Some games are easy to review. You pretty much know what you're getting when you put the disc in, all the writer needs to do is talk about the major aspects of the game and he's done with it. Those games don't require a lot of effort; you don't need to spend three paragraphs explaining how the game works and why you should care. Those games already have a built-in fan base, it's not up to the writer to convince people that they should play the newest first-person shooter or Grand Theft Auto clone. Those games are easy to review. Gitaroo Man Lives is not one of those games.
Gitaroo Man is a rhythm game the likes you have never seen before. The game is weird, and that's saying something in a genre that also houses way out there titles like PaRappa the Rapper and Technic Beats. It features crazy rock music, a talking dog, an alien shark, skeletons and one of the most outlandish stories I have ever seen. Yet despite the fact that I was completely baffled throughout the entire experience, Gitaroo Man Lives manages to be a surprisingly addictive rhythm game full of catchy songs, memorable characters and a crazy battle system that is totally original and a whole lot of fun.
Gitaroo Man Lives is a remake of a 2002 PlayStation 2 game. In the past I have spoken out against all of these companies porting PS2 games to the PSP, I'm the type of person that looks for fresh new content that is made specifically for Sony's handheld. But when it comes to a game like Gitaroo Man it's hard to complain too much about them porting the brilliant console game. For one thing, the PS2 original isn't easy to come by these days. For a lot of people this will be their first exposure to Koei's crazy music game, and the PSP is a perfect fit for Gitaroo Man.
The game centers around a nerdy kid named U-1. This guy is a real loser, he's terrible around women, he can't skate and he does everything wrong. Early in the game U-1's talking dog informs him that he is part of the Gitaroo bloodline, and he may even be the last remaining Gitaroo Man. That means that everybody is after him, which ultimately pits him in a number of one-on-one battles. The entire game is situated around the idea that you use music as a weapon, you are Gitaroo Man and he's going to literally rock your socks off.
As U-1 goes off on his adventure he will be matched against a bunch of musical baddies that will do anything to make sure he doesn't succeed. And when I say they will do anything, I mean that they will play songs and try to hurt each other in a unique combat mode that makes absolutely no sense … but is a lot of fun to do. These battles aren't hard, the way you play them makes complete sense and you'll pick up the controls within minutes of starting the game. But I'm completely baffled by the idea of using your awesome guitar riffs to battle these bizarro enemies. Who knew that you actually could rock so hard that it hurt those around you?
The one-on-one battles are separated into three different parts. The first thing you do in most of these fights is to Charge, where you play notes in order to increase your health meter. After you've charged your character up, it's on to the Battle part of the fight, where the player and the computer-controlled enemy trade hits trying to knock away as much health as possible. When your enemy is low on health we find the third part of the fight, called Final. Here you will play notes and harmonize, ultimately draining all the life out of your enemy. Do all this correctly and it's off to the next fight, fail and you have to start all over again and do a better job.
At first this may seem complex, but when it really comes down to it there are only two different types of game play in Gitaroo Man Lives. Early into a battle you will be on the offense, using your analog nub to point to the notes you need to hit and hitting (and holding) the "O" button when it tells you to. It's easy to follow these notes with your analog nub because there's a line that connects everything and you can see it coming a few seconds ahead of the note. Just as long as your analog nub (which is represented by a cone) is in the general area of the line you should be fine, but if you're going to play the song right you are going to need great timing and good aim.
When you aren't jamming away at your guitar hoping to inflict harm on your opponent, you have to play defense as the other guy is trying to hurt you. You defend yourself by pressing the face button (X, O, Triangle and Square) when it hits the middle of the screen. These buttons come from the four sides of the screen in varying speeds and complexity. This doesn't sound hard, but the game can throw a lot of different buttons your way making this a lot more challenging than you might think. Thankfully you can see the buttons coming, but some are slower (and faster) than others which can really throw your game off. Make no mistake about it; defending yourself can be extremely difficult, especially as you near the end of the game.
Part of the fun of Gitaroo Man is that you never know what you'll see next. The cast of enemies in this game are so crazy and diverse that you will never be able to get them out of your head. Where else are you going to go from battling a spaceship in the middle of town to going head to head with a guy dressed up in a bee costume? And that's just the start of the crazy enemies, you also get to fight a shark in the middle of outer space, a little dude dressed like the devil, and a trio of skeletons with helmets on. By the time you've gone through the game's ten levels you will actually feel like you've experienced something great, even if you don't know what it all means.
With every new character you fight you will be introduced to a new song, each song representing a different musical genre. You will go through everything from traditional J-Pop to surfer music to reggae to love ballads all on your bizarre adventure. The songs in Gitaroo Man Lives are diverse enough to have something for just about everybody. And while you may dislike one or two of the songs, the music here is actually quite strong. The songs won't be as recognizable as what you might find in Guitar Hero, but after a few listens chances are good you will be singing along and having a good time.
Part of the reason this type of game works so well on the PSP is because it can be played in very short bursts. The game is all about turning it on and playing one or two songs while you wait to do something else. You can have a good time with Gitaroo Man Lives regardless of what kind of mood you are in (or want to be in).
It's probably best you take this game a few songs at a time, because the game itself is actually painfully short. With only ten levels most gamers will be able to play through the game in just a couple of hours. Except for the last few stages, Gitaroo Man Lives is not an especially challenging game on the default difficulty setting. Thankfully the difficulty is not that big of an issue, no matter what grade you get on your first play through, you can't help but want to go back and experience the songs all over again.
Part of the reason Gitaroo Man Lives works so well is because of how completely out there it is. Although the game keeps explaining what's going on, I couldn't help but feel like I was missing something. It's full of crazy Japanese humor and the people you fight are about as weird as you can get. This is not the type of game that is easy to tell your friends about, it's something you're going to have to show people … and even then they may still not get it. But for how crazy weird the game is, it's also an extremely fun experience. Battling these enemies with music is just a whole lot of fun, and it's hard to resist the funny art direction and cool characters.
While the single player mode isn't especially long, there are a few extra modes that will extend the game's life out quite a bit. Gitaroo Man Lives comes with a couple of different multiplayer modes, which can be played against another friend (provided he is in the same room) or against the computer. The first mode is the standard one-on-one battle, where you charge, attack and defend. While I appreciate that Koei tried to make an engaging two player battle, this versus mode is just not going to cut it. More fun is the brand new Duel mode, which even allows you to play two new songs exclusive to this version of Gitaroo Man. After playing with the new songs I couldn't help but pine for a real sequel, and not just a remake.
The graphics in Gitaroo Man Lives are good, but due to the game's age it's hard to get too excited about the character models. But don't let me make it sound like the game is ugly; it actually has a unique look with a whole lot of personality. I especially loved the pre-rendered cinema scenes, they have a style all their own and are full of crazy character models and cute graphics. I also enjoyed the voice acting, which offers some crazy readings of some equally crazy lines. I can't help but love the voice they chose for the talking dog, and I find it funny every time I hear some of the kids who are obviously voiced by people over 30. All this leads to some very entertaining cut scenes that will bring a smile to your face.
Gitaroo Man Lives proves to be a thoroughly entertaining remake of one of the strangest music games of all time. While it's easy to be disappointed that this is not the sequel we've all been waiting for, this PSP game manages to maintain everything that was great about the console game and make a few improvements. Hopefully this will be Gitaroo Man's new home; I would love to see the franchise continue with sequels with even crazier enemies, songs and talking animals. If you somehow missed Gitaroo Man on the PS2 this is your chance to play one of the nuttiest music games of all time.