If you’ve developed some small inkling of my taste in games, you might realize I enjoy clever concepts, well-written stories and thoughtful gameplay that evokes appropriate tone and an immersive experience. Well, go grab a welding mask and all the bottles under your sink because I’m going to blow that image to kingdom come. At this point, imagine me standing up from my folding chair, facing the other shy, timid members of my support group and admitting to myself and the world, “My name is Jake, and I’ve played dance games.”
This really shouldn’t shock anyone. If you’ve found your way to this blog, I’d wager my last three paychecks on “You Being a Couch Potato” to win, place, and show. I’d even throw in a side bet that, like me, you spent most of high school wondering why the idiots catch all the breaks. Put quite simply, the academic lifestyle doesn’t suit us as human beings. Despite what we tell ourselves, even being an intelligent species doesn’t count for much in this world. Don’t believe me? Why don’t we compare human population and evolutionary history to that of the cockroach and then come back to the question, “Who is mother nature’s pet?”
No, ours is a peaceful, sedentary life. We move on a geological scale, and then usually for no reason other than to pee or change the game. Think I’m exaggerating? When I lived in Korea, I found that once every few years or so, some poor overworked Asian kid will play Starcraft for three days straight with no food, drink, or sleep and drop down stiffer than Rick Santorum at a Fire Island rave. As gamers of the fantastical rather than the athletic, we sometimes have to put in extra effort in order to…you know…stay alive.
As such, Anne has for years tried to get me to play Dance Dance Revolution. After all, it’s a game, right? It shouldn’t bore me like regular exercise does. Still, I can’t stick with it for more than a few days. DDR has serious problems. First of all, the hardware sucks. Despite my overly large feet, I hit the target buttons on the pad with the accuracy of someone trying to hit a mosquito with a water pistol in a football stadium while blindfolded and getting assaulted by angry badgers. Furthermore, to get the cords to run from the TV to the console to the pads, I have to completely rearrange my living room. And yes, I’m well aware of the absurdity of descrying physical labor in preparation for exercise, but I get the right to complain because, bottom line, it makes me not want to play the game.
However, Just Dance, Ubisoft’s answer to the music/rhythm/dance genre, makes wonderful use of the gimmicky Wii controls in order to solve pretty much all of these issues. You just strap the Wii remote to your wrist, find a spot with a little bit of space where you won’t put your fist through a lamp shade or trip over the coffee table and give yourself a concussion, and get your proverbial groove on. After selecting your song, a radioactive neon humanoid avatar appears and starts dancing. The player simply mirrors the actions they see. Periodically, like the arrows in DDR, a pictorial description of the next move will slide onto the screen which make as much sense as translating Egyptian hieroglyphs, but with practice and repetition they give the player a better idea of the dance moves.
While DDR focuses entirely on the lower body like some sort of post-modern Riverdance, the Wii remote emphasizes the upper body. Quite frequently this made me neglect the footwork, but often I found that getting the lower-body moves right actually made the upper body moves easier. Never involving myself much in the clubbing scene, modern dancing always makes me feel awkward and dorkish. Just Dance doesn’t solve that problem completely, but forcing me into a complete dance routine feels much more natural than clomping around a square-meter size pad, an activity much better suited to popping mass quantities of bubble wrap.
Just Dance grinds DDR into pulp on one other feature–the music. While DDR seemed to operate under the suspicion that contemporary night clubs invented the concept of “dance,” Just Dance appears to understand that physical expression of music can span beyond the trite, vapid beats of techno. We bought Just Dance 2 specifically for the song list it offered, which contained Hot Stuff (Donna Summers), Jump in the Line (Harry Belafonte), Soul Bossa Nova (Quincy Jones, but you’d recognize the song as the theme to Austin Powers), and other genres, such as a song by Elvis and even a Bollywood dance number. It’s as though the designers wanted to give you a selection of experiences, rather than just “Select song. Listen to the beat. Step on arrows.” As a caveat, yes I should admit that most of the time you’ll be shaking your ‘mote to techno dance music, but I appreciate the alternatives, and may even spring to buy Just Dance 4, which would be the first game to ever Rickroll me, and also includes the Time Warp, a song I already basically know the moves for (Just a jump to the left, right?) As an added bonus that will benefit both the music lover and the fat, lazy slob who needs to exercise alike, Just Dance plays the entire song for you, rather than just the 90 to 120 second bastardization you get from DDR.
One side of me wants to mock modern game designers–Nintendo most of all–for trying to develop video games for people who don’t really want to play video games. Yet the other side of me realizes that in this mad dash to increase their profits (which may end up alienating traditional players like myself), they’ve actually made the practice more mainstream. At thirty years old, I can whip out my Nintendo DS in public and not be shunned and avoided for the sociopathic freak that everyone used to think I was. So while Just Dance or DDR may target the ditzy sorority/fraternity crowd looking for party games, I have to tip my hat and offer a certain amount of respect to them. Furthermore, whether they intended to or not, these games promote public health. They’ve found a way to let me exercise by disguising it as something I find interesting, so I might just have to recommend the game to anyone who spends a large chunk of their life glued to a screen. And also I’d recommend an industrial strength solvent. You shouldn’t glue yourself to anything. That’s unhealthy.