Gitaroo Man


   The character-based rhythm action genre has been around roughly since Parappa the Rapper, and in the years since his introduction various games and franchises have introduced their own unique takes and spins on the original model. All have had their various merits and drawbacks, but in many ways, it's only now that Gitaroo Man has come into being that the full package has come together to create a deep, fun, and eminently replayable rhythm game.

 Lovely Day
All the people envy new my Gitaroo

   The most obviously amazing feature is the music. Gitaroo Man is host to ten stages, and there's not a dreary or uninspired song in the bunch. For a game that revolves around playing guitar, the music is quite impressively varied: conventional guitar-centric styles such as speed metal and heavy grunge are represented, of course, but so are off-the-wall genres like theremin-based reggae, drum 'n' bass, and a combination of flamenco music and a battery of percussion instruments that which the written word can only begin to describe. Particularly impressive within each song is the guitar prowess on display, but even beyond that, the quality of the music is so high as to set the new bar for the genre.

   Like the sound, the gameplay is top-notch and represents perhaps the first time a rhythm title has evolved beyond simple follow-the-leader button presses without the aid of a special controller. Gitaroo Man is structured something like a versus fighting game, with distinct defense and attack sequences. The defense parts are most like traditional rhythm gameplay; signals corresponding to the four Dual Shock face buttons fly in from the sides of the screen, and the player must hit the button once they reach a point at the center of the screen.

Okay, this one was a stretch
Star Vader

   It's the gameplay during the offensive sequences that really stands out, though the learning curve can be steep for those used to simply pressing buttons in time with the rhythm. The main feature of the attack mode is the Trace Line, a looping and winding path that feeds into the center point. During certain stretches on the Trace Line, orange Phrase Bars will show up, representing your guitar licks. To play them and attack, you must follow the Phrase Bar's movement with the analog stick and hold down any one of the four face buttons for the bar's duration.

 Green and Rock and Roll
Cutting! Evil Smile

   It's not nearly as simple as it sounds--many later stages with more complex musical arrangements have a bewildering number of Phrase Bars in rapid succession, varying in length, and you'll have to carefully follow the Trace Line. The game gives you some leeway as far as following the line goes, allowing you to stray a few degrees off course with the analog stick while still remaining locked on, but it's challenging nonetheless. And if not, the game offers a Hard mode, where mistakes cause more damage to U-1, as well as a Master Mode unlocked by completing the game once, which features entirely new Trace Line and enemy attack patterns combined with brutally unforgiving damage ratios.

   Even better, once you think you've got a stage all figured out, its varying musical sections come into play. A majority of the songs are divided into seamlessly branching paths, which are accessed depending on the player's performance. Do well on a particular section of the song, and the game will choose a more difficult section to follow it; make mistakes, and you'll find yourself playing an entirely different and easier section instead. The number of variable sections within stages is far from endless, but even after playing almost every day for a month or two, it's still possible to stumble across never-before-segments in the song.

Leave Me Alone
Persecution mania

   As every game of this sort should be, the stages are built around a bizarre, surreal plotline filled with odd characters. Main character U-1 is a bit of a loser and a whiner as the game begins, utterly lacking any kind of faith in himself yet fated by his bloodline to become Gitaroo Man, savior of the planet Gitaroo. Though he initially has trouble even speaking to Pico, the girl he has a crush on, his dog Puma reveals himself as the mechanical Puma AC30 and bestows upon him the True Gitaroo, dragging U-1 kicking and screaming on a journey to free the Gitalline people from imprisonment by the evil Zowie.

   Though the occasionally weak voice acting for U-1 drags the storyline down a bit, it's entirely redeemed by the visual style and flair brought to the table by enigmatic designer Illustrator 326. His designs somewhat resemble a child's colored pencil drawings, but with careful and intricate details such as the Dual Shock controllers that form the Sanbone Trio's pelvises or the strange creature perched on Gregorio Wilhelm III's shoulder. The game's graphics aren't on par technically with the cutting edge of what the PS2 has to offer, but they do a superb job of bringing 326's singular vision to life in polygonal form.

 Good Morning Mr. Three Cats

   326's designs are also clearly showcased in the Collection mode, which unlocks character portraits and bios upon getting certain grades on stages. Other bonus features include a movie theater to watch the cinema scenes again, and a multiplayer mode that supports up to four players at once, with one side attacking and the other simultaneously defending. Though the game may seem short at first blush, the variable branching paths, versus mode, and pure enjoyment factor would give it far more replay value than most rhythm titles, even if it didn't already contain more stages than any other.

   Just how the normally staid and historically-minded Koei produced a title like Gitaroo Man will perhaps never be clear, but it's an even more amazing accomplishment for how effortlessly it dwarfs the long-established competition. The Parappa and Space Channel 5 series have always featured strong design and quirky style, but all of their most stylish efforts were in the service of a basic, limited gameplay engine. Konami's purer tests of skill in the Bemani series have afforded more freedom to experiment with unique gameplay, but by ignoring the aesthetic side, they often end up as impersonal tests of rote memorization. By refusing to compromise on either design or gameplay, Gitaroo Man will both melt your heart and hurt your fingers, and you'll love every minute of it.

Review by Nich Maragos, GIA.
Developer Koei / iNiS
Publisher Koei
Genre Rhythm
Medium DVD-ROM
Platform PlayStation 2
Release Date  06.21.01
Gitaroo-Man impressions
337 screenshots / 22 Collection screenshots
10 character designs
Japanese box art
Visual Producer Illustrator 326
Music Producer COIL
Game Design/Main Programming Keiichi Yano
Creative Director/Scenario Masako Harada