I miss the days of Rock Band and Guitar Hero; of drumming and strumming away to all the rock and alternative hits of today and decades past. Nowadays, we don't really have rhythm games that fall in the same category. The majority of modern rhythm games are of the Japanese or American pop variety. Gal Metal, from DMM Games, raises its figurative drum stick in the air to stop this trend, and show us how to properly rock out again.
And by "rock out," I mean "look embarrassing to your roommates." Gal Metal has more in common with Wii Music than, say, beating on a Rock Band drum kit. With Gal Metal, you use each Joy-Con as a drum stick, swinging your arms down along with the rhythm. It looks dumb. It feels dumb. But in the context of the game, it works surprisingly well—maybe too well, where perfection is smiled upon only. It ends up feeling like you're playing air drums the way a kid might (or you in your car while a song with a drum solo is going off).
Gal Metal is quite hard too because there's no button prompt of what you must hit, nor some magical line zig-zagging across the screen, guiding you along as in rhythm games like the Project Diva series. The only hand-holding you get is a plain word, a word you must associate with a particular rhythm you've already memorized.
That's right: memorized. There are no dots telling you what the proper drum stroke motion is, like in Taiko Drum Master. All you have is the music you're hearing to feel the rhythm to, and a word flashing on the screen telling you what you need to drum. For instance, the word "Harlot" appearing denotes that you drum the four-beat Harlot rhythm you have lodged into your brain from the practice mode—which is just a steady beat, without switching between Joy-Cons. Throughout a song, a new word usually flashes per verse, making it it essential to have all the bars you might encounter memorized, otherwise you'll find yourself drumming aimlessly in an effort to appease the score-giving metric. While the base rhythms are easy to learn, it's when more bars are unlocked that things get chaotic, and I easily got overwhelmed.
In theory, Gal Metal's a refreshing take on the rhythm genre; one that's reliant on your actual musical skill rather than following button prompts and knowing how to keep up a rhythm. It's enacting on the same promise Wii Music once had with its Wiimote, Nunchuck, and Balance Board promise: rhythmatic gaming reinvented, and taken further than it's ever gone before. (While also, of course, bearing the same ol' rhythm-following we're used to.) But we know the fate of Wii Music. It got mixed reviews as it faded into relative obscurity in spite of Mario composer Kazumi Totaka's proud name emblazoned on it as director; to this day, the most memorable thing about it is its wild E3 2008 appearance.
Some praised Wii Music's depth, while others said it felt more like a tech experiment. Gal Metal is sort of like the in-between of both those statements: It's not crazy deep, but it doesn't quite feel like a tech experiment either. During my time drumming thin air while playing Gal Metal, I could almost sense the faint presence of J.K. Simmons lurking in the shadows, muttering "not quite my tempo" as I repeatedly fudged up the rhythm on songs that call themselves metal, but aren't actually metal. It's enough of a game to not feel like a bundle of concepts lumped together, but doesn't have the freeform feeling that made Wii Music resonate with some people either.
The biggest downside of Gal Metal is that, unfortunately, the music isn't all that great. There are no songs that have kept me coming back. Instead, it's more the quirky storytelling and life simulation elements, alongside the art style of its manga-sketched characters that's kept me playing. The story, too, starts off with a cheeky Your Name-like body swap, or rather body-sharing, twist, before developing into some alien invasion nonsense that's weirdly charming. (Or at least it is in the concert sequences where you bang on drums, wherein cute aliens are hanging out too.) That's in addition to its surprising social mechanic where you determine how to spend your days and socialize, like a slighter version of the later entries of the Persona series.
Needless to say, there's something I really admire about Gal Metal, even with its sharp difficulty and so-so music choice. I'm horrible at it, but in my mind while air drumming away, I'm ruining this poor high school band. I'm not efficient at destroying aliens, nor at playing drums. Without a killer tracklist and with its steep difficulty curve, Gal Metal lacks the hook that other better rhythm games dig into you.
The end result is the rare rhythm game that I'm not drawn to for its music, but for its method. The Nintendo Switch has a lot of potential, both in straddling the line between handheld and home console, but in being the successor to the frequently innovative and experimental Wii that the Wii U never quite was. Some games have carried the baton and played with the Nintendo Switch's Joy-Cons to great effect, from Super Mario Party's Joy-Con-embracing minigames to the gimmicky borderline tech demo that was 1-2 Switch at its launch.
Gal Metal, from a third-party developer and publisher XSEED, shows that it's not just Nintendo left to have the fun anymore. It's time for third party studios to take more advantage of the hardware too. Whether that leaves us with more Wii Music-likes and Gal Metal-likes or not, at least I know the Nintendo eShop is going to continue to be interesting for the foreseeable future.