…But is it Art? –Gitaroo Man

January 25, 2010

Last week I determined that Guitar Hero 5, though an excellent game in its own right, does not qualify as a work of art. Nevertheless, the Guitar Hero franchis—and, of course, the Rock Band franchise—have gone on to great commercial success and appeal to a broad range of gamers and non-gamers alike. There is one game in the rhythm-action genre, however, that was largely overlooked following its release on the Playstation 2 and has since found enough of a niche following to warrant a PSP makeover not too long ago. The game to which I am referring is known as Gitaroo Man, and I believe it provides a perfect follow-up to the examination of Guitar Hero using the same criteria I have laid out previously.

Unlike Guitar Hero, Gitaroo Man is played using the Dual Shock controller, and the gameplay is indeed a literal battle. The characters in the game use their instruments and their music as weapons, and you control the action by tracing a line with the analog stick and pressing the attack button in time with the music/visuals when in Battle Mode and pressing the corresponding button in time with the music/visuals when in Guard Mode. (In case you’re wondering, Gitaroo Man predates Guitar Hero, but I don’t think the game would benefit from the gimmicky controller, anyway.) The gameplay is a bit more complicated than Guitar Hero, but it works and it’s fun and it’s rewarding to master. I’ve seen a few people who are able to pick up and play with some degree of alacrity, but just about everyone struggles at the start. The struggle brings all the more satisfaction once you manage to complete the first stage, though, and then more when you achieve that first A, and then even more when you complete that first stage in Master’s Mode after you thought you beat the game and couldn’t imagine it getting any harder. There are only ten stages in the game, and even less of a selection for the Vs. Mode, but it’s impossible not to want to play them over and over again in hopes of achieving that unthinkable S or playing those elusive alternate verses that appear randomly in the more advanced songs.

The songs themselves work perfectly both in terms of the gameplay and simply as songs. You can hear the attacks and the counterattacks in the way that each section responds to the last, and once you get to Master’s Mode and have to play every note that you hear, you really appreciate the layout of each piece and the way the song builds to your final reward of completing the number. The gameplay would be meaningless, however, if the songs weren’t good enough on their own for you to want to hear them and want to play them, which is why it is important that every stage is unique and provides a different style of music, with the only disappointment in the lineup being a regrettable reggae/hip-hop number midway through the game.

The visuals are 2-D and cartoony, but they provide the perfect complement to the musical experience. “Activity” is the first word that comes to mind when I think of each battle because there is so much going on in the background that it is impossible to soak all of it in while trying to focus on playing—it’s almost as if the visuals create an extra challenge of not getting distracted from the task at hand, except their purpose is by no means to distract, only to enhance. From the animation style to the character design, nothing else looks like Gitaroo Man, which is undoubtedly more important than having photo-realistic animation or high pixel counts and frame rates.

There is nothing complex about the game’s story, but there is no denying that the game is incredibly story-driven. It’s a story of personal growth and believing in oneself with the token boy-meets-girl subplot included, but the important part is that it all absolutely works. There are two moments in the game that almost inevitably move me to tears, and they are the respective climaxes of the love-story plot and the personal-growth plot that occur in the final two stages. The way every element comes together—graphics, music, and story—is nothing short of cathartic. The various modes of story-telling that are employed in the game are impressive as well: the cut-scenes, the still-frames with text, and even the in-game action all work together as a cohesive whole, making for a more complete experience than you would ever hope to find in most great video games, let alone a rhythmic-action title.

This should be obvious by now, but I believe that Gitaroo Man for the Playstation 2 is not only a one hundred percent work of art, but a genuine masterpiece. Everything from the opening theme right down to the final credits is finely crafted with superb attention to detail, and I have no hesitations in declaring this game an absolute transcendent work.

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