Last week, on a sudden whim, I dropped $150 on a new dance pad controller, and I have Superbeat Xonic to thank / blame for that.
Let me offer some context: a long time ago, back when I was a teenager, I was really into Dance Dance Revolution. Okay, maybe not to the extent of the real hardcore DDR players you see in arcades (remember arcades?), but I had a mat and would play every day, sometimes until my legs felt like they were going to fall off, chasing higher scores and tougher songs.
In the ensuing years, I drifted away, as you do. I traded in my dance mat for a plastic guitar, grew out my hair, and decided I was a rock star, not a dancer. Later, Elite Beat Agents on Nintendo DS showed me how perfect handhelds are for rhythm games.
And then, along came Superbeat Xonic - a Vita-exclusive spiritual successor to the DJ Max series (which I must admit, I’ve never played) - to pull me all the way back to the golden age of rhythm games, the late ‘90s and early 2000s, when DDR and other Bemani games were at their prime.
With modern rhythm games like Rock Band and Just Dance, there’s a focus on the familiar. Sure, there are some hidden gems among their tracklists, but the draw of those games is rocking out to the songs you know and love. There’s certainly appeal in that, and I’m sure DLC sales figures for those games would attest to that.
Superbeat Xonic, like DDR, is all about wonderfully bizarre, obscure music that’s somehow more fun to play than those beloved classics Rock Band et al offer up. Of Superbeat’s 50 or so songs, I was familiar with just one going in (Heavy Day, the opening theme from Guilty Gear Xrd) - and that’s probably my least favourite of what’s on offer. Everything else, from idol pop, to prog metal, to “gypsy jazz tech” (the genre descriptors get impressively specific) is an utter delight to play through, a perfect fit for a game of this sort, and would easily be on my main Spotify rotation if they weren’t so damned hard to find.
It’s not just the music that harkens back to rhythm games’ heyday, though; the structure and presentation also have a decidedly turn-of-the-millennium feel. Please take that as the compliment it is. There’s no story mode or career mode; this is an arcade-style game with arcade rules: three rounds, three songs, get the best score you can, then “Thank you for playing!”
Everything from idol pop, to prog metal, to “gypsy jazz tech” is an utter delight to play through
The songs themselves have psychedelic, colourful visualizations in the background, with title cards that don’t have an ounce of consistency and typically look like they were designed by someone who’s just discovered Photoshop’s “Filters” dropdown and is losing their frickin’ mind. Again, please take this as the compliment it is; there’s a real sense of charm and nostalgia that shines through.
If that doesn’t tickle your “back when I was a young ‘un” bone, the difficulty certainly will. Superbeat Xonic is hard, in a way that few modern rhythm games can match - even Guitar Hero and its (in)famous Through the Fire and Flames. It’s your typical rhythm game - press specific buttons in time to the music - but with 12 different triggers in use on the hardest mode, things get hairy quickly. The beatmaps get fiendish, too, with the left and right sides often being “mismatched” - like hitting a series of D-pad directions on the left, along with analog stick inputs on the right. And just to make things nastier, it’ll let you get comfortable with a string of mirrored buttons - left on the D-pad plus circle, for example - before throwing a curveball or 500.
With all that said, and with all its nostalgic design, Superbeat Xonic is decidedly modern in the control it gives you over this difficulty. Most importantly, the game is broken up into three different modes of increasing challenge. In 4Trax, note markers travel along just four tracks, which means you only need to worry about four buttons (plus analog sticks). 6Trax adds two more tracks, and 6Trax FX throws the shoulder buttons in on top of that.
There’s also a Difficulty setting in options that drastically alters how badly the game punishes missed notes. On Easy, it’s near impossible to fail even challenging songs, you just won’t get a good score. On Hard, even easy songs will be a challenge, but the rewards you get are worth it.
Rewards? Another welcome, modern inclusion is a simple but compelling levelling system. As you complete songs, you’ll earn XP based on how well you did; get enough, and you level up, typically earning a new DJ Profile in the process. More than just a piece of character art appearing at the edge of your screen, these profiles add bonuses, like extra health, bonus XP, or Break Shields that protect you from a certain number of missed notes.
Combine all of these, and you have a game that actually gives you a lot of control over how much challenge you’re presented, even though the beatmaps themselves are unwavering in their lack of care about your mortal fingers.
There are some things you can’t fix with settings, though; notably, a UI that can be unreliable. Rather than travelling in a flat line, the note markers zoom in from the depths of the centre of the screen to a ring around the outside. This means that timing can be hard to judge, especially when you’re trying a new song for the first time, and it’s easy to get lost amidst cluttered notes on harder songs.
This is made worse by the game’s lack of any sort of visual effect to distinguish backbeat notes. Other games, like DDR and Persona 4: Dancing All Night use different colours that serve as an quick and reliable indicator of the beat in a string of note markers. Without this, and with their tendency to focus on melody more than rhythm, songs in Superbeat Xonic are harder to adapt to and require a bit more trial-and-error in their approach.
Superbeat Xonic is not a game for everyone. It’s a game for the diehard rhythm game fans, and even if it has some problems, it passes with flying, psychedelic colours in that regard. If you’re expecting familiar songs and lighthearted fun, you won’t find that here. But if, to you, “rhythm game” means eclectic, unheard of music and a never-ending push for mastery and perfection, Superbeat Xonic could be your jam.