The sheer hell of Rhythm Heaven Fever

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Wait a minute, do we go on three, or after three? Playing Rhythm Heaven Fever, I feel a bit like Elizabeth Berkley in that scene in Showgirls where she first joins the show. The rehearsal swirls around her and she looks ridiculous and out of place because director Paul Verhoeven probably has as much contempt for her as Rhythm Heaven Fever has for me.

After the jump, why am I actually playing it then?

Despite the fact that Rhythm Heaven Fever is on the Wii and looks like a budgetware collection of minigames, it’s nothing of the sort. These aren’t minigames. More accurately, I’d call them rhythm puzzles every bit as demanding and challenging as Bit Trip Beat on the Wii, Groove Coaster on the iPhone, Patapon on the PSP, or cooking meat in the Monster Hunter series. If you don’t have an ear for rhythm and your own internal metronome, you will be hopelessly lost. And even if you do have an ear for rhythm, this game will find its limit until you figure out — which most often means hearing — the solution.

I like that there’s no running score or meter on the screen when you’re playing. You never master an interface or a display, which sets Rhythm Heaven Fever apart from other rhythm games. This is all about watching sometimes vague visual cues and eventually listening carefully and nailing the timing. Your overall progress between puzzles is a flow meter, which seems to be a running tally of your accuracy. You’ll probably hit an average pretty quickly and then gradually push it upwards as you master each sequence. There are also medals for doing particularly well on a level. Medals unlock extra content, like minigames, a survival mode, and multiplayer modes.

To its immense credit, this Wii game features no Wii gimmicks. It is driven entirely by button presses. Go ahead and jump around while you’re playing. No one’s watching and you don’t have to point the Wiimote at the screen. Get into it. Feel the beat. I won’t tell anyone.

The artwork is mostly unremarkable, with a few weird exception. But it’s no WarioWare. At least the minigames are imaginative. For instance, there’s this little guy who forces you into a rather meticulous session of Simon Sez.

These guys teach you timing isn’t always a matter of when to press the button, but how long to press the button.

This one really forces you to listen to peas being flicked at you so you can anticipate when they’ll arrive and stab them with the fork. I may never get a medal on this one.

And this monkey clock is where I hit my limit because it plays with the downbeat.

I’ve failed drumming in Rock Band often enough to know that I don’t do downbeats. Yet. But I refuse to let that damn monkey clock beat me. Look at them up there. I think they’re laughing at me.

And that’s not even half way through the levels. There is absolutely nothing casual about this game. But it’s incredibly gratifying to finally nail a puzzle in the same way that it’s gratifying to nail a song in DDR or a level in Patapon. Rhythm Heaven Fever, which seems to know full well how hard it’s pushing you, is eventually as satisfying as it is infuriating.

4 stars