Ever since last week’s Jet Set Radio blog, I’ve found myself thinking about some of the questions that game raises. Questions like, “How is music a liberating force?” and “How does music help us realize some aspect of ourselves we’d otherwise be ignorant to?” These may be tangential to what the game does, but I still think they’re worth consideration. Fortunately, Rhythm Tengoku recently afforded me an opportunity to explore those questions in greater depth. Unfortunately, the game’s only able to broach such topics by getting them wrong. As much as it wants you to believe its inspirational messages about achieving your true potential, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, Rhythm Tengoku represents not the realization of the self, but the suppression and pacification of it.
Most of the game’s problems (if not all of them) stem from that initial framing. Without it, this would be a simple rhythm game; competent, but otherwise unremarkable. Yet from the beginning, Rhythm Tengoku dissuades any notions that this is going to be an ordinary experience. As soon as you start, a cute cartoon DJ appears on screen to tell you how he can help you realize your inner rhythm. With this new power, you’ll unlock your latent potential (presumably, your ordinary experiences were keeping you from doing so before) and become conscious to aspects of your reality you’d otherwise be ignorant toward. It’s a very alluring promise, and one that at least at first, appears to hold up: the game expends a lot of effort teaching you to anticipate rhythms and think for yourself, rather than follow orders like you would in other rhythm games.
Sadly, interrogating these ideas further only reveals how little they hold up to scrutiny. Much like WarioWare (more on that later), gameplay in Rhythm Tengoku is spread across a wide variety of quick, delightful mini-games. One game has you performing at a festival. Another asks that you help a group of mice sneak past a cat to steal some cheese. Yet another tells you to play the chorus in a rap duo. Strip away the musical motifs, though, and a common theme emerges: social performance. Your actions are never just an expression of some innermost thought; they also exist as a performance molded for some outside audience. That alone isn’t enough to overturn the game’s themes, since it could be argued that one only realizes themselves by performing for the other. However, I don’t get the sense that Rhythm Tengoku leans into that argument.
In fact, the game makes it difficult if not outright impossible to express yourself within its terms. What meaningful expression can you render with only the one button that most of these mini-games use? But perhaps more importantly, any self expression that doesn’t fall within the game’s systems is met not with praise, but scorn from your peers. Missing the beat even once invites harsh glares that communicate how much you’re being judged for failures you can never recover from. These aren’t notions the game is particularly interested in dissuading, either. If anything, it empowers them through objectivity. The first mini-game you play is presented as a calibration test that monitors your button presses on a seismograph. Subsequent ones see the game step back to become a detached omniscience, one that only ever expresses itself through a semi-impartial rating system (やりなおし, 平凡, ハイレベル). Here we see the dark side of Rhythm Tengoku earlier promises: the game is able to hold you to its outside standards by presenting them as a means of guiding you toward some authentic self. In doing so, not only does the game render your failures an absolute fact of the world, but it also masks them as an innate flaw in your very being.
In addition, Rhythm Tengoku suggests that the best way to realize its brand of salvation is as a worker within the system it’s designed. Throughout each of its mini-games, I couldn’t shake the feeling that playing these games felt like work: rote manual labor with no place for critical thought. I’m not to think of the outside world, and I’m certainly not to question the system. All I’m to do is to take pride in the task I’ve been given and to do it as efficiently as possible. Structures like this can only ever communicate their disregard (if not outright contempt) for the individual. Not only does it disregard any attempts to develop a self within its boundaries, but it also construes the individual as a replaceable They allow themselves to disregard any attempts to develop the self by interpreting that self as an impediment to success (a success they define), and then they contend that one can only find self-value through labor, justifying the way they treat people as interchangeable, even replaceable. Rhythm Tengoku isn’t subtle about this, either. The theming behind each mini-game brings these sentiments to the surface, whether it’s a skinner box, a military regiment, or just mindless pop entertainment.
Some of what I’ve said so far may sound surprising. Rhythm Tengoku doesn’t look like an exploitative game. It looks innocent, maybe even ideal as far as game design goes. But that’s precisely the problem. In pursuing ideal game design, Nintendo failed to consider the context in which that design acts, and it’s this ignorance that produces so many of the game’s problems. As an example, consider the aesthetic. In establishing a unique style, Rhythm Tengoku borrows from a wide range of sources like 70s dance shows and kawaii culture. And in light of how many terms I heard “don don pan pan” as I was writing this, I have a hard time denying how catchy and distinct the end results are. Yet that same catchiness stops being innocent fun the moment it meets the one to two minute windows in which play occurs. Now these sections demonstrate the pacifying effect pop culture can have on us. In other words, Nintendo has uncritically reproduced in Rhythm Tengoku the same phenomenon they’d satirized in at least three prior WarioWare games.
The situation doesn’t get much better when we look at the gameplay. Unlike the game’s art style, which only vaguely alludes to ideas of perfection, the design philosophies driving the game make those ideas manifest. Everything about Rhythm Tengoku has been tweaked so minutely that (at least in theory) it comes as close to achieving perfect game design as is humanly possible. The difficulty has been smoothed out to conform to a perfect curve, and the mechanics have been elegantly tuned to the point where they’re simple to learn but hard to master. As an object, the game is a thing of beauty. But games are rarely objects. More often, they’re a shared experience between myself and the game. When I judge Rhythm Tengoku along those lines, I’m left wondering what the game thinks of me, and where I’m supposed to fit into it. As far as I can tell, the game doesn’t offer me any real place within itself. So concerned is it with achieving perfection that it’s hesitant letting me into its world, lest I mar its efforts by bringing my human imperfections to bear on it. At best, the game can only ever perceive me as an insignificant cog in its grand machinations.
None of this would be as big a problem as it is if not for how the game presents itself. Fixing that wouldn’t make Rhythm Tengoku a particularly good game, mind you, but without the self improvement aspect, it could feasibly survive as a regular rhythm game. In fact, given how disinterested the game is in pursuing that angle (it’s rarely mentioned after the introduction), I don’t see what the game stands to gain by its inclusion. But that doesn’t mean I can ignore it. It’s still there, affecting every facet of the game to come after it. So instead of a simple rhythm game, I’m left with a game that makes me question what good game design entails. How should such design treat the player? How should developers envision these players within the systems they design for them? These are broad questions that Rhythm Tengoku proves incapable of answering.