Rhythm games have enjoyed a kind of renaissance lately. We've gotten the Donkey Konga games on GameCube, Taiko Drum Master on PS2, and Dance Dance Revolution on Xbox in recent memory. The GameCube's even getting a special Mario-centric version of Dance Dance Revolution soon. Playstation 2 and Xbox owners shouldn't feel left out, however: they're getting the cult-favorite dancing game Pump It Up: Exceed.
One problem: if you aren't already familiar with the game, you're going to have a bit of trouble.
Pump It Up: Exceed is a fan-favorite dancing game, imported direct from Korea. Instead of the standard four buttons (up, left, down, and right) that you'd find on most dancing games, PIU requires five: four diagonals and a central button. You'll need a bit more coordination to play PIU because of this. You'll often be required to hit multiple buttons at once, or in extraordinarily fast order, or lose. The game comes with a tutorial mode that's strictly bare-bones, but just good enough to teach you the basics.
The actual gameplay is fairly simple, in theory at least. You just have to press the buttons the game tells you to as the indicators go by and the music plays. In practice, it's pretty tough. Once the combination arrows start showing up, you'll have to respond with pinpoint accuracy. If you miss a step and try to catch up, you'll probably end up missing even more. It struck me as somewhat more wise to simply take the loss and try to regain your momentum.
The game offers a variety of gameplay modes, but not so much in terms of variety in gameplay. The difference between Arcade, Home, and Sudden Death, for instance, is simply that the one has a life bar (which is toggleable, anyway) and an internet ranking passcode, the second lacks both, and the last one requires you to be absolutely perfect and not miss a step.
You won't find any fun or cute little gimmick modes like you would in other rhythm games, either. Pump It Up: Exceed, by today's standards, is a strictly barebones affair. There are a few unlockable modifiers (if you're into making the game more difficult), a few unlockable songs, and a mode to view the background videos all by their own. That's it. In this sense, Pump It Up is pretty shallow. There's a decent number of dificulty levels, but that's where it stops. This is a befuddling choice in this day and age of unlockables and widely varied gameplay. If you aren't into these kinds of games, then the only reason you'd have to try it would be to play something new. The internet ranking is pretty cool, but it's merely decent as far as incentives to play the game over and over go.
Therein lies the problem. Pump It Up: Exceed is kind of obviously geared towards aficionados of the genre. Everything, from the menus, to the song selection, to the way you unlock the few available extras, is geared towards those who've been playing dancing games for a while. I'm not asking to be handheld through the title, and I don't want to over-exaggerate the game's problems, but it's not very novice-friendly. There's a decent sized gap in difficulty between Normal and Hard, whereupon the game, instead of gradually increasing in difficulty, tosses you directly into the deep end. It's kind of frustrating.
All in all, Pump It Up: Exceed isn't necessarily a bad game. It's a niche game, and knows this, so it makes little to no effort to pander (or even attract) a wider audience. To fans of the genre, it's stellar. It's got just over one hundred songs, each with their own backgroud videos, modes that test both your stamina and your composure, and more of what people have come to expect from dancing games. To newbies, it's got a light tutorial and a series of walls for you to hurdle to get used to the game and start having fun. Novices may want to seek out a game that's more suited to entry-level play.