As a category, music games are in a weird place right now. The glory days of the first “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band 2”-and the plastic instruments they ushered into homes worldwide-are long gone. Activision shuttered the division that made “Guitar Hero” and MTV unceremoniously sold off Harmonix, the developer who created “Rock Band.” The Boston-based developer’s still thriving with “Dance Central,” but that game’s a far sight from the performance karaoke that let you stand in for the most famous rockers of all time.
But, the rhythm game genre may have life in it yet and the best proof of that is Taito’s new iOS release “Groove Coaster.” If you’ve played practically any music game since the inception of the genre, you’ll pick up on “Groove Coaster” right away. As the 17 J-pop tracks that come with the game play, symbols speed down a line running across the screen. Tapping anywhere on the screen in time with symbols will sync up parts of the song and bring them up in the audio mix.
What sets the title apart is its use of shifting camera angles to make the player constantly have to re-orient themselves. The name “Groove Coaster” riffs on “roller coaster” and the game does make you feel as if you’re in the front seat of the front car of a loop-de-loop extravanganza. Tracks will spiral in on themselves, zig-zag jerkily and make you feverishly tap at the screen during certain moments. The title’s head developer Reisuke Ishida last worked on “Space Invaders: Infinity Gene,” an iPhone game that similarly reworked the experience of the arcade classic with new ideas.
“Groove Coaster” channels the sensation of listening to new music. The not-knowing where a track’s going to go next, the latching-on to a part of a song you know you’re going to love, they’re both in “Groove Coaster.” It’s impressive that the game’s able to codify those perceptual and physical reaction of pop-music endorphin release into gameplay. That buzzy energy gets helped along by great visuals drawn out in neion-colored vector graphics that heavily recall “Rez.” You can totally feel the synaesthetic hallmarks of Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s masterpiece in “Groove Coaster,” with how tightly allied the graphical shifts are to the musical changes. But the iDevice title does enough make itself feel like its own unique experience and not a knock-off of anything that’s come before.
The signature moment of “Groove Coaster” comes at the end of a level, when the camera pull back to a wide shot that reveals the twists and turns you traveled along while tapping through a particular song. It’s almost like the photos you can buy of yourself after an amusement park ride, where you look back in wonder at what you experienced.