Ontamarama (Nintendo DS)

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Written by  :  krisko6 (621)
Written on  :  Jul 04, 2011
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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An unfairly overlooked gem.

The Good

Multitasking is a part of everyday life. You've probably tried playing a video game while eating a snack at the same time, or, if you're of a more mischievous demeanor, have tried to play a game online at work or at school while keeping an eye on your boss or teacher to make sure that he or she isn't looking. Games that force the player to multitask WITHIN the game, however, are all too rare. I'm not just talking about merely micromanaging stats while playing a simulation or RPG, but games that actively force you to do two disparate things at once.

The DS, due to the nature of its hardware, is a perfect fit for these types of games. One such game that was unfortunately overlooked is Noise Factory and ATLUS' "Ontamarama". An obscure localization of an even more obscure Japanese DS game, it combines DDR-for-Dummies rhythm-matching gameplay with arcade style puzzle action similar to a favorite web game of mine from many moons ago, "Loop".

When you fire up the game, arrows start to appear on a chute at the top of the bottom screen. As the arrows scroll to the hole at the end of the chute on the left side of the screen, it is your job to tap the arrows with the D-Pad or Face Buttons with as precise timing as possible. The better timing you have, the more points you will earn. You'll know that you have proper timing, not just because of the "Perfect" message that pops up, but also because of the way the sound that is generated from your button press fits in to the beat of the song.

But BEFORE all of this can be accomplished, you must capture the Ontama that appear on the touchscreen, simply by tapping them. Doing so will "fill in" the note arrows that you are playing with the D-Pad and/or buttons, enabling them to be hit for points. Long notes require more than one Ontama to fill them in, and the player must precisely time both the tapping and releasing of the note on the D-pad in order to gain full credit for the note. In other words, you can't merely hold on long notes after they disappear like in other games, you have to accurately hold the note for the exact length of time required, no more, no less.

Although this description sounds intimidating on its own, I have actually barely scratched the surface as far as what gameplay elements exist in Ontamarama. In the game, you'll find giant Ontamas which require more than one tap, notes which require you to tap both the D-Pad and a button at the same time, light and dark Ontamas, Ontama circling, and even emergency assists which clear the entire screen of Ontamas. Do not be fooled by the cuteness, there is a very deep game waiting to be discovered here. In fact, I'd argue that it's arguably the deepest rhythm game ever made in terms of sheer gameplay mechanics.Yet amazingly, the game manages to be easy to pick up, provided that you pay attention to the tutorials.

Unlike the big-budget releases such as Guitar Hero On Tour, ALL of the music in Ontamarama is 100% original, and amazingly eclectic. Since the gameplay is abstracted from any particular instrument or even style of music, the composers are free to run with whatever style of music they can. You've going to hear classical, pop-rock, funk, hip-hop, calypso, techno/dance, folk-pop, and heavy metal all at some point at this game, all with a charming Japanese style that fans of anime and Japanese culture in particular are gonna love. If that's not varied, then I really don't know what is.

The Bad

The game's length was very short. The campaign could be completed in about an hour if you managed to pick up the tricky mechanics. In fact, the first time I played through on Normal mode, I didn't fail once. Not ONCE! Hard mode offered a bit more challenge, however. Thankfully, the game has a really good unlock system to keep the replay value high. Using the unlock system, you could get new Ontamas, borders, pens, arrows, gameplay modifiers, and even new songs. Without this system, I don't think the game wold be as addictive as it was.

The Ontamas were slightly touchy at times. The game had trouble distinguishing between a tap and a drag, meaning that when you touched Ontamas in the wrong way, they would not disappear. Also, the touch areas for the little creatures are slightly bigger than the sprites themselves. You could accidentally touch a black Ontama when you meant to touch a colored one instead.

The story is really mediocre, too. While having all of the characters names be musical terms is a really neat touch, you will not enjoy watching their banal conversations one bit.Basically, your generic boy or girl protagonist meets the next character, exchanges some light insults and playful banter, the player wins, your protagonist rubs it in the opponent's face, then moves on. Needless to say, this isn't Chrono Trigger, or even Elite Beat Agents as far as story goes. What's even worse is that the story is so childish and completely arbitrary to the enjoyment of the game. If you can actually handle playing the game itself, you're probably too old to enjoy the story. I'm sure there are kids who could handle playing this game without throwing their DS's against the wall, but most will probably give up and shake their heads in frustration.

Finally, the cuteness of the game did get to be really overbearing at times. The music and characters would be really grating on me at times throughout the journey because of how overly precocious they were.

The Bottom Line

Ontamarama is a difficult game to describe on paper, and may sound intimidating at first, but when you actually get down to playing it, it really is a lot of fun. It is two great tastes that taste great together, You'll have to bust through a hard, bland candy-colored shell in order to get to the deliciously original and surprisingly rich gameplay within, but for fans of this genre, Ontamarama is worth a try. If you're tired of going out On Tour, have Beat the Elite Agents into the ground, and have been to Rhythm Heaven and back, perhaps its time to embrace the chaotic, eclectic gameplay of Ontamarama.