Ontamarama is a somewhat tricky to pronounce music game with an identity crisis. If DDR ever decided to marry Elite Beat Agents and raise a family, their first kid would look something like Ontamarama (just don't try to think about the inherent creepiness of games marrying each other). The result of this strange union is an amazing charming game that unfortunately plays worse than its inspiration. Sometimes it's better to perfect one solid gameplay element before you try blending together a couple.
First I should explain how you play the game and why multitasking plays a huge part in it (sorry folks - if you have trouble walking and talking at the same time, then this is definitely not a game for you). The top of the touch screen displays a horizontal bar where colored arrows fly at you from right to left. Much like DDR (or more appropriately, the fantastic Band Brothers that never came out in the US), you must hit the corresponding D-pad direction as the arrows enters a circle at the end of the bar. This is pretty standard rhythm game fare: just imagine trying to play DDR with a controller instead of a dance pad.
However, things get complicated from here on out. Remember how each arrow also has a color? The hook of the game is that the arrows will only register if you charge them with colored energy first. This is done by popping little colored blobs named Ontama that wander onto your touch screen (don't worry, they like be viciously popped
as far as I can tell anyway). For example, to first trigger a blue up-arrow, you will have to find a blue Ontama on the screen, tap him with the stylus, and then hit the up direction on the D-pad as the fully charged blue arrow reaches the edge of the screen. This may sound a little convoluted (take a look at a few of the movies on IGN to see how it plays), but it actually works well if you can keep the two motions separate in your brain.
But it doesn't end there. There are black Ontama that try to block the ones you need to pop (you can get rid of them by "throwing" them off the screen with the stylus), white Ontama that increase your performance bonus, and fat Ontama that require two taps to pop. And then you can also draw circles around same-colored Ontama with the stylus to pop multiple ones at the same time. Oh, and don't forget that you can blow on the microphone to clear all the Ontama if you crack under the pressure (this can be done three times but you can purchase upgrades at the shop). Did you get all that? There's actually more stuff you can do, but I'll get back to that in a little bit.
The main question is whether all of these gameplay elements are worth remembering as arrows come flying at your face at, well, the speed of sound. You see, Band Brothers and Elite Beat Agents / Ouendan are two of my favorite games on the DS. They both have amazing concepts that work beautifully within in the music genre.
However, combine the two concepts and something will suffer. The main problem is that the actual rhythm portion of the game is exclusively linked to the arrows on the top of the screen, and the Ontama-tapping business has nothing to do with the music (in fact, there isn't even a sound when you tap them). You can tap the Ontama in any order, any rhythm, or any speed and it will not matter -- as long as you tap the right colored Ontama before the corresponding colored arrow scrolls off the screen, you're good to go. This is OK during the earlier songs when one or two Ontama pop up at a given time, but the later levels see huge clusters of Ontama. You'll be frantically beating the snot out of your touch screen with the hope that you'll randomly hit the right colored Ontama before that arrow comes up. This is not exactly the perfect, fine-tuned control of Elite Beat Agents we're talking about here. Sometimes the Ontama don't pop when you hit them, and the stylus recognition for drawing circles is inconsistent. But more importantly, this frenzied Ontama-popping takes away from the music and the overall rhythm in each level. This is made worse because the timing of the arrows also seems off. Hence, even the pure rhythm part of the game isn't particularly great.
But with that said, there's an undeniable charm to the game; a charm that makes you smile to yourself even when you're cussing out those merciless Ontama. The unabashed kooky Japanese flair helps out here. In the "Story Mode" you can either pick your standard blue-haired anime boy named Beat, or his pink-haired female counterpart, Rest (yes, everyone in the game is named after music terms). The term "Story" is pretty misleading; you'll probably find deeper stories on the backs of cereal boxes. Nevertheless, the nonsensical little dialogue scenes between the heroes and the baddies (who all look like they're rejects from the first season of Digimon) are part of the fun. If you've played the story mode in Puyo-Puyo, you know what to expect: randomness that only Japanese cartoon characters can provide.
Luckily the music is both solid and diverse: everything from jazz, metal, hip-hop, techno, and more makes an appearance in the game. Each track is catchy but not entirely memorable after you turn your system off. Oh, and the songs are short. In fact, Story Mode itself is rather fleeting: once you catch on to the concept, you can blow through the twelve songs in under an hour or so. Playing through the game unlocks different things such as a Shop to buy upgrades (you can draw bigger circles, notes play themselves, buy new songs, etc.), a Free Play mode where you can just play any songs you want, and a Hard mode if you hate yourself. The Hard mode is merciless - it's practically designed so you have to unlock upgrades from the Shop to pass some of the levels. Inexplicably, there is no multiplayer mode to speak of. There's really no excuse for this as the normal game is actually set up as a battle between two people.
I could just end the review here and be done with it, but something else has to be mentioned first. You've probably gathered by now that playing the game how it was meant to be played is a pretty fun but very flawed experience. However, if you are the type of person who loves experimentation, combo systems and high scores, then you might be able to overlook the game's shortcomings. There are some intricacies that aren't actually mentioned in tutorial: for example, you can swing Ontarama around with the stylus to increase your bonus points and you can hold down L or R to draw multiple circles at the same time to give you a multiplier. Then there's the standard combo meter that builds up and multiplies the multiplier. Pretty soon you learn to use these systems to create a grand performance that the developers may not have even thought of -- you can swing Ontarama in rhythm to the song, circle and pop them in unison, and do crazy things that actually have nothing to do with the core gameplay. This is definitely a case where the more you put into the game, the more you get out of it.
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