven Fever is priced and packaged like the latter, but has all the hallmarks of the former.
People who pay big bucks for boxed games want something that they can't find on their mobile devices for just a few bucks. That means lush visuals, longevity, storytelling, and a level of user interface complexity beyond what's possible with a touch screen. That's the only way most gamers can justify the expense.
Rhythm Heaven Fever possesses none of these traits. It's fun, but it's also short, simplistic, and looks like it was made by a small group of guys who cut costs by doing the visual design themselves.
Realistically, it's the sort of game for which we gladly pay pocket change if found on Apple's App store. We might drop as much as $10 or $15 on it if we discovered it on Xbox Live or Steam. If it becomes a hit, it could end up selling a 10 million copies (or more) through these and other digital distribution channels.
I'd be surprised if it sold more than a million copies as a boxed game for Wii.
Of course, Nintendo doesn't make games for competing platforms. I think that's a mistake (at least when it comes to phones and tablets), but it's one not likely to be fixed any time soon. Fine. Then it should be released as a downloadable game through the eShop for Nintendo 3DS. If the 3DS is going to continue to compete with phones and tablets, it needs a robust library of affordable, high-quality downloadable games just like this. An expanded edition could have been released for 1200 points (about $12) through the Wii Shop channel.
Nintendo was able to get away with releasing simple games like this at retail prices as it helped build up the casual games market over the last seven years. But times have changed. Casual gaming has migrated to cheaper platforms. There are plenty of good and inexpensive music and rhythm games for phones and tablets priced at a pittance. Even if Nintendo's game is better than most of the ones we see in the App store (and I'll admit it is), is it so much better that it justifies paying ten times the price?
Rhythm Heaven Fever is terrific, but it's just not worth $30 in today's game landscape. The score I settled on below reflects this. I might have awarded it a 9 out of 10 were it the $5 game for phones/tablets/3DS it ought to have been. It's definitely worth playing, but wait for it to hit the bargain bins. You'll do the double-good of saving yourself some money and sending Nintendo the message that a change of strategy is in order.
Rhythm Heaven Fever
Release: February 13, 2012