Growing up with a Playstation 2, I was exposed to a lot of, shall we say, unusual games. I’d say part of the reason the PS2 was so successful was due to good third party support with an expansive library. When there’s so many games available, naturally, some weird ones are gonna slip through the region cracks. One such game is Gitaroo Man, developed by iNiS and published by Koei in 2002 (if you’re wondering how to pronounce “gitaroo”, just say “guitar” with a Japanese accent).
Gitaroo Man follows the impressively inept young lad, U-1. He returns home one day after pining for the girl of his dreams and being repeatedly humiliated by a bully, and starts whining to his talking dog, Puma. In order to build his confidence, Puma tries to teach U-1 to play guitar. After their lesson, however, they are jumped by a mysterious demon creature named Panpeus, hunting for a treasure known as the Legendary Gitaroo. Puma suddenly transforms into a robot, and generates a strange guitar, asking U-1 to take it. Upon doing so, U-1 is transformed into the eponymous Gitaroo Man, and engages Panpeus in musical combat for possession of their respective Gitaroos. What follows is a trek across the universe to the Planet Gitaroo to liberate the people from the evil Gravillian overlord, Prince Zowie. It’s a strange tale, to be sure, but though the story is a tad brief, U-1 does go through some legitimate growth, becoming less whiny and more capable, and by the end he ends up as a halfway competent kid, something which really resonated with me in my younger years.
Gitaroo Man is a prototypical rhythm game, utilizing some mechanics we see in today’s rhythm fare well before they were popular. The game is composed of ten stages, each with a different song. A battle is composed of three main phases: charge, battle, and final. When the song starts, you only have a fraction of your life bar, so you need to play during the charge phase to fill it up in preparation. For both the charge and battle phases, when it’s your turn to play, a trace line with notes of varying length will scroll towards the center of the screen. To hit the whole note, you need to press the button when it starts, follow the trace, and release when it ends. Every note you land will launch a bolt of concussive lighting at your opponent and lower their health. During the battle phase, when your opponent plays, colored symbols for the face buttons will scroll on, and you need to press them when they hit the center to dodge the enemy’s attack. Missing the dodge or missing your own notes will lower your health, and if you run out, well, you can probably guess what happens. Every verse of the song is like a checkpoint, and the opponent’s health isn’t low enough, the verse will loop until it is, which is a little annoying on the harder songs. At the end of the song, if the opponent’s health is low enough, you’ll go into the final phase, and finish them off with an extended solo. The mechanics are simple on paper, but it’s a tough game, getting harder as it goes. This is mostly due to the fact that you need to be very precise on the trace line, or the note will break and you’ll deal minimal damage. Many a day was spent stuck on the faster-paced songs, controller clenched in rage, but it was just hard enough that I knew I could do it if I hit that perfect state of concentration, the definition of good difficulty.
As you may expect from a rhythm game, its true strength lies in its soundtrack. Each song is a different genre, including pop, techno, jazz, reggae, and metal. As I said, the faster paced songs can be very difficult, since they include a lot of brief notes you need to mash the button for, but that doesn’t stop the songs themselves from being incredibly memorable. Fun fact: I loved the game so much when I was a kid, I actually imported the soundtrack CD from Japan, and I had to hot swap it with another disc every time I wanted to listen to it on my Walkman. To this day, I still listen to the soundtrack regularly in the car.
The game was re-released for PSP in 2006 as Gitaroo Man Lives!. This version had some tweaks to make the trace line a bit less strict, which I appreciated, as well as two new duet songs that you could play with a friend over wi-fi. The overall game was still the same, though, and it warmed my heart to see it get an updated version.
It’s a quirky game, but it hits that rare balance of quirky and fun that really sticks with you through the years. The printing of the original game was limited, so I don’t know how many copies are still floating around, but if you can get your hands on either the original or the re-release, it is most definitely worth a play and a listen.