Rhythm games don’t come much stranger than this. Ongaku is a game that, from the word go, really thrusts its charm down your throat with a child like glee, and it won’t take no for an answer. In an age of Rock Band and Guitar Hero dominating this sub-genre, Ongaku really is punching above its weight. But you never get the impression that it cares about that, it just does its own thing, independent of what the cooler, more popular kids are doing.
As I said, Ongaku is a game that wastes no time in making an impression on you. Depending on your attitude towards extremely cute artwork and music then this impression could be vomit-inducing. Consider yourself warned. If, however, you cast aside any doubts you have towards Ongaku’s distinctly cutesy style then you may be in for a treat. The game starts with one of its weaker and probably the least necessary point; its plot. Seriously, it’s a music game. Hit the notes and move on. Do we need a plot? According to Smashmouth, we do. You play as Ongaku, a musical note whose job is to restore colour to the world by popping bubbles of paint in time with some music. The need for this is caused by an evil witch named Discord, who, after a battle with good guy Harmony ( lol musical reference), has drained the world of its pretty colours and whatnot, as you do.
Luckily, this is pretty much the weakest part of the game. The gameplay itself tries to help you in any way it can, the controls are simplistic enough, and there are multiple different configurations to suit anyone’s needs. The game starts nice and easily from the first level as well, but there are some issues as you progress. First of all, if you miss a bubble by a fraction of a second or press the wrong button, the music will stop and you’ll hear a completely immersion-breaking witch’s cackle. It’s one of the most off-putting and mocking signs of failure you could hope to come across, but as you progress through the game it doesn’t get any easier, so expect to miss more bubbles. This wouldn’t be so bad if the music were just turned down to a very low level so you could rejoin the rhythm as soon as possible and the witch’s cackle was not present, but as it is, it has to go down as a pretty bad design flaw.
So the game doesn’t like it if you mess up at any point, what about when you’re doing well? Frankly, things don’t improve much here. If you hit a bubble with perfect timing, you’re rewarded with the standard ‘PERFECT!’ message on screen, and you can keep track of any streaks that you’ve got going (which the game names crescendos, funnily enough). If you get a string of perfectly struck tones, then you’re ‘rewarded’ with the sound of a cheering and applauding crowd. Notice how that says ‘rewarded’? Well, that’s because it is a bit of a poison chalice. The noise of the crowd can be off-putting, as with the witch. I lost so many streaks thanks to their cheering getting louder and drowning out the music. Granted, turning down the SFX a few notches can fix this for most occasions, but the right balance between immersion fulfilling and breaking is difficult to find. Anyway, as if the pressure wasn’t high enough, I’ve now got legions of people behind me trying to put me off and a witch waiting for me to mess up so she can laugh in my ear. I’ve lost years of therapy progress thanks to this game.
Luckily, for a cheap game, Ongaku has many other features. You can import songs, pictures and videos from your hard drive to create your own levels, either using the beat from your existing songs, or creating your own music. It can be complex to create good content, but it seems to work quite well. I’ve never been a music afficianado, so I didn’t go too in depth with creating content from scratch. The game picks up the basic rhythm for most pre-existing songs, but doesn’t quite get it right sometimes. Still, considering the game is less than £10, all these features give the game a bit more value.
Ongaku is a game that, considering its price, has a lot to offer. The story mode is short but there are achievements to unlock and a level editor / tune maker that can help to justify the purchase. You might hate cutesy, Japanese inspired games like this, but I’d urge you to at least give Ongaku a try. Just try not to miss any notes. Or do too well.