Back in the heyday of video games, Japan was all the rage; Nintendo, Sega, and Sony were the top dogs in the gaming market, and it was a pipe dream for western developers to even get games published and sold. Fast forward to today, where Sega is exclusively a software company, niche publishers are in danger of going under, and Nintendo and Sony have Microsoft to deal with in the next generation of gaming. However, with the decline of the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises, it seems that the rhythm game genre has still been pretty popular within Japan; with awesome titles like Parappa the Rapper, Osu! Tatake! Ouendan!, DanceDanceRevolution, and Project Diva, the genre is one of the select few that eastern territories love and flood the market with. Of course, with every DDR title there’s always one lesser known title out there; perhaps what could be called an amalgamation of Elite Beat Agents, DDR, and the Beatmania series, Atlus has decided to create Ontamarama for the Nintendo DS, a brightly colorful game that will probably have players confused at mechanics and crying at harder difficulty levels. While a serviceable title on its own, the game is hampered by a number of design issues.
The story, as with pretty much all rhythm games, is merely generic filler; two characters (either of them selectable from the start) are trying to save creatures of their island from being capture from a big bad… something. Really, all the story does is give an excuse for music battles between the protagonists and supporting cast. Gameplay, as aforementioned, shows similarities to Elite Beat Agents, as players will have to navigate with the stylus and d-pad/face buttons to clear notes on the touch screen; known as ontamas, these creatures need to be tapped on in order for players to press the corresponding command on a scrolling line at the top of the screen. The notes must be filled in with the tapped ontama to be played, otherwise the note is missed; enough misses will result in a game over. Additionally, there are different types of ontama that either help or hinder performance but aren’t necessarily in the scrolling line. Essentially, there are two mechanics at work, where one must maneuver to pick up notes as well as follow along with the beat.
While it does usher in some innovative gameplay, it gets frustratingly mindboggling near the end of the game, as well as with the unlockable hard level. Thankfully, there are mechanics that alleviate these troubles ,such as a move that clears out all ontama when one blows on the DS, or a move that clears same colored ontamas when one traces a circle around them. However, when things get hairy, they get terribly difficult fast, and with the unforgiving life meter, a game can end with just a few missed notes. Luckily, it’s only a real problem on hard mode, and normal for the rhythmically challenged, since easy mode doesn’t require the use of completing notes before tapping them with a button.
The colorful graphics and anime-esque presentation of the game is somewhat pleasing, and will appeal to most of Atlus’ audience; however, due to the insane difficulty, it will turn off younger players halfway through the game. As a music game, it does a decently well job of handling variety; the game offers everything from pop to hard metal, and there’s at least one tune players will have in their heads long after they put the game down. This period, however, will probably be a short one, since while the game does offer variety, it’s very shallow; a jack of all trades smorgasbord in a sense. The whole affair can be completed in under an hour, and even with a few bonus songs peppered in, the lasting appeal of this game will only be extended to music game lovers and Japanese gamers. Barely clocking in at around 15 songs, it’s a piddly selection to other music games, even compared to Elite Beat Agents, which had 16 normal songs and 3 unlockable ones.
In the end, Ontamarama is a mildly enjoyable music title that suffers from not being able to set itself apart. It has potential to being a memorable portable experience, but unfortunately is hampered by prohibitive difficulty and forgettable mechanics.