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Dancing Mad with Hatsune Miku

Pete spends some time with the demo version of Sega's imminently arriving Vocaloid game.

I love the music game genre. Absolutely love it.

And I'm not talking about plastic instruments here -- though I still have a Guitar Hero World Tour set cluttering up the corner of my living room. I'm talking about the music-based games that came prior to the plastic instrument revolution: the music games that were super-creative, that used music in interesting ways and which weren't under any illusions that they'd actually teach you how to play an instrument. Stuff like Bust A Groove, Vib Ribbon, Parappa the Rapper and, later, titles like Space Channel 5 and Elite Beat Agents/Ouendan.

While I very much enjoyed Guitar Hero and its ilk -- particularly the social aspect of playing them with friends -- I found myself gradually starting to pine for the days when music games weren't just pushing buttons or hitting drums in time with an infinitely scrolling note highway. Granted, most music games consist of little more than tapping buttons or stomping on a dance pad in time with some sort of on-screen indicator, but Guitar Hero/Rock Band's way of doing things was already starting to get a little tiresome by Rock Band 2, and it had thoroughly outstayed its welcome by the time Rock Band 3 came around. (My Xbox 360's hard drive was starting to heave under the weight of all those imported tracks, too, and I couldn't help but feel those gigabytes could be better used elsewhere.

After Rock Band 3's initial popularity petered out, the music game genre seemed to drop off the radar completely. People were sick of it, it seemed, and no-one was in a great hurry to either attempt a return to the pre-Guitar Hero days or try for one last hurrah for the plastic instrument brigade. This was a great shame, to my eyes; music games were always something I'd turn to if I wanted a quick blast on something for a few minutes rather than spending hours at a time glued to the screen. I still had all my old games in the genre, of course -- right up until Bizarre Creations' criminally underrated Boom Boom Rocket -- but I always found myself thinking it'd be nice to have something new.

I became aware of Project Diva F through the Japanese/otaku culture retailer J-List, from whom I've bought a number of bits and pieces -- mostly visual novels -- over the years. Peter Payne, who runs the site, is an active user of social media and regularly makes use of Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr to make J-List's followers aware of the interesting import games his company offers. One title that Payne repeatedly brings up is Hatsune Miku Project Diva F for PlayStation Vita and, later, PlayStation 3; it's a game that, whenever mentioned, at least one person expresses a considerable degree of affection for, if only for the fact that Miku herself is such a cultural icon both in Japan and to the otaku community.

Miku, if you're unfamiliar, is one of the mascot characters for Yamaha's Vocaloid "singing synthesizer" technology. Developed by Crypton Future Media and released in 2007, Miku (the character) was designed as a means of complementing the software's distinctive, somewhat robotic voice with a distinctive, recognizable image. Miku's design was born from a combination of factors: her color scheme came from the Vocaloid synthesizer's signature turqoise coloring; the design on her skirt and boots comes from the software's interface. Details of her personality were kept deliberately vague, and the type of character she actually is has been largely defined by the community as a whole over the years. Since her initial release, various musicians have created an astronomical number of original songs using her capabilities, and she's even performed "live" on a number of occasions in Japan.

Although Miku has appeared in a variety of media in the years since her initial release, music is always something she'll be inextricably associated with -- so it made perfect sense for her to star in a rhythm game. Project Diva F isn't the first Hatsune Miku game to be released -- it's actually the fifth, not counting spin-offs -- but, notably, it is the first to make it over to the West, albeit only in its PS3 incarnation: a long-overdue acknowledgement that the popularity of the character and her distinctive voice extends far beyond the borders of Japan thanks, largely, to the Internet.

Project Diva F itself is a relatively straightforward rhythm game, the demo of which is available right now via PSN. I've spent a bit of time with it over the past few days and I'm very happy indeed with it. It well and truly scratched my rhythm game itch while simultaneously being fun to both play and watch.

The demo includes three songs, each of which can be played at either Easy or Normal difficulty. Easy difficulty tends to simplify the rhythms you're required to tap out and also means you have to use fewer of the DualShock's face buttons; Normal, meanwhile, includes more complex rhythms, uses more buttons and occasionally requires you to press a direction as well as a face button. Presumably there will also be a Hard mode in the full version which, if Hard modes on past Japanese music games are anything to go by, will be nigh-impossible to complete for mere mortals like myself.

Project Diva F is a challenging game whose simplicity is deceptive. Play the first song on Easy mode, in which you're only required to tap the triangle button in time with the on-screen markers, and you'd be forgiven for thinking it was overly simplistic, in fact. Jack up the difficulty to Normal -- or try one of the faster, more complex songs, for that matter -- and you'll see things a little differently, however. Rather than reacting to the button markers as they appear on screen, truly effective play at the higher levels comes from actually learning the songs and being able to instinctively tap out the rhythms the game is expecting of you. The on-screen display is helpful, don't get me wrong -- correct timing is indicated rather unusually through a combination of floating button prompts and an analog-style "timer" hand ticking around the relevant symbol, with perfect timing coming at the 12 o' clock position -- but without learning the more difficult passages thoroughly, you'll struggle to attain anything more than a "Standard" or "Great" rating at the conclusion of a song. Practice makes perfect, as they say.

Over the course of the song, you'll be confronted with "Technical" and "Chance Zones," which aren't explained particularly well in the demo, but which appear to provide you with a bonus to your score if you successfully complete them. (Actually, a bit of hasty Googling suggests that successfully completing a Chance Zone changes the outcome of the animation in the background of the song's stage. I was right about the Technical zones, at least.) Honestly, I have a feeling they're there more to try and put you off than anything, since in most cases you're still just tapping out the same old rhythms, only now there's a countdown on screen telling you how many notes are left. Increasing challenge through distraction may be a cheap trick, but it works every time -- just ask anyone who has ruined a good Geometry Wars 2 run by glancing at their rival's high score in the corner of the screen.

I like Project Diva F, and I'm looking forward to the full version, which features a lot more in the way of customization options for Miku and her virtual friends. It's a fun, simple game that you can boot up for a few minutes at a time, play a few songs then forget about. Some may question whether a relatively simple game like this warrants a $50 retail release rather than, say, a $20 downloadable option, and that's perhaps a valid concern in these days when we have a lot more "tiers" of interactive entertainment to choose from. I'll certainly be playing it, though, and I'd hazard a guess that there's at least one or two of you reading this who might be interested in joining in the fun, too, whether you're Miku fans or music game fans generally.

Looking at the big picture, Project Diva F probably won't register as a blip on most gamers' radars, since it's a niche game for a niche audience. But it's one of those titles that I'm glad exists. More importantly, I'm glad Sega has acknowledged that there's a significant -- if, admittedly, likely small -- audience for this type of experience in the West. It's yet another symbol of gaming's growing diversity, and a further nail in the coffin for the "dudebro" stereotype.

Project Diva F is out on August 27 for PlayStation 3.

Tags: hatsunemiku Preview projectdivaf

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