Gaming's best underdog
January 20, 2008
When a player dies or fails a game level multiple times, typically one of two reactions occurs. 1) You curse loudly, condemn the game, and suppress the impulse to hurl the controller as hard as possible across the room (or maybe you don't suppress it); 2) You tap your foot and nod your head madly waiting for the intro sequence to finish so you can jump in and try again. This may also be preceded by loud cursing.
Gitaroo Man is a #2 game. It's hard. God almighty it is hard. But failure is just one perfectly nailed charge/attack/guard away from success. You just can't wait to get back in there and rock that guitar.
When it was released in 2002, Gitaroo Man was a miserable failure. Virtually nobody bought it. Even after it acquired cult-status among gamers (eBay currently lists a new original copy for $150), its excellent PSP remake managed to sell only 14,000 copies. Nobody believes high sales necessarily mean high quality--besides Jerry Bruckheimer--but it's difficult to understand Gitaroo Man's appallingly poor performance with game buyers.
Gitaroo Man is the best, most fully realized music game ever made. Better than Guitar Hero. Better than Rock Band. Better than DDR. Better than Rez. Yes, it's even better than PaRappa the Rapper, and that's saying something. It accomplishes what it sets out to do in perfect unified style. Other games have better visuals, cooler controller peripherals, and bigger music libraries, but no game integrates all its elements into a package of pure delight more skillfully than Gitaroo Man.
Gitaroo Man succeeds for several important reasons, and key among these is its thorough fusion of story and gameplay. We talk a lot about this elusive synthesis, particularly with recent games like Bioshock, Half-Life 2, and Mass Effect, all of which have laid claim to breaking ground in this regard. As much as I admire all three of these high-profile titles, none of them integrates story, character, and gameplay as completely as Gitaroo Man.
Structurally, Gitaroo Man functions as a musical. Exposition, narrative and characters are delivered via dialogue scenes interspersed with musical numbers that function as "battles." These engagements aren't merely mini-games or cutscenes. Rather, they enable the protagonist U-1 to gradually realize his own identity and self-confidence. As the player builds skills and confidence, so U-1 does the same, and the music plays a pivotal storytelling role. The songs are terrific and challenging to learn, but unlike PaRappa, U-1 must overcome deep insecurities and in the process discover his own voice. It isn't just a matter of getting past a cook or a driving instructor to defeat a level.
A good example is U-1's confrontation with the Sanbone Trio, which he must begin on his own, without the help of his sidekick Puma. Another is the quiet acoustic level with Kira in which U-1 learns he can play beautifully without adopting the Gitaroo Man persona. These levels present unique challenges to the player too, and performing them as well as possible brings its own reward, distinct from the points earned or levels unlocked. This mode of play/performance is realized beautifully in the game, both in terms of U-1's progress and the player's. Gitaroo Man is a game that begs you to show off playing it...to perform it, if you will.
I don't mean to suggest that Gitaroo Man reaches the narrative stature of a good short story or film. It's more akin to a stylish Saturday morning cartoon. But what I do claim is that its designers have set their sights on a specific target, and their game succeeds in reaching it. Gitaroo Man is a narrative game that nearly completely unifies its story and gameplay elements. Clearly, games like Bioshock are significantly more ambitious in this regard...but they are also failures in this regard. Wonderful, admirable, noble failures.
I tried both the PS2 and PSP versions of the game and finally chose the PSP version for the widescreen visuals and the analog stick control. I have played many games on the PSP, and Gitaroo Man is the only time I have ever felt satisfied with the PSP analog nub. Koei may have tweaked the controls for the PSP version because I personally found it much easier to follow the trace line on that device than on the PS2. With the exception of a couple of added songs for co-op play, both versions are virtually identical. The PSP version can also easily be found at a reasonable price.
I should mention that I have yet to finish the game. I'm stuck with Gregorio "Siegfried" Wilhelm III - that infernally vain gender-ambiguous Ziggy Stardust guy in the cathedral is more than I can handle. With more practice, maybe. But it could take awhile. I can happily report, however, that Ben-K the shark is (in my best Bette Davis voice) dead, dead, dead.
Play Gitaroo Man, or better yet, perform it for your friends. You and U-1 will put on quite a show.