There's a unwritten law which states that it's impossible to look good, get fit and play a video game at the same time - it simply cannot be done. It goes against everything that our pasty-skinned, sedentary, antisocial pastime stands for. Or so some would like to think... Think again anaemic couch potatoes!*
Dancing games aren't new, and it's fair to say there isn't much difference between the plethora of choices that Konami and Dance Dance Revolution (under their Bemani label) have delivered so far. Mention dancing games over here, and the first thing that springs to mind is DDR (Dancing Stage in PAL land), but in the East and Latin America it's a different story. The pretender to the throne is Korean software house Andamiro's Pump It Up series of games, and its popularity is growing in leaps and bounds thanks to its arcade exposure, PC versions - and thankfully now - a Playstation 2 version.
For those who've never seen a PIU machine or game, the basic principles of the game are the same as the DDR games. Music plays, coloured arrows and indicators scroll up the screen and you step on the co-ordinating panel in time with the music as they hit the top of the screen. That's where the similarity ends though. The first thing you'll notice as you step on the supplied mat is that the arrows are in different places when compared to a DDR game. Gone are the up/down/left/right arrows, in their place there's an arrow at each diagonal and a central panel too. These correspond with the five icons at the top of the screen which indicate which one needs to be stomped on. If a single arrow scrolls up you step on it as it crosses the marker, if a stretched arrow goes past you step and hold until it passes through. If two (or three!) pass simultaneously they need to be pressed simultaneously. And this simple premise forms the basis for the entire game; sounds easy eh?
The main difficulty for seasoned dancing fiends is getting used to the relocation of the arrows. There's a lot more movement needed to get to the corners of the mat, and the addition of a fifth central square makes it hard to translate stepping patterns across from Konami's games. By virtue of the fact that the player needs to move more, and thanks to Andamiro's clever use of step patterns, the dancing looks a lot more natural and flowing at times than its Konami counterpart. This all harks back to the opening statement about 'looking good', it's all too easy to find yourself really getting into the spanish numbers and swaggering about like some kind of salsa maestro.Learning to 'read' the arrows as they speed by takes some getting used to, but it's well worth persevering through those first few awkward songs. The mat which comes supplied with the game is very well made and designed to last. It has a rubber backing which grips well to any surface, and it makes one wonder why it's not been used with the hundreds of soft mats already available. There's no hope of hacking a DDR pad to use with the game either, as this one connects via USB. It's responsive, non-slippy and (so far) hard-wearing. Give it a few hours after unfolding it to let the creases drop though, especially if you intend to stretch it over a board.
There's no denying the game is difficult, progression up through the first few levels of song difficulty is hard work, but after a while the brain just 'clicks', and reading the arrows happens at an almost subconscious level (in a similar way to zoning-out during a hectic shooter). Once that happens it's just a case of keeping up with the ever-demanding step patterns, and working on the bounce and agility needed to skip about the mat like a cat on a hot tin roof. The top difficulty songs are not far from insane and will need a lot of playtime to perfect. The inclusion of simultaneous 3-arrow presses adds to the challenge and encourages a freestyle style of play, with hand presses and dropping to the knee a necessity (unless you have big feet) rather than a pointless show-off. Longevity isn't a problem the Exceed player faces, as the game is stufffed full with one hundred songs to work through, with a great variation in styles. The three main groups of music comprise of Banya (PIU's own particular brand), Pop (Western/Eurobeat-styled music) and finally the K-Pop tracks from the likes of Yoo SeungJun and BOA. Everything from Techno remixes of Classical pieces to Heavy Rock and Latin beats is represented, and the background animations and videos ooze quality. Presentation has not been spared at the sake of functionality and gameplay; it's in addition to and a reflection of the wonderful gameplay.
It's a beautifully crafted game and the work Andamiro have put into it has to be respected. Rather than the same rehashed and reused background images over and over again there are polished, well-animated videos. The menus are easily navigated and it's very import friendly. The majority of the text is in English to start with, and the options menu lets you change the rest of the game from the daunting default Korean. There's enough variety in the music to satisfy just about anybody's musical tastes, and the quality is once again echoed in the aural barrage. Anyone with a penchant for Bemani should look no further, and those who want to try something new or are looking to try a dance game for the first time could do a lot worse. Whether it's better than DDR or not is a contentious issue and as with many other genres it eventually comes down to personal preference, but at a purely technical level Pump It Up Exceed has a lot going for it and is arguably the better put-together and more complete game.
*Looking good is not guaranteed. Something approaching a sweaty mess of flailing limbs is perhaps more likely.
Text by Adam Richards