Konami's history with the music game genre has been a storied one indeed. Back in the late 1990s, the company single-handedly created the music genre with arcade hits like Beatmania and Pop 'n Music, two games in which players matched the rhythm of on-screen icons with plastic instruments like a turntable or guitar. The company's real claim to fame in the genre came from Dance Dance Revolution, a game that required players to use their feet to hit arrows in time to the music and mimic very simple dance moves. The game was immensely popular, spawning knock-offs in the arcade and making the series an instant classic. With the arcade scene dying out and western companies such as Harmonix taking over on the home consoles, Konami's reign over the genre hasn't been the same. With the release of the Kinect on the 360, Konami saw its chance to reclaim its former glory. From the original creators of Dance Dance Revolution, DanceMasters marks Konami's return to the dance genre. Despite the presence of the more popular Dance Central from Harmonix, is there enough in this game to make it stand out in a more positive light?
The basic gist of DanceMasters is exactly what you would expect from of a Kinect dancing title. Once a song is selected, you mimic the actions of the on-screen dancer from the beginning to the end of the song. By the end, you're given a letter grade based on your overall performance, and you have the opportunity to see how closely you mimicked each move before selecting another song and starting the process again.
The game does more than just ask you to mimic the dance routines for each song. Throughout each song, there are four different types of cues that must be hit in order to grade your performance. The first is the dance stream, which should be familiar to those who have played the We Cheer series on the Wii. The stream shows up on-screen, and a circle goes through the path, simulating where your hand should be and the direction it should be following. Gestures are simple maneuvers, such as shaking body parts, like arms and hips, in the indicated directions. Dance ripples appear as circles in the air and on the ground, and while the idea is to have players hit the given area with a body part, the ripples have different behaviors. Some ask the player to hit them in the air, some indicate where players should step, and others ask players to hold the body part in the indicated direction for a period of time before moving on. Finally, the last dance move requires players to match the given dance pose to score big points. The dance poses vary in position and difficulty, from simple arm poses to complicated arm and leg positions. A few of them actually task the player with clapping for the pose.
The dance cues make the title feel like an evolved version of Dance Dance Revolution, as they become the real criteria in how the game judges your performance. Unlike that game, though, you feel as if DanceMasters gives you the opportunity to perform an entire routine instead of just stepping around on the floor. It feels like real dancing in this respect, and while you wouldn't expect people to go out and perform some of these moves in a club, you can pull together a great routine if given the chance. That alone makes the game enjoyable, especially for casual gamers who may have enjoyed the music in the Bemani series but never understood the appeal of stepping in time to arrows.
Not counting for the selection of music in the game, there are a few quirks. For one thing, there is no customization whatsoever. Each song always comes with one particular dancer and one particular backdrop. While the lack of background selection might not be bothersome for most, it's disappointing that you can't choose your dancer since it was a feature in the recent Dance Dance Revolution games for home consoles. Another disappointing aspect is the lack of a preview mode for upcoming moves. This isn't much of an issue for the dance streams and poses since you have a fair amount of time to see them before the move needs to be executed, but it's a challenge for the dance ripples since they tend to be moves that need to be executed almost immediately after appearing on-screen. It becomes even more of an issue on the higher difficulty levels, as every cue tends to appear frequently and rapidly. Finally, because the game is reliant on cues for grading moves instead of analyzing body position, you can easily fool the game into thinking some arm and hand movements are perfectly done when the player is performing the move incorrectly. A good example of this would be when the game wants you to hit a dance ripple with your arms crossed, and you decide to hit it with arms open instead. The move is wrong, but since the ripple is hit, the game considers it to be correct. It detects everything else rather well, from poses to gestures, but the ripple cheats show that the dancing scoring system isn't perfect.
The audio caters to those who are familiar with the general Asian music scene. The music is mostly comprised of tunes from in-house Konami producers and a few tracks from publisher Avex Trax. Everything from hip-hop to pop to classic and para para come through with high-energy beats and BPM ratings from the low 100s to the high 300s. Those familiar with the musical selection will feel right at home, especially since some tunes resemble songs that have been featured in the Bemani series for quite some time. The Bemani heritage also comes through in the menu and selection voice, which sounds like a high-pitched girl trying to encourage you to do your best. While those who've only been accustomed to hearing western music games might find its presence annoying, longtime fans will relish in the goofy nature of it all.
Graphically, DanceMasters is pretty high-caliber material. The character models look great, and while that is to be expected of the main dancers, the background dancers also look very good. All of the animations look smooth, and that is paramount to the quality of any dancing title on the system. The backgrounds are mostly dark; while that's to be expected because most of them take place during the night, even the few daytime backgrounds look like they were taken on a slightly overcast day. The detail on most of the venues is good, with lots of spotlights and spark showers in areas with stages and rooftops, but a few of them feel empty and the animations for the Times Square crowd feel stiff when compared to everything else.
An interesting feature is the presence of your live camera image as one of the dancers. It doesn't look as clean as it should be around the edges, but that can be attributed to the Kinect, as it has a habit of reading your body as being a little more than your natural proportions. The effect is novel but entertaining, and it is made even more enjoyable by the fact that you can save up to two different recorded performances per song to serve as background dancers.
Multiplayer is handled fairly well. Both players dance simultaneously to the selected song on a quest to get more points. Interestingly, while combos are kept to the individual player, scores can only be combined in the end, giving the whole affair more of a co-op feel. In local multiplayer, it can be difficult to determine which player is responsible for which move, and while it becomes a legitimate issue for those who only want to follow their part of the routine, most players will end up following the complete routine anyway, so the issue is practically moot. DanceMasters boasts online play, which is a feature that no other Kinect dancing game has. However, as of this writing, not one match has been found online, so it's impossible to determine whether the experience is seamless or riddled with lag.
If you like the music, DanceMasters is a great companion game to Dance Central. It's disheartening that you can't break down the choreography or anticipate the next move, but the routines are rather good and provide a great amount of challenge to even the most skilled dancer. With the game looking great and the controls rather well done, it's a shame that the one feature it has over the competition, online play, can't be utilized due to the lack of an active community. If there's only room for one dancing game in your life, Dance Central would be it. However, if you're a fan who misses the high-energy beats of Dance Dance Revolution or would like to dance to some more obscure hits, DanceMasters is an excellent second choice.
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