"Ready! Fight! Cheer Squad!"
These words are the anthem of a squad of elite Japanese male cheerleaders, and, curiously enough, they're also a rough translation of the title of Osu! Tatake! Ouendan!
Ouendan is a Japanese-language rhythm game for the DS. It's unfortunately not coming out in the West in its current form. Although a localisation called Elite Beat Agents is planned, if you want the original craziness you'll have to do like I did and get yourself a Japanese copy to play in your wonderfully region-free handheld.
The game text is in Japanese, but that won't really bother you. The menus are intuitive, so that you'll usually be able to figure out what's what without understanding a single kanji, and the story (such as it is) is illustrated by animated manga comics which clearly spell out what's going on in a humorous and charming manner.
For Ouendan, you'll be taking the role of a squad of black-trenchcoated male cheerleaders, on a quest to generally make the world a better place. You'll be employing your elite cheerleading talents to a variety of unlikely problems. Some are prosaic, such as helping an embattled student to concentrate on his studies, or inspiring a struggling secretary to photocopy and answer the phone at superhuman speeds so she can win the heart of her spunky boss. The majority, though, are fairly off the wall, and you'll soon find yourself cheering on the police as they fight an alien invasion, urging a horse to chase down a motorcyle-mounted bandit, and reuniting a ghost with his still-living girlfriend.
The gameplay is easy to learn, and tricky to master. Each level consists of a scenario, which is accompanied by a catchy piece of J-pop music. As the music plays, the top screen of the DS displays animations showing you the progress of whoever you're cheering on. The bottom screen displays a series of coloured, numbered circles. Each circle has a thin outline, which starts large, and closes in until it is the same size as the circle. Your job is to tap each circle with the stylus just as the outline matches the circlce - a process which coincides with the rhythm of the music. Misses will take chunks out of a life bar shown onscreen, whereas particularly well-timed taps will refill it. The objective is to make it to the end of the song without your bar running out.
Like most rhythm games, it's fun, it's addictive, and any given attempt at a level takes no more than a couple of minutes, so naturally the game is perfectly suited to the DS. The difficulty starts off exactly right, but ramps up fairly quickly. Finishing the last level of Normal mode is a task I still haven't mastered, let alone the Hard and Insane difficulties that follow.
The greatest failing of the game is the small number of songs available. Games like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero have set the bar for the genre at the level of 30 to 40 different songs per game. Ouendan has a mere 15. Theoretically the songs can be attempted on each of four different difficulty settings, but you have to complete the entire game on Normal mode before Hard becomes available, and complete all of Hard to get Insane, so there's not a lot of variety straight off the bat.
Despite the relative lack of content, Ouendan remains a charming and memorable game, and I'm really glad I got a copy while I was in Japan. It's one of the most instantly fun games I've yet played on the DS, and is recommended to just about anyone who owns the system.