Pump It Up: Exceed
Developer: Andamiro U.S.A. Corp.
Release Date: Q3 2005
Mastiff is a small company that excels at publishing neat, weird things like La Pucelle: Tactics and Gungrave Overdose. Pump It Up: Exceed is both neat and very weird, a dancing game created to capitalize on the initial Dance Dance Revolution craze that later evolved into a game with a big fan-following in its own right. Pump It Up dominates in Europe, Korea, and throughout south-east Asia; in the US, your larger West Coast arcades will usually have a PIU machine. The game we're reviewing is Mastiff and Mad Catz's attempt to release a home version of the game for the PS2 and Xbox, and overall we're pretty pleased with the results.
What differentiates PIU from DDR is the layout of the controls. While DDR famously uses the four directional arrows (up, right, left, and down), PIU uses a five-button scheme with four arrows diagonal arrows (up-right, up-left, down-right, and down-left) and a single round button in the center. It doesn't seem like a significant gameplay change when you hear about it, but it has a huge effect on how the game plays. PIU's step patterns require more movement than DDR's, and true to PIU's ad copy, they do bear more of a resemblance to actual dancing than anything you do in DDR. This makes PIU actually a better game to play than DDR if you're primarily interested in using the game to get some extra exercise. The more high-level PIU play becomes, the more physically demanding it also becomes, while DDR gameplay eventually turns into trying to exert as little effort as possible while hitting steps, and consequently begins to stop being any kind of good cardiovascular workout.
There are some ways in which PIU is a less interesting game than DDR, though. Although it has a reputation for being harder, probably because it's more physically demanding, we found the game engine was actually far more forgiving. PIU, like all rhythm games, judges you for how well your movements match the timing indicated by the symbols that scroll up the screen. Hitting an arrow at absolutely the right moment earns a "Perfect," and slightly less precise motions can still earn a "Great" or "Good." Missing by too wide a margin earns a "Bad," and missing it entirely is, well, a "Miss." "Bad" and "Miss" will penalize your life bar, while "Perfects" and "Greats" build it.
James Ko, President of Andamiro USA says "We're delighted to be working with Mastiff to bring the greatest dance game in the world to your living room."
The console version of Pump It Up: Exceed is based on the arcade game of the same name, but in addition to the new features, there are also three entirely new modes: Home, Sudden Death, and Survival as well as a practice and tutorial mode. Like the arcade version, the home version will also allow players to log their high scores on a world-wide score board.
DDR uses these same rankings, and in that game, scoring high and receiving good performance grades relies on doing combo moves. Any moves that get graded "Perfect" or "Great" will start a combo chain, while "Good" or lower will break the chain. While your timing to get graded high on hitting a step in DDR has to be tight and precise, we found that PIU allowed for a much wider margin of error. This, in turn, made it far easier to score long combos and receive high rankings at the end of Arcade Mode dances.
PIU's scoring system is also unusually forgiving. It is again modeled directly on DDR's, which would grade dances using letter grades. You could pass with a D if you were abysmal but didn't die, and from there could receive C, B, A, AA, or the much coveted AAA ranking for a completely perfect dance. In PIU, you can be graded from F to A, with S used as the ranking for a completely perfect dance. However, in Arcade mode, passing a song at all will merit an "A." You'll get an "S" if you manage to full-combo a song, even as many as two of your steps were merely Great instead of Perfect. Since it's easier to get your steps graded high anyway, the lenient scoring means that any song you can survive at all you will be graded as if it was a fantastic performance, and a merely above-average performance will merit the S ranking.
You'll only ever see a performance score lower than an A if you play Home mode, which functions something like a practice mode. In Home mode there is no life bar, so you will automatically pass any song you pick. There's also not the time limit there is in Arcade mode, so you can take as long picking a song you like. Any grade below an A indicates how far from being able to pass the song in the arcade mode you are. It's interesting in theory, but the entire set-up seems to really miss the point of having a ranking system in a game like this at all, and makes it very hard to get excited about all of the online support Mastiff is promising to give to a competitive PIU community. I don't think anyone serious about competing would play PIU for very long; they'd quickly see the flaws in the scoring system and go back to DDR or one of its other descendents.
Still, as a game in and of itself, PIU is plenty of fun to play. The game's Korean roots (you can even opt to put the interface into Korean in the options menu) give its music selection a very different sound than what is available in DDR, and the more active, dance-like gameplay seems to allow for a song selection that is actually pleasant to listen to. The 86 songs are split into three channels, "Banya," "K-POP" and "POP." Banya's stuff is all the work of a single Korean composer whose style is reminiscence of TaQ, an electronica artist who provides music to a wide range of Konami's BeMani games. Banya deals in a wider range of musical genres, however, and does more with vocal components to the songs.
The K-POP channel is, as the name implies, a selection of suitably danceable Korean pop songs. POP is simply American pop songs, although only a few of the band names in the game will be at all recognizable. Still, there's a remix of Elvis Presley's "Little Less Conversation" that's pretty interesting. Many of the songs in PIU: Exceed will have to be unlocked by the player, by hitting high scores and beating the extant songs on varying difficulty levels, so there's plenty of hours of entertainment to be gotten out of just collecting the songs.
If DDR didn't click with you or if you're just interested in trying out a different rhythm game, Pump it Up: Exceed is worth a look. The dance steps are fun to do and the wide selection of music is plenty enough to keep you coming back for more. While not easy, it's the rare rhythm game that will reward athleticism as much as pattern-matching skill and that makes it great for gamers who are looking to get a workout. Look for Pump It Up: Exceed to hit store shelves sometime in July.