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EGM Review:

Posted on April 1, 2013 AT 12:18pm

The HarmoKnights of the Turntable

In 1981, videogame fans Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori got together to start Game Freak, a Japanese-language fanzine dedicated to a hobby that was, at the time, still relatively niche. The amateur publication would run until 1986, and then—three years later—Tajiri and Sugimori revived the Game Freak name for their newly established game-development studio.

One of Game Freak’s first projects was Quinty, an obscure Famicom action-puzzle game that came out in the West as Mendel Palace. From there, they worked on games such as Yoshi for the NES, the Japan-only (until years later, when the Wii’s Virtual Console came alone) Mega Drive release Pulseman, and a pair of platformers titled Smart Ball for the SNES under the publishing efforts of Sony.

For their game that would hit Japan in February of 1996, the men and women of Game Freak no doubt assumed that it would just be another release. Ideas were crafted, programming code was written, and with hard work and an equal amount of luck, hopefully the result would sell enough copies to keep the studio going for another title. Released for Nintendo’s widely successful Game Boy, that game was given the title Pocket Monsters—a name which, when shortened under traditions of the Japanese language, also become known as Pokémon.

The rest, as one might say, is history. Pokémon Red & Green (Red & Blue in North America) did, in fact, go on to sell copies—millions and millions of copies. Pokémon became a core franchise for Nintendo, and Game Freak went on to continue pushing the series forward with new iterations across a wide array of platforms.

The problem is, sometimes creativity can be lost somewhere along the path to success. Once Pokémon hit it big, Game Freak produced little that didn’t involving catching, training, and battling a wide assortment of lovable monsters. There was one major exception to this: Drill Dozer, a 2D action-adventure title released for the Game Boy Advance. Drill Dozer wasn’t just special due to the vibration pack built into the cartridge–it was also a welcome reminder of just how magical of an experience the team could produce when given the chance to do something other than Pokémon.

Thus, my initial excitement for HarmoKnight. Seven years after Drill Dozer, we’d not only be getting another non-Pokémon title from Game Freak, but also one that combined one of their areas of expertise—platformers—with another genre I’m a huge fan of: music games. Rhythm platformers aren’t anything new of, course, with great examples being everything from NanaOn-Sha’s 1999 PlayStation release Vib-Ribbon (still criminally unreleased in North America), to the more recent retro homage Bit.Trip Runner from Gaijin Games (along with its just-released sequel).

HarmoKnight centers around Tempo, a young boy tasked with saving Aralia, the princess of Melodia. A gang of hard-rockin’ aliens called Noizoids have crashed upon the world, and they waste no time in kidnapping the princess and then putting the rest of the kingdom’s citizens into a magical slumber.

Initially, Tempo isn’t seen as the hero of HarmoKnight; he’s simple the only person available to deliver the musical weapon containing the power to defeat the Noizoids to the hands of a true warrior in Symphony City. Of course, we all know how games work, and it ends up that Tempo must find it within himself to grow into that true warrior.

HarmoKnight’s gameplay is varied, but most of the time, things will be based upon a set series of core concepts. Here, Tempo automatically runs from left to right along the landscape, and players will either need to hit Y to swing the magical staff that our hero wields or press B to jump. The catch, of course, is that to play HarmoKnight properly, both of those actions should be done in time with the game’s music; enemy and jump placement in stages is crafted so that everything is on beat. It’s a simple concept, but it’s one that works really well. Once you get past that initial instinct to try to play the game via typical platforming conventions and instead trust the rhythm to guide you, there’s an almost-Zen state you can slip into that sets up some fantastic action.

Occasionally, special stages will break things up a bit. Stadiums have players running around a circular track in a sort of enemy attack trial, and at times, Tempo will step aside so that secondary characters Lyra and Tyko can take over with their own special roster of attacks. The biggest change in gameplay, however, comes in the boss stages. Here, the camera swings around so that Tempo is running into the screen (instead of across it), and beating those bosses comes via watching a series of commands and then repeating them. It all feels very Space Channel 5—or, in simpler terms, Simon Says.

It can be easy to forget the charm that Game Freak can produce due to the more production-line feel of the Pokémon franchise, but games like this help remind us. HarmoKnight’s world is cheerful and enchanting, with everything from the art style to the cast of characters wonderfully produced. There’s also that certain blend of simplicity-meets-design to HarmoKnight’s stages that make them really shine on the 3DS. (While I don’t always play games with the system’s 3D effects turned on, I can’t imagine not using them here.)

There’s a lot to like about HarmoKnight, and it’s a terrific offering for casual fans of these types of games. Unfortunately, that’s the problem: HarmoKnight is decidedly casual. When a game bases any real portion of itself on the foundations of a rhythm game, it needs to do one of two things to offer legitimate longevity: substantial challenge or an unforgettable soundtrack. HarmoKnight has one main difficulty level to each of its stages, with the only real variable being the ability to speed up stages once they’ve been completed. Speed isn’t difficulty, however—and making HarmoKnight’s challenges faster doesn’t hide the fact that far too many of them are simply too easy.

It’s the game’s soundtrack, though, where I felt the most disappointment. Even if there were no change in difficulty, I could see playing HarmoKnight long term if it had tracks as catchy and enduring as games such as Gitaroo Man or Parappa the Rapper (two games that are short but infinitely replayable due to their addictive songs). It’s not that HarmoKnight’s music is bad—it’s just little more than serviceable. The music does what it needs to do for the action the stages provide, but once you’ve shut off your 3DS and gone on to do other things, you won’t find any of the game’s music stuck in your head.

As a longtime fan of music/rhythm games, I can’t help but be disappointed by HarmoKnight. What I wanted from the concept was some real heart-poundin’ action to go with some speaker-thumpin’ beats, yet the end result was more Saturday-morning cartoons than Saturday-night clubbing. At the same time, I can’t be completely bitter and jaded. What Game Freak has put together in HarmoKnight does have a lot to offer more casual players, and who knows—maybe Tempo’s adventures will serve as a gateway for getting people to try the those higher-level rhythm games that they might not have otherwise played?

Developer: Game Freak • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 03.28.2013

Game Freak returns to the non-Pokémon world with HarmoKnight, a music-infused platformer that will be a light-hearted romp for casual fans of the genre—but which might not be memorable enough for more dedicated rhythm-game devotees.

The Good An interesting concept infused with personality.
The Bad Soundtrack is much too bland for a rhythm game.
The Ugly Your planet being invaded by metal-loving aliens.
HarmoKnight is available exclusively on the 3DS eShop.
Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got his start via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as he can convince them to fit in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk him on Twitter: @pikoeri. Meet the rest of the crew.

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