Gitaroo Man is a PlayStation 2 game developed by iNiS and published by Koei, released in February 2002. It takes the recently burgeoning genre of Music Game and takes it to a strange new place — the Musical Battle Game. The game is bursting with charm, is incredible fun to play, and has one of the most evil, frustrating learning curves ever put into a video game.
In a nutshell, the protagonist, U-1 (pronounced Yuichi), discovers that he is not just an Ordinary Kid, he is actually the last in the bloodline of Gitaroo Men, special people who can use their Gitaroos (musical instruments) as weapons to kick ass and fight evil. U-1 becomes Gitaroo Man when his dog, Puma, transforms into AC-30 (his robot form) and tosses U-1 the Gitaroo. Although U-1's Gitaroo happens to be an actual electric guitar, other Gitaroos range from guitars to trumpets to pipe organs. Each baddy defeated gives U-1 the power of their Gitaroo and brings him closer to realizing his destiny as the true Gitaroo Man. In the end, he must travel to Planet Gitaroo to fight Zowie (pronounced Zoë), the evil leader of the Empire.
Actual gameplay takes the form of a battle between U-1 and some opponent, during which each tries to outplay the other — good music translates into a strong attack. Most battles begin with a Charge phase, where you play music on your own. Playing well charges up your life meter. The Battle phase consists of attacking and defending. Attacking is done the same way as Charging. A dot (the “attack point”) is visible in the center of the screen, and a line (the “trace line”) heads towards it. Using the analog stick (which causes the attack point to sprout an arrow), the player aims along the trace line. You can’t exit the trace line, but you do need to keep the attack point pointing along the line. The trace line has a series of bars along it, representing notes. As the attack point intersects these notes, you need to press buttons (in this case, any of the stardard cross-circle-etc buttons) in time with the notes. If you play them accurately, you will play music, causing energy to fly out of your Gitaroo and damage the opponent.
The defensive part of Battle involves dodging your opponent’s music. The trace line disappears, and notes are represented by symbols flying towards the attack point. The note isn’t actually played until the symbol hits the screen’s center; this gives you some ability to anticipate the music. Depending on which direction the note comes from, it will be a cross, circle, triangle, or square. Pressing the corresponding button on the controller dodges the note. Dodging well prevents your player from taking damage.
As you reach the end of the song, if you’re still alive, you will reach the Final (and possibly Harmony) phases of battle. In these, all that you have to do is stay alive. The opponent will no longer be playing music, so your only obligation is to stay on the line and hit those notes as well as you can. If you can stay in the groove and finish the song, you win — but run out of life at any point during the battle, and you lose.
Since seeing is believing, here's a YouTube clip of the Sanbone Trio being fought in Master Mode: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dnj1OZD1K5s
Gitaroo Man is difficult. Extremely difficult. It’s one of those games that provokes controllers being thrown against walls, noise complaints by neighbors about the screaming, and overwhelming gloating when you finally manage to beat the Sanbone Trio. Although the first couple of levels are easy, gameplay quickly becomes much harder. The game’s difficulty is compounded by the fact that you can’t hear your part of the music unless you played it right, and the songs that you play get considerably more complicated and showy as the game goes on. So a new level will inevitably destroy you the first few times you play it — there’s just no way that you can play a song perfectly if you don’t know it yet. And a level is one continuous ordeal, as pausing a level effectively forfeits — the pause screen only gives Retry and Menu as options.
Despite this, the game can be beaten on Normal mode in a couple of days, if you’re good. Doing so unlocks Master Mode, which seems to be designed to make you hate God, or at least video games. In Normal Mode, you don’t play every note that your character does, and don’t dodge every note that the enemy plays. That is to say, the notes you are made to play are a very simplified version of the song that is actually being performed. In Master Mode, however, every note is represented. In addition, the trace line is noticeably more curvy and difficult to stay on, and the game is much less forgiving with how much damage you take when you make mistakes. What this means is that the first level, which is really nothing better than a tutorial in Normal Mode, become harder than the final Normal level when played in Master Mode.
The real meat of the game is in Master Mode. Like I said, Normal mode takes days, but Master Mode takes months. I have a friend who has been playing this game regularly for about a year now. Despite the fact that he studies at a conservatory, plays a number of musical instruments extremely well, has every song in the game memorized, and in other ways has a talent for rhythm and music that surpasses most people I know, he has not yet beaten Master Mode. We’ll see if he does.
A multiplayer mode is available in the game, but it feels halfhearted at best. Two players choose a song and then characters, but are limited to a choice of three characters preselected for the song, and an incomplete listing of songs. Instead of playing in the original stages, every multiplayer battle takes place on top of a musically-themed spaceship. Gameplay is the same as in the normal game, except that the second player takes the part of the enemy, playing while the first player dodges and vice versa.
However, the game survives the shallowness of the multiplayer by having a party-game feel that has been missing from my life since the original Nintendo. People will drift over to see this bizarre, loud, stylized game, and will demand to play. It’s almost as much fun to watch somebody else try a hard level as it is to play it yourself, and the game acquires enormous replay value as a party game.
Songs in the game are almost all fast-paced and energetic. They range from standard rock ‘n roll songs with a recognizable metal influence, to jazz, to bouncy J-Pop songs, to space-age reggae, to my favorite, Born To Be Bone, a piece that manages to combine electronica rhythm and harmony parts with traditional Spanish guitar playing. Although few of the songs would be considered unusually good in their own right, they are perfect for the game, managing to be catchy, fun, and stay fresh even after the 5,000th time you hear them.
Songs are tied to stages and their enemies, and U-1's Gitaroo changes tone and style to match the song. So while you’re fighting the Flying-O, a UFO who plays the electric keyboard in a J-Pop dance number, your Gitaroo has a buzzy electronic sound, whereas wooing your love interest requires a soft acoustic sound, and fighting a man who plays pipe organ calls for a harsh distortion guitar.
The game also wins the award for “Most Distracting Interface in the World.” As I mentioned, the important things to watch during gameplay are the life meters and the attack point/trace line interface. However, this is all superimposed over the action — while you play, you and the enemy move around, zap each other (if you miss dodging notes, you’ll get knocked down), and trash talk back and forth. In some levels (particularly the Flying-O stage) a whole lot more is happening in the background: people running screaming from the villain, cheering you on, breaking out of jails, getting zapped by space aliens. There’s a strong urge to watch what’s going on in the background, but this is the easiest way to get yourself killed: it’s hard to get back into the groove once you lose it.
The visual style of the game is bright and fun; characters look somewhere between one of Shigesato Itoi’s clay Earthbound models and some second-rate knockoff anime. A somewhat dated polygon count fails to detract from the game: it almost adds to the cartooniness of the entire product. Pre-rendered cut scenes are (of course) of higher quality than normal gameplay, but even with the improved polygon count, texturing, and rendering quality, characters are made to look goofy and cartoony.
A 2006 sequel was released for the PSP called Gitaroo Man Lives!, but was pretty much identical to the original game in content, except for two new songs — “Toda Pasión” and “Metal Header.”
Gitaroo Man is a lot of fun. It’s also incredibly hard, but not so frustrating that you won’t want to come back and keep trying over and over and over. Fun music, a cheesy, satirical plot, and an excellent sense of tongue-in-cheek humor that completely survives translation, as well as astounding replay value, combine to make a game that is well worth owning. However, you’ll have to look hard: the game has almost managed to acquire cult status already, even though it is only a few years old. Find it, though, and you will be sucked in — don’t you want to be the True Gitaroo Man?
Soft Machine (Main Theme)
- U-1 vs. Puma
Boogie For an Afternoon (Tutorial)
- U-1 vs. Panpeus
- U-1 vs. Flying-O and Little Os
Flyin’ To Your Heart
- U-1 vs. Mojo King Bee
Bee Jam Blues
- Woofer vs. Ben-K
- Woofer-Mazing vs. Mecha Ben-K
- U-1 vs. Kirah
The Legendary Theme (Acoustic)
- U-1 vs. the Sanbone Trio (Carrot, Pine, and Soda)
Born to Be Bone
- U-1 vs. Gregorio Wilhelm III
- U-1 vs. Kirah
- U-1 vs. Kirah
The Legendary Theme (Album Version)
- Gitaroo Man vs. Zowie
21st Century Boy (Ending Theme)