Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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Slash Dot Dot Revolution

Over the past five years or so, I've become a lot less fond of video games in general and amusement arcades in particular than I used to be. The concept is still one which promises a thrilling sort of fun and joy, but there has been a shift in emphasis which I don't like. However, even though they typify the sort of thing I don't like, I am very impressed by Dance Dance Revolution, the associated Bemanix games and those who are good at them (waves at brakusjs, leiabelle and others). Slashdot had a beginner's guide to the "phenomena" (sic - why plural?) (do-doo do-doo-do) some time ago.

Slashdot is justly famous for its "News for nerds" tagline - indeed, it's probably the most famous site of its type; after all, people refer to "the Slashdot effect" rather than "the kuro5hin effect", "the LiveJournal effect" or something else. It has many flaws, not least of which is that the literacy level of its editors is not quite commensurate with its popularity. It's a popular enough site to build up its own subculture with its own in-jokes and its own sports. Specifically:

  • it is fashionable to bash Jon Katz, one of the more discursive editors who takes a different tone to all the others. I personally have sympathy for the guy, based on his style, but he's seldom interesting enough to keep me reading through at depth.

  • many of the more puerile posters find it amusing to try to redirect unsuspecting visitors to a notorious and highly distasteful picture of a man distending his own rectum. Even if you regard yourself as broad-minded, I would strongly suggest that your life would not benefit from investigating further. Short version: don't click any links whose URLs begin with goa.

  • the blessed moderation-and-karma system normally does a decent job at hiding posts which are overt wastes of time from view, but it isn't necessarily very effective at identifying the posts which best suit my tastes. For a while, I started browsing at 3+ for a while and the average quality did improve, but there are a few rare gems which go over people's heads and don't get picked up. For instance, someone (re-?)coined a charming new word in this posting. (It's probably funnier in context.)

  • an unwritten rule is that the last option of almost every poll must mention cowboyneal, however much of a liberty must be taken to ensure this. The greater the stretch required, the better.

  • the moderation system encourages people to run jokes into the ground over and over again. I have "in-jokes" in my interests list, but Slashdot takes things to extremes. There was a big craze for "all your base" references for a while, the current fad is an adaptation of a four-year-old Dilbert joke.

The DDR guide they link to isn't the greatest one, either. While it offers a reasonably decent introduction of the basic concepts, the rest of the guide is very heavily commercialised and disinteresting. I suspect that everyone who will read this knows the form, but just in case you don't, here's a quick, dry, charmless, mechanistic summary of the game: you must step on marked pads on the arcade machine's floor, in time to music played by the game, in a pattern indicated by arrows appearing on screen. You are scored according to your accuracy. A large part of the joy comes from embedding as much art in the enterprise as possible while maintaining accuracy.

Now at this point, I should admit that I have never physically played DDR or any other legit Bemani game. Shame on me. A large part of this has been a lack of favourable coincidences of company and circumstance. However, like bubble tea / pearl tea, it's something that so many of my friends are into, I suspect that I may end up doing it in good company at some point. Given the chance, I probably would.

However, I have played a cheap wannabe imitation. DDR first came to my attention at some point in the late '90s - specifically, first its keyboard-esque predecessor Beatmania. The idea sounded irresistable even then, but I was never in the right place with the right people at the right time to find a machine and give it a try. For some time, I thought that DDR hadn't taken off and that it was a passing fad that would soon be consigned to history. This was wrong, but I wasn't to know that at the time.

In late 2000, I went on a business trip to MSO Singapore, a land famous for its highest of high tech. (In practice, there's more relatively-high-tech things around, but the highest tech isn't particularly higher than it is anywhere else.) The Mind Sports Olympiad event took place in parts of one of the halls of the Expo centre and a giant book fair simultaneously in another.

Now one of the stalls at the book fair was selling what was effectively a home console version of DDR, called "Dancing Star". It does not compare with what I've seen of the arcade version from the web - the graphics are extremely simple and blocky, there are a very limited range of colours, instead of well-animated dancers in the background there are strange sorts of flashing blobs. Lastly, the music is... cheesy MIDI quality at best. Furthermore, the actual mat is made of cheap-looking floppy plastic which is prone to sliding all over the floor and upon which someone will probably have an accident some day. On the plus side, as well as the Dancing Star game, it has a Tetris game where you control the action with your feet. (Everything seems to imply that it's set up to permit two-player play, but it doesn't look possible.)

On a rash whim I purchased the unit, despite strong reservations about whether it would work or not in the UK (different plugs, uncertainty over voltages and so forth). However, it cost the equivalent of £25 or maybe very slightly more, so I thought I would take a mad chance. A bit of fiddling back at the hotel and happily it turns out that it more or less uses the same sort of plug as a European shaver. I tried it at the hotel, declared it to be the best sort of good-natured silliness, went back the next day and promptly purchased three or four more as unusual geek-tech gifts. One went to the house of worrals whereupon much mischief has been made. The second went to the house of the gentleman I regarded as the biggest muso I knew, purely for his horrification. (From there, it went to the house of his 11-year-old niece, which is fair enough, but it was worth it for the gag.) Incidentally, postage from Singapore to the UK cost very nearly as much as the units themselves. The Dancing Stars themselves were sighted in Britain on Camden Market for £30 a couple of months later, so I probably could have haggled the prices in Singapore down a lot more. Oh well - worth it for the "gag I've got to do and might never get the chance to do again" factor.

The Dancing Star can play/murder something like ten Europop choons, mostly of the ilk of "Barbie Girl" by Aqua or "5, 6, 7, 8" by Steps. (I am informed that they are in what is referred to as the "bubble gum handbag rave" style.) There are three levels of difficulty, with most tunes being available at a couple of different levels of difficulty. Slightly unusually, the hardware interface is a set of red, yellow and white connectors which would have had me in a panic, but it turns out that my VCR can cope. The unit has an errant scoring system and will not display your score at the end without counting up from zero to it in hundreds, however long that might take. I am fully prepared to believe that it's the cheesiest version of DDR in existence and that it is based on knocked-off Gameboy firmware. (Theoretically, you should be able to remove a cartridge from the unit and insert another, but I've never seen any alternative cartridges for sale, so I presume they don't exist.)

So I have eventually built up a little bit of foot-arrow co-ordination over time and have learned the basics of identifying and reacting to a rhythm. So why haven't I adapted these rudimentary skills to the big leagues and tried DDR machines for real?

I perceive that there has been a real change in emphasis of the entertainment offered by arcades over the last few years. Originally, arcades offered the chance to play more entertaining games on more advanced hardware than you could get on your home computer. Bubble Bobble remains a work of breathtaking genius in outlandish design, while I find Quake and its ilk less entertaining than 1943 or Space Harrier. The second half of the '80s brought a wonderful succession of arcade machines which would move you around in your seat according to your play, either by hydraulic machinery or a much-less-satisfactory mechanical solution directly powered by physical movements of the game's controllers connected to levers. Many of the best were racing games like WEC Le Mans, Out Run, Power Drift and Winning Run, but there were also some fine shoot 'em ups like After Burner, the wonderful Space Harrier again and the better-than-any-coaster "R360" rollin'-pitchin'-yawin'-spinnin' G-Loc.

The '90s saw bigger screens, more in-your-face presentation and much more emphasis on trying to beat your friends, indeed on trying to pound your mates into embarrassing oblivion at a game. (Mortal Kombat's "Fatality" and the like.) The variety of control methods and input devices got much wider over the years - there are far more ways to make a goon of yourself in public than there used to be. (You can shoot a big gun at a screen, kick a football at a goal or even, er, see how extreme a simulated electric shock you can suffer.) It's more about the experience, more about the competition, more about the winning and losing, less about the game. It's louder, brasher and I don't like the shift in emphasis. You'll find me enjoying the games of old on MAME, which can now emulate very nearly every arcade game I would want to play... though, alas, without the Space Harrier moving chair.

So this all adds up to moderately severe self-consciousness. I'm happy to play on the Dancing Star at home or in front of a controlled audience, much less happy to play that sort of game in front of the masses. I'm happy to be lousy at most arcade games; they're fun to play but make no pretensions about having any relevance in the wider world. However, I'm not so happy to be seen to fail at games which test skills with real-life applications: how well you can shoot, how well you can answer questions, how well you can dance. If I were better at them already then I would be more willing to try, but on the whole it's a vicious circle that I'm happy to keep out of, to leave to other people. Furthermore, when I don't like the change in directions that arcades are taking, an effective way to protest seems to be to vote with your wallet and your feet - and I can hold a grudge with the best (worst?) of 'em when I want to.

I have no objection to dancing, even dancing in public. Well, this needs qualification. I did weekly Latin-American and ballroom dancing classes for about five or six years until the age of 15 and always enjoy attending ceilidhs. The distinction, I think, is that I'm happy when there is a definite right sequence of dance moves to perform. Leave me to my own devices and invention - for instance, the hypothetical nightclub dancefloor - and I'm absolutely clueless and reluctant. I never have visited a nightclub, partly for this reason and partly due to absolute mistrust of and distaste for the sort of people who I perceive would also attend. (Warning! Warning! Danger! Danger! Prejudiced generalisation alert!) Talking about overgeneralised types of people, no DDR article would be complete without the obligatory-if-you-haven't-seen-it-before link to Something Awful's guide to the types of people who play DDR. When there's a definite correct dance to do, though, I'm one of the first on the floor. (I danced with the groom's sister, his mother and his grandmother at the ceilidh of the last wedding I attended...) I can think of few more enjoyable or sociable ways to exercise. In the analysis, this adds up to hypothetical plus points for DDR and company.

The converse question is also worth exploring: why don't DDR players - or would-be players like me, for that matter - attend more dance classes? I know a couple of people who go to Ceroc, which I perceive is the prevalent participatory semi-formal social dance style in this country at the moment, and I must say that I've considered going myself. I'm not nearly well-informed enough to make any comments about the relative sociability of the two dance formats, or whether the possibility of dancing solo at DDR is an advantage or a disadvantage in this regard. Yes, I am aware that doubles play is available on (almost?) all versions of DDR, though I suspect it may not be the same thing, being so much more heavily dependent on footwork rather than the bodywork and armwork aspects of traditional partnership dancing.

On the whole, DDR is an extremely impressive sight when it is played well. I have downloaded some videos and think that people who can play the games well are some of, well, the coolest in the world. My favourite is that of someone referred to only as "Bana" dancing to "Tubthumping" by Chumbawamba on the 11th of August, 1999. His chains of steps are hugely technical and complicated, though obviously I can't tell whether they match up with those of the game or not. His arms are hugely expressive and interpretative, plus his attitude somehow hugely professional. It's frankly a tremendous display of mastery. I have some other competition footage and it's as visual and thrilling as any other high-level sport. There's something particularly charmingly inappropriate about a Japanese youth bopping away on an arcade machine to the insober protest song that is Tubthumping, though...

A large part of the attraction of DDR is the music. Now I near-pride myself on my relative lack of interest in music and knowledge of relative musical genres, but I've been listening to brakusjs's excellent "Bemani 3-65" Internet radio station so much recently that there comes a point where I must accept that this is, in fact, the sort of music that I like. Now I'm sure that the true afficionado would want to know whether I like hour one, hour two or hour three the most and then work out very specifically that I am a fourth-level Chaotic Neutral Half-Elf EuroHandBag/ParaBreakTrance/Magic-User, or whatever it turns out to be - but for now, it's all good. I shall write more about this some other day, pausing only to add that my admiration for last year's Internet-geek-hit song "Green Leaves" (aka "Yatta!") increased still further when I found out that it was basically a song of national pride about coping with Japan's ten-year recession. The Japanese write "Green Leaves", the English write "Tubthumping"; I think that summarises the difference far better than prose ever could.

Some of the other Bemani series games sound at least as much fun. The concept of Para Para dancing is very Japanese, but I can imagine that it's even more regimented and impressive when performed well in formation. The two-octave-keyboard game whose name escapes me also sounds very interesting; I played the piano to a limited extent ("Grade 5" - an average of maybe 100 hours a year of practice and teaching for four or five years) so it sounds like a very modern take on speed reading which would be a lot of fun for people who have a bit of practice on the ivories. What the future has to offer in terms of combinations of leg, arm movement detection, positioning and so forth remains to be seen. The goal must surely be to get to the point where the game can measure all the critical elements and body movements of modern dance. Perhaps it'll require us to don special motion sensors on our hands, feet, elbows, knees and then respond to instructions in three dimensions, sort of the inverse technique to when people's movements are motion-captured for inclusion in computer games. If games can actually teach people good whole-body dances for dancefloors, so much the better. Then there are all the different styles of music and dance which have not yet been explored; Line Dancing DDR is but a matter of time. (Or maybe "5, 6, 7, 8" on the Dancing Star qualified two years ago - you tell me.)

Another thought about future developmental directions is what has happened to other styles of arcade game in the past. Single-player Pole Position (et al...) eventually developed into $100,000 eight-person Daytona USA systems at the swankiest arcades; I wouldn't be surprised to see doubles DDR machines eventually link together to permit formation four-person DDR troupes dancing together relatively soon. Taking this one step further, if there could be some way to put two four-person DDR clans up against each other, either as linked foursome arcade machines facing each other in an arcade, or possibly virtual link-ups over high-speed broadband video connections, then we have the potential for the most dynamic, accessible, public dancing battles since the dance-off between the Jets and Sharks at the gym in West Side Story.

The most interesting idea I've seen about the future of DDR comes from a non-Journalist friend. Would it be possible to make a WinAmp plugin which would generate a vaguely-sensible DDR sequence of arrows based on whatever you play through the plugin? Naturally, it should interface with a pad so that you performance can be recorded when you DDR to whatever you fancy, be it your local radio station, be it Beethoven's Fifth or be it the shipping forecast. (I hear that most people tend to lose the pattern of the latter somewhere near South Utsire.)

There is one specific thing which I haven't yet seen in DDR and I would appreciate it if those who know could let me know whether it is possible or not. I perceive that the primary focus of interest is trying to master the game's existing songs and build up specific routines focusing upon them. Are there any modes in which the machine will generate an original sequence to follow, based upon the music, that is different every time? This would turn DDR from a game of memory into a game of reaction. It probably wouldn't be as elegant - maybe if you could see sufficiently many notes ahead then you could realistically plan when spins, drops and similar tricks would fit into the sequence for this song. Presumably the sets of steps required would increase in difficulty throughout the song, so the aim is to keep going as long as possible before making sufficiently many mistakes. (Or is it the case that people don't really memorise the step patterns and so end up "sight-dancing", by analogue to sight-reading, the songs as they see them in this way?)

Now what I would like to write would be some sort of accelerating tune to which this completely-original-sequence-each-time form of the game could be played. It would start off slowly but get increasingly frantic as time goes by, to the point where the song is eventually (say) 10%-20% faster than the current world leader would be able to keep up with the action. I've seen this sort of thing done for a Japanese word association game and there was a thrilling feeling of progression as the players lasted longer and longer - when you reached a certain exciting point of the song, you really got the feeling that the play was at a very high level indeed. There is the slight technical drawback that I'm not an experienced or skilful composer, though I did do a little of it as part of my music education at school and have some sort of naive appreciation for what chord sequences, key changes and instrument combinations tend to sound good to my ears. Maybe some day...

...and that's why it's item #78 on my ambitions list!

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