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Behind The Charts: The Portable Rhythm Game Jam
Behind The Charts: The Portable Rhythm Game Jam Exclusive
February 25, 2009 | By Matt Matthews

February 25, 2009 | By Matt Matthews
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[Portable rhythm titles Elite Beat Agents and Patapon are critical hits and fan-favorites -- but this new, exclusive NPD stat-revealing Gamasutra column shows that the U.S. mainstream "collectively yawned" compared to titles like Guitar Hero: On Tour.]

In 2008 the American video game industry surpassed $21 billion in sales, according to the NPD Group, and even in the current tough economic times the industry is able to support a robust and diverse universe of software.

Let's shine some light into the corners which, for one reason or another, whole swaths of the videogame consumer public simply haven't seen before.

Today, we begin with two rhythm-based handheld games: Elite Beat Agents for the Nintendo DS and Patapon for Sony's PSP.

How can anyone have failed to notice the splash made by the dancing Agents? Do people exist who haven't seen the cute warriors of Patapon? In the well-connected world of online video game media, these are core games, ones that everyone is expected to know, and most likely have played.

Yet as we'll soon see, for all the importance that these games have among industry followers, they are little-known to the wider public.

Dancing Days

At its heart, Elite Beat Agents is a touch screen rhythm game. Players tap and slide the stylus according to a predetermined sequence of on-screen icons and the beat of the soundtrack.

Hit the beats and the player is treated to bits of melodrama as the game's titular Agents carry out their missions: to cheer various people through life crises using the power of song and dance.

In one mission, a track star suffering with a cold days before an important meet is revived by the curvaceous nurse-personification of his immune system – while the Agents dance to the tune of Ashlee Simpson's "La La". Later, an oil-digging billionaire loses and then earns back a fortune to regain the attention of his gold-digging wife -– with David Bowie's "Let's Dance" for a soundtrack.

On paper the premise sounds unwieldy, but in practice the game can be a true joy to play. With a sense of rhythm and a hand to hold the stylus, practically anyone can master the easy songs. The delightful stories and catchy musical selections are a strong lure to earn the right to see and master all the challenges.

Even with strong backing from Nintendo, including a demo installed on units at retail locations, Elite Beat Agents opened to disappointing sales. One month after its U.S. launch, Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aimé told MTV's Stephen Totilo that initial sales were only 120,000 units, well below the 300,000 level that the company had expected.

Fils-Aimé conceded that the title and its concept hadn't been surefire hits, but that he was disappointed that sales had not reached what he had anticipated would be "explosive" levels.

By early 2007, Elite Beat Agents had won several awards, including Nintendo DS Game of the Year for 2006 from IGN and Best Music/Rhythm Game of 2006 from GameSpot.

Despite these accolades and continuing support from the online video game fanatic community, including a recent live-action video produced by video comedy site Mega64, most Nintendo DS owners have likely never heard of the game, much less played it.

As of January 2009, Elite Beat Agents has sold 179,000 copies in the United States, according to exclusive data supplied to Gamasutra by the NPD Group.


Within fifteen months, Nintendo's rival in the handheld space, Sony, would make a play for the quirky music-and-rhythm genre with its new game, Patapon.

The exclusive PlayStation Portable (PSP) title follows the adventures of the Patapon, a warrior tribe bent on reclaiming its land from the enemy Zigotons. Ultimately, the tribe finds meaning in a loftier goal and that quest leads them, literally, to the far end of the world.

The player commands the Patapon in battle through a set of four talking drums, each mapped to one of the standard PlayStation controller face buttons. By tapping out command phrases in time with the game's background beat, the Patapon can be instructed to advance or retreat, attack or defend. Keep the beat well enough and the Patapons reach a fever pitch, during which their attacks are exceptionally potent.

With its catchy beats, silhouette-and-eyeball cartoon aesthetic, and goofy sense of humor ("Spank them bottoms!" is a typical war cry), Patapon found a fanbase in the online world.

For its part, Sony promoted the game heavily on its PlayStation Blog. Chris Hinojosa-Miranda, the game's associate producer, posted new information about the game nearly weekly from December 2007, through the game's February launch, and into March 2008.

To stoke the fires at retail, Sony provided an exclusive pre-order demo disc – containing a rare combat item available through no other means. Later, the same demo was released through Sony's PlayStation Store.

By the end of 2008, Patapon was honored with several awards for its unique music and gameplay, including an award from GameSpot for Most Innovative Game and IGN's Best New IP award.

Despite all the energy Sony poured into Patapon and its promotion, the game had barely edged out Elite Beat Agents, selling only 229,000 units in the United States by January 2009 after almost a year on the market, according to NPD data supplied to Gamasutra.

(A sequel has already been released in Japan and is scheduled for release in the U.S. and Europe during Spring 2009.)

A New (Handheld) Hero Appears

For their efforts to break out of traditional game design and push new ways mix music and storytelling, Nintendo and Sony received little reward.

Elite Beat Agents and Patapon were pitched for systems Americans have bought by the tens of millions, yet the games sold fewer than half a million units combined. The mainstream, if it even knew about these titles, collectively yawned.

One might suspect that music-and-rhythm games on a handheld are simply not an easy sell. After all, Sony and Nintendo put their weight behind these lauded titles, and they've sold miserably.

However in Summer 2008, Activision and Guitar Hero: On Tour for the Nintendo DS proved that handhelds are fertile ground for the right kind of music game.

The brand new iteration of the Guitar Hero series went on sale at the premium price of $50, contained a soundtrack of over 30 songs, and required a special piece of hardware to add guitar frets to DS system.

Within its first six months on the market, sales had reached over 1.1 million units in the United States alone, according to Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan Securities.

These games – Elite Beat Agents and Patapon on the one hand and Guitar Hero: On Tour on the other -– provide a particularly clear example of the tensions that exist in the videogame industry.

There is a vast gap between what the online media and online community find compelling and what mainstream consumers appear to see and want.

Well-known licenses and familiar interfaces can often propel a game to success while new characters and novel ideas languish. And for all their clout and money, neither Nintendo nor Sony are powerful enough to make a deserving game a successful one.

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Tom Newman
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Personally, I love rhythm games, but never on a handheld. I usually play my handheld with low volume or in noisy environments. While I love Patapon, I had to find a quiet spot at home to enjoy it, wishing it was really a PSN title. I'm sure I'm not alone.

Ciro Continisio
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Poor games! They sure deserved more.

I guess the key of the difference was the already known franchise name of Guitar Hero. Also the fact that you could play music you already know and love, weighted towards the Activision title.

Andrew Dovichi
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Licensed music is certainly more mainstream than soundtracks created solely for the game. I think that aspect alone attributes to the bulk of the sales difference.

The soundtracks of these games often garner more news coverage than the rest of the game; the same could hold true for non rhythm game titles like Madden and Tony Hawk.

Yasuhiro Noguchi
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You'll need to revisit this article when Nintendo unleashes Rhythm Heaven (Tengoku) here in the US and Europe. I've played the Japanese version and it's an awesome game that's tailor-made for the DS hardware.

The only concern I have is how the Big N's localization team is going to handle the music as well as game mechanics that are dependent on Japanese onomatopoeia. Part of the game's charm is the catchy songs crafted by Tsunku, who's one of Japan's top J-Pop producers.

Sean Parton
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@Andrew: The argument of licensed music making the difference doesn't hold water: Elite Beat Agents was made around licensed music, and actually sold less than the PSP's Patapon. Furthermore, I believe that the DS still way outnumbers the PSP in hardware units sold.

I think this is a clear-cut case of franchise recognition, which is what the end of this article does seem to imply. The only other case I can think of is the genre of music: Guitar Hero has rock and metal, but Elite Beat is mostly Pop, and Patapon I don't think is any sort of traditional genre.

Sean Parton
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@Yasuhiro: Sadly, as Elite Beat and many other games have shown, Nintendo's localization has a mind of it's own. I'll have to keep an eye out for it, but I'm not holding my breath to having it come to these shores unmarred.*

*Not that I think localization people are evil, but the only game I know of that had a good localization in recent memory (being as good or better than the original) would be Advance Wars Days of Ruin or No More Heroes.

Yasuhiro Noguchi
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@Sean: I think Nintendo's internal localization crew does a good job on their releases, so I'm not too concerned. I've enjoyed their work over the years, including Twilight Princess and both Advance Wars installments on the DS.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a purist when it comes to localizations. Sometimes you need to accommodate changes that cater to the target audience. Sometimes it's impossible to do a "pure" localization if you want the user to enjoy your game. You can't always satisfy everyone with localizations. Someone always has a bone to pick with your work.

Daniel Lam
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The problem here isn't localization at all. It's not even license. As Sean has stated, EBA is full of licensed (albeit cover) music and did worse than Patapon.

It's definitely BRAND among other factors that's driving up the sales here. GH's mechanics are established and recognized on other systems as well.

EBA and Patapon both have new innovative gameplay unseen anywhere else. In today's gaming age, people seem more comfortable playing the next iterative rehash than trying something completely new.

For the young DS owner target demographic, this was their chance to experience GH without the need to hassle mom and dad for the expensive hardware for the console version.