Multi-tasking To the Max
Since the early days of simplistic video game beeps, music has continued to become an increasingly integral part of everyday gaming experiences. This eventually took on an exciting new direction when developers moved beyond simply including background music in games and began incorporating rhythm-based functions into the actual gameplay itself.
Players caught on quickly, and a handful of rhythm games are among some of the most popular and challenging around to date. The DS has finally begun to see its fair share of such titles and each addition typically brings new elements to the table. Concentration, accuracy, stamina, focus, and a sense of rhythm are all requisites players must have to succeed, yet Atlus’ Ontamarama ups the ante significantly by forcing plays to split their attention between two different sets of events occurring simultaneously in separate areas of the screen. It’s a bold move that makes for some frantic musical gameplay.
Ontamarama’s musical theme is integrated heavily into the game’s story which unfolds on a tropical island where cute creatures reside. These melodious beings, called Ontama, co-exist peacefully with the human inhabitants on the island, and they can produce exotic and soothing symphonies when conducted by Ontamaestros. The arrival of a demon means trouble for the natives as some villagers fall under its control. They begin hoarding Ontama to further the evil creature’s plans. Fortunately, Beat and Rest, two Ontamaestros in-training, stumble upon the plot. They set out to free the Ontama and best the demon. As you march your way towards the demon’s lair you’ll be challenged by a variety of odd characters who, much like the two protagonists, feature names taken right out of musical theory textbooks.
You can choose to play as either Beat or Rest (male and female characters respectively) on your adventure, though you’ll face the same series of foes regardless. Players will run into quirky adversaries at each new location on their trek, and defeating them will return them to a normal state. It’s easier said than done, and you’ll be forced to stretch your focus to its limits. Ontamarama moves into new gameplay territory by essentially requiring players to control two games at once. In one-half of the gameplay, a series of colored directional notes will move across the top of the screen towards a target on the left. Players must use the d-pad to hit the note’s corresponding direction in time to the music when it reaches the target. Short notes only need a brief tap while longer ones must be held and released with the proper timing. It’s a common formula found in rhythm games that quickly gets turned on its head.
Here’s where the madness slowly starts to set in. The trick is the notes start out empty, and they must be filled before they complete their short journey across the screen. This is done by using the stylus to “pop” Ontama of various matching colors which suddenly appear in different areas of the touch-screen. If you pop the appropriately colored Ontama, the corresponding note will fill up with musical goodness. This allows the note to register when you hit the right d-pad direction. Short notes only require a single Ontama to be filled up, but longer notes will require you to quickly collect clusters of the same-colored little critters. Rounding-up groups of like-colored Ontama can be speedily accomplished by drawing a circle around them, which gives you a score multiplier, or you can just tap them out as fast as possible to get it over with. To make things more complicated (and presumably more fun) several other varieties of the musical creatures will crop-up include white Ontama which give you a performance bonus, black Ontama which attempt to get in the way, and giant Ontama which require multiple taps to pop.
Neither action is particularly tough to do on its own, but combining the rhythm sequencing with continuously popping Ontama gets pretty hair-raising as the difficulty steadily increases. The first few songs take it easy on players with a gradual pace that allows you to basically switch your attention back-and-forth from inputting d-pad directions to collecting Ontama to fill the notes. Before long you’ll be doing both simultaneously by using your peripheral vision.
Eventually, the notes will come continuously flying across the screen while the Ontama below appear in different locations that make it virtually impossible to keep up. When the action gets overwhelmingly crazy, you can blow into the mic to clear all the Ontama on-screen and focus on hitting the d-pad to input the steady stream of notes, but you’re only able to do this a limited number of times per song. The gameplay moves interchangeably between high-stress frustrating and rocking fun. It’s not the best rhythm game implementation out there, but the idea is definitely fresh, and it’s good in short doses.
The musical selection in Ontamarama is a strange and unique blend of different styles which all possess a distinctly Japanese feel to match the anime art direction. There’s a mixture of techno, jazz, pop, orchestral arrangements, and rock, among other musical genres. Towards the end, the inclusion of a few power metal and thrash tracks get the blood pumping. They’re pretty awesome and worthy of some brief head banging. The main quest is unfortunately very short, but a solid variety of un-lockables make replay a must. In Freeplay mode you can go back and try your favorite tunes on different difficulty settings while Challenge mode puts you up against different groupings of several foes which must be defeated in rapid-succession. New songs can be unlocked in addition to bonus items which give you different advantages during replay. Sadly, multi-player gameplay is non-existent.
Ontamarama is a cute, quirky, and incredibly challenging addition to the rhythm game genre, yet there is definite room for improvement. A lengthier story mode, some minor tweaks to the gameplay, and the addition of a multi-player mode would all go a long way towards making it a more solid game. Rhythm game fans should at least give it a spin so they see what they’re missing, but with some refinement an eventual sequel will hopefully offer a more rewarding experience.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.2 Graphics
A basic, cute, and light hearted anime presentation. 2.4 Control
Rhythm controls are fun. Popping Ontama is fun. Doing both at the same time is not, at least on harder tunes. 3.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The varied musical selection is a good mix of odd tunes even though few are memorable. 3.4
A short story mode is balance by lots of content to unlock.
3.2 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.