Classic Callback: ELITE BEAT AGENTS
ELITE BEAT AGENTS is the sort of game that invites the famous Hunter S. Thompson description: too weird to live, too rare to die.
A little DS game published by Nintendo back in 2006, ELITE BEAT AGENTS uses that system’s touch screen as the control input for a rhythm game. You tap, slide, and swirl your stylus in synch with visual cues and music tracks. Simple. What propels it into the canon of great forgotten games is how it makes those simple little tasks so compelling.
In a completely bonkers and imaginative move, the Elite Beat Agents in question are a group of well dressed special operatives that can be instantly dispatched to anyone upon their cry of “Help!”. These agents claim no country, no ideology. They stand only for music, and accordingly they offer their services in the form of dancing. If they dance well enough, they can somehow alter the fabric of reality.
The hardest, most powerful jazz-and-pop dancer the world knows
Or at least, that’s how I’m choosing to interpret the EBA’s conceit: the better you play, the better the Agents dance, and the more effectively they solve the problem of those who cry out in need. The problems on which they intervene are simple enough at first; a babysitter is overwhelmed with her job, a taxi driver has to get a pregnant woman to the hospital. But the game casually, seamlessly becomes more and more absurd. A white blood cell, personified as a sexy nurse, must defeat a virus personified as a little blue devil. A mother who is also a meteorologist decides to challenge the storms of nature itself because she promised her son they could go on a picnic. That sort of thing.
The absurdity is heightened by the song choices, which are on the surface mystifying. Pairing “YMCA” with a deep sea treasure hunt, or “Sk8er Boi” with the aforementioned taxi driver scenario, elicits laughs from even the casual listener. But the picks are strong in terms of tone and tempo, and manage to feel weirdly appropriate. Knowing that they could never afford to license famous recordings, the developers also wisely chose to cover songs that aren’t very beloved. I don’t know that I would be familiar with Ashlee Simpson’s “La La” or Queen’s “I Was Born To Love You” without this game, but through ELITE BEAT AGENTS they’re always associated with fond memories.
The controls are snappy and responsive; you don’t feel as if the beat is out of synch or your actions are disconnected from the Agents. Each snap, clap, and spin has some weight to it. The beatmaps themselves match their songs well, and they can get to be quite challenging at higher levels. The gameplay is simple and well-designed, but the fun of it is so entwined with the story and humor that you almost can’t separate the two.
Most of the missions are taken seriously to some extent or another, and even when the stakes are low, EBA certainly makes you feel good about your accomplishments. Most of the stories establish a likable underdog character, and your good play allows them to transcend. In one very unusual mission, the Agents are even tasked to help a little girl come to terms with her father’s death on Christmas. The way the Agents help, in this way, is phrased as largely emotional rather than physical, a rare direction for a game to take and one that is arguably more compelling in a game that depends so heavily on story.
Tfw Kanye goes in on “Facts”
That’s not to say EBA is always sugary sweet. The game’s sense of weird, biting humor thoroughly rejects a sterile approach, and in a lot of ways, EBA seems out of character for an E10-rated-game championed by Nintendo. This is a game with a veiled masturbation reference and a topless woman hiding somewhere in its silly and colorful trappings.
All of these choices give the impression of a game that was meant to play up to smarter, older audiences. Nintendo seemed to have realized this, marketing it in their “Touch Generation” brand that was supposed to reach out to those who had never played a video game before. In the end though, EBA was just too bizarre to succeed, not even selling 250,000 copies before going out of print.
So I always feel like I’m part of some kind of secret cult when I talk about ELITE BEAT AGENTS. I have no issue enthusing it as one of my favorite games, a razor sharp and damn funny treat that just feels plain good to play. It’s my duty to espouse its praises to anyone who will try it, and hey, I haven’t failed a conversion yet. One day, we’ll get that sequel, Nintendo. One day.
ELITE BEAT AGENTS is available on Nintendo DS.