Thursday, January 17, 2008


I don’t normally deal with everyday things here. Movies and music and books and games are so highly individualistic that I can’t claim to have an opinion that anybody would find worthwhile. I like a lot of things that nobody else does, and I understand that. So I make a conscious effort not to review every little thing that comes across my plate.

However, sometimes something is so good, and at such a risk of being overlooked, that I can’t NOT say anything. I must spread the word of good choices, and hopefully let people see something they wouldn’t otherwise. Today’s is a game. Not just a game, but a game for ipod.

I see you rolling your eyes! And yes, it’s true that most iPod games alternate between mediocre and crap, but this is different. This is amazing. This is a clash of gaming and music such as the world hasn’t seen save a few other times (and never done portably so well). This is Phase!

Phase is currently on sale in the iTunes store for $5. It’s made by Harmonix, those same wonderful people who brought you Frequency, Amplitude, Guitar Hero 1, 2, and 80s, and the new and temptingly large and shiny Rock Band. For the three of you who have never heard of these things (especially Guitar Hero/Rock Band) they are music games that take you through songs that you hit buttons in accordance with on-screen prompts. A rhythm game, for the gaming inclined among you.

Phase has a few features going for it most do not. 1) it’s much cheaper than Guitar Hero, I don’t care how used and abused the copy you’re looking for is. 2) it’s portable, which is nice if (like me) you’re always running about and not always in plain view of your gaming console of choice.

It’s 3) that’s the real clincher—you can use your own songs.

Let me explain. If/when you purchase Phase, it downloads into your iTunes. It also creates a Phase playlist for you. Now, before you sync your iPod, you have to put songs into the Phase playlist. Pick a song, any song. Once you do, iTunes will spend a few seconds analyzing the song and generating a note chart. Do this with as many songs as you’d like (between :30 and 30:00 min in length, up to 1000 songs) and then sync your iPod. Also, in a weird move, you have to manually sync the game. Once done, you’re ready to rock!

Phase plays similarly to most rhythm games. You select a single song in Quick Spin mode or a song followed by four others in the difficult Marathon mode, and you’re thrown into the game. Three lines drift off towards a simplistic, colorfully drawn landscape that unfolds before you. Circles come up, left right and center, which correspond to the Back Forward and Center buttons on your iPod, respectively. Also, there are swoops of dots that snake across the lines. These indicate a swipe across your touch pad. Whether it’s a quick swoop or a serpentine line of a song, it’s surprisingly visceral to play music circularly as opposed to the rigid binary-nature of the normal note-hitting.

When the circles hit the circles on the bottom of the screen, you hit the note indicated. Line it up, and you did it! Miss, and you suck. The game makes you know this, too, as the volume gets knocked down a notch on the song (similar to the misplays that happen in Guitar Hero). The more circles you hit, and the higher your score goes, and the more stars you gain at the bottom of the screen. If you don’t make enough stars to meet the quota before the checkpoint, you lose health. Lose enough health, and you get a game over.

It’s all pretty straight forward. Which is exactly what it should be. Consider it Guitar Hero lite. The real gem here, though, is being able to use whatever song you want to power the game. The generated note charts don’t have quite the consistency or elegance of a pre-constructed one, but they’re very adequate, and sometimes even brilliant in their execution. Especially with the addition of the touch-ring swoops. Shifting from the very old-fashioned button-matching staccato input style to the sweeping legato that the touch ring brings is surprisingly intuitive and feels musically accurate.

There are three initial difficulty levels and an unlockable fourth and fifth level. But even Hard will be sufficient for most people. I have yet to pass five songs in a row on Hard to unlock the next level. But I keep trying. However, Easy is appropriately Easy and Medium is a nice middle ground for those people who insist on playing Guitar Hero with three fingers. You know who you are.

My only complaint, and it isn’t game-breaking, is that sometimes the background animation can cause a bit of slowdown. You learn to adjust, and look ahead to the notes and anticipate, but I’ve missed a note or two due to a stuttering display before. Nothing game-breaking, and it could easily be because my iPod is a year old and has been treated fairly harshly in that time (I won’t tell you how many times I’ve dropped it).

All in all, Phase is worth it for ANYONE who regularly uses an iPod and has some time to kill now and again. Waiting for a bus, or after school, or on break at work, sometimes you just need some music in your life. With Phase, you can carry it with you. So you’re always just a reach away from being a miniature rock star.

Just don’t smash your iPod after a particularly good (or particularly frustrating) run. Seriously. Those things are expensive.


Tony said...

You make me want a new iPod. Well done.

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