‘The Singer’s Voice Was Honey-love’ — Gitaroo Man Review

In some ways, it’s miraculous that Gitaroo Man was released in Western territories at all. An anime rhythm game in which you battle an axe-wielding demon, aliens, and a giant robot hammerhead shark (to excellent dub-reggae, no less) seems an odd choice for localisation — something you can imagine would have been rejected by publishers on grounds of being ‘too Japanese’. Luckily for us, Gitaroo Man was localised and released in America and Europe during 2002, (the early years of the PlayStation 2) a period when Western publishers were less averse to taking risks on niche titles. Indeed, Gitaroo Man now sits comfortably beside fellow weird wonders of the sixth generation Mr. Mosquito¸ Katamari Damacy and Chulip — and we, as gamers, are all the better for it.

The central gameplay loop of Gitaroo Man’s ten stages is split into three distinct sections — ‘charge’, ‘guard’ and ‘attack’. During the ‘charge’ and ‘attack’ sections, players must follow a trace line on the screen using the analog stick and tap/hold the circle button when directed. ‘Guard’ sections feature prompts for all four face buttons, which must be pressed in order and at the correct time. These sections often come together beautifully, creating an exciting, kinetic string of micro-rhythm challenges that test the player’s reflexes and timing. The game, however, is not particularly generous when it comes to timing and often demands perfect inputs. Initially, while getting to grips with these strict requirements, it can be frustrating to see button presses register as misses. It is also very easy for your pointer to go off the rails while trying to follow the trace line, with even the smallest of stick movements resulting in a dropped note. However, like any good rhythm game, this can almost certainly be chalked up to initial difficulty. If the game was too overtly generous, then the challenge would dissipate and the game, as a whole, would be far less satisfying. In order to achieve and progress in Gitaroo Man a certain amount of muscle memory must be built. Once everything clicks pulling off a perfect set of defensive inputs before launching into a rollicking guitar solo is one of, if not the best, rhythm game moments you can experience. I would strongly recommend, if possible, that you play the game on a CRT television — the less input lag you experience during Gitaroo Man the better.

Prepare to see this a lot during your first play session.

Of course, it goes without saying that Gitaroo Man boasts an impressive original soundtrack. Created by Japanese band COIL, many of the songs feature (as expected) tremulous guitar riffs and licks, but there is also a surprisingly diverse array of genres covered. Expect to hear funk, reggae, electronica, folk and even a tinge of metal-inspired prog as you work your way through all ten stages — highlights include the wild, organ-soaked ‘Tainted Lovers’ and the truly triumphant ballad ‘The Legendary Theme’. The excellent OST is bolstered by Gitaroo Man’s art design and direction, with Kotaro Umeji providing some unique and memorable character art. Indeed, Umeji’s designs share the universal appeal of the best of Osamu Tezuka’s work, but combined with the psychedelic, trippy colours often associated with the album art and aesthetic of 70’s rock bands.

The general plot of Gitaroo Man is as superfluous as expected of a rhythm game (notably, have we ever received a rhythm game with a truly impressive story? Does Sayonara Wild Hearts count?) but packed to bursting point with charm. Main character U-1 (Acthung Baby?) is a love-struck, loser kid constantly belittled by his rival Kazuya in front of his crush Pico. His talking dog, Puma, provides U-1 with the ‘Last Gitaroo’, a musical weapon that transforms him into the titular ‘Gitaroo Man’ who must, of course, obtain the ‘eight Gitaroos’ and save the universe by defeating the evil Prince Zowie. The plot is a fun little coming-of-age story, in which a cowardly kid learns to believe in himself and act confidently in front of the girl of his dreams, all through the course of conquering a bunch of weirdos using the power of intergalactic rock music. The wacky characters are brought to life by an interesting voice cast, who seem to be mimicking a kind of so-bad-it’s-good 90’s anime dub. Indeed, it seems like a lot of the actors also worked on the English dub of Shenmue, which is fan-acclaimed for its heart, if not for its actual quality. This earnestness works on several levels, enhancing the goofy, genuine tone of Gitaroo Man. It is also a lot of fun, as a music fan, to pick up on several references throughout the game. iNiS seem to be particularly fond of David Bowie, not only referencing his name with the aforementioned Zowie, but also paying homage to his physical traits with stage eight boss Gregorio as well, who exhibits flamboyant Ziggy Stardust-esque behaviour and has heterochromia. If you like ELO, you’ll also find that the game’s ending track is just straight up called ’21 Century Boy’ — though this may also be a nod to King Crimson, depending on how deep a referential hole you want to try and dig yourself.

The titular Gitaroo Man and his merry band of freaks.

Overall, Gitaroo Man is pure, unadulterated joy. It combines tight, challenging and (most importantly) rewarding rhythm gameplay with a triumphant soundtrack and a unique, interesting art direction. The plot is self-aware in its silliness and leans hard into the camp, but still provides a refreshingly positive and warm message. It is very easy for self-consciously wacky media to alienate its audience, but Gitaroo Man is indelible in its likability. Also, like any good music album, Gitaroo Man begs to be listened to again and again. With each playthrough clocking in at under an hour, it is impossible not to play on repeat. With an additional hard mode unlocked after beating the game that will really test your skills and unlockable character biographies based on your score in each level, Gitaroo Man gives all the incentive you’ll ever need to experience U-1’s coming of age over and over again. If Santa is going to be delivering one thing this Christmas, let’s all hope it’s Gitaroo Man 2.

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