While in the west, the PSP’s software library has been plagued by sub-standard ports of home console releases and faceless racers, in Japan the system has seen a steady stream of intriguing rhythm-action titles. From the bonkers Gitaroo Man Live! and Taiko no Tatsujin Portable, to upcoming releases such as the return of PaRappa the Rappa and a portable adaptation of Studio 9’s Pump It Up EXCEED, there’s enough variety to rock the socks of even the most hardened of rhythm-action veterans. DJ Max Portable may not be the finest example of the genre on Sony’s handheld, but it’s a stellar effort nonetheless.
Created by Korean developer Pentavision and starting life as a freeware PC title, DJ Max’s mix of music creation utilities with more traditional Beatmania-style action, saw that it found its fans with relative ease. This portable edition expands upon its simple roots to become a tantalizing prospect for both rhythm-action fans and portable gamers alike.
As mentioned above, the game most resembles Konami’s Beatmania series in that you pick any one of a number of licensed songs ranging from dance/techno to more conventional rock selections, and as the music notes descend from the top of the screen, you press (or hold) the corresponding buttons in time with the music. The game begins easily enough with the player using only four buttons (left and up on the d-pad, and triangle and circle from the face buttons) but steadily escalates to some six buttons (left, right and up on the d-pad, and square, triangle and circle from the face buttons) increasing the speed and frequency with which notes fall along with it. Like most games of its ilk, it sounds a lot easier than it actually proves to be.
And that’s probably what’s going to limit most players’ enjoyment of this game: its level of difficulty. To say that DJ Max Portable is hard would be an understatement of almost biblical proportions. Even on the easiest setting, the games difficulty ramps up significantly after only a couple songs; progressing onto the harder game modes requires, above all, nimble fingers and a great deal of patience. It really is a huge contrast to the more sedate thrills brought upon by DJ Max Portable’s immediate rival: Namco’s infectious if flawed Taiko no Tatsujin Portable, with its ease of play equal to a tranquil holiday in the Caribbean rather than DJ Max’s stretch in a hard Chinese labour prison.
DJ Max Portable’s biggest failing, however, is one of control. The issue of control is an old chestnut for the PSP, which has constantly struggled with precision control - but this isn’t another rant about how bad the systems d-pad is. No, the aspect which hinders players’ enjoyment of DJ Max Portable is the closely grouped face buttons which makes pressing specific buttons in quick succession or holding multiple buttons (as the game often asks of the player) a more laborious task than it needs to be.
Above all else, the one thing that will ultimately decide the fate of any rhythm-action game is the quality of its soundtrack. On this front, DJ Max Portable doesn’t disappoint, providing an infectious, yet diverse, selection of tunes that never upsets the flow of play. Really the only complaint that can be levelled towards the soundtrack is the relative small number of songs on offer. Compared to the massive track list of fellow rhythm-action games Guitar Hero and Pop’n Music, DJ Max Portable’s paltry number of tunes may seem a little meagre in comparison.
What really impresses about the game though is the unique visuals on display. The sheer beauty of the animated music videos that accompany each song is enough to distract even the most serious minded of gamers from play - each of which look fantastic on the PSP’s oversized screen. Thankfully all the animations can be viewed individually via the main menu so you’ll never feel like you’re missing out. Menus and loading screens also share the clean, satisfying aesthetic of the visuals further adding to the charm and appeal of the overall package.
The rhythm-action genre has essentially followed the same path as that of two-dimensional shooters and fighters before it. As popularity has waned (the decline of arcade gaming in the west surely shares part of the blame), the genre has turned to satisfying established fans resulting in a near impenetrable play experience to anyone lacking an obsessive disposition. Importing has also become a necessity for fans looking to obtain some of the more exotic titles the genre has to offer, shrinking rhythm-actions appeal further.
While it’s disappointing that such a young genre has been reduced to niche status even amongst informed gamers, Harmonix’s Guitar Hero games - and even Sony’s Singstar series - have certainly opened the rhythm-action flood gates to more conservative gamers. Whether or not they’ll stay and whether they’ll summon up the courage to sample some of the more unusual franchises remains to be seen.
DJ Max Portable is proof that when it comes to rhythm-action titles, the PSP is just as capable of replicating the play experience as Nintendo’s more adaptable DS. It may lack the appeal of franchises on home consoles and in arcades due to its occasionally cumbersome interface, but this is first rate stuff that any gamer willing to brave the games almost vertical difficulty curve should check out.
A review by Adam Gellatly