DDRMAX Dance Dance Revolution (DDRMAX) doesn't have a deep, meaningful storyline. It doesn't use the latest in 3D graphics technology to provide realistic environments or characters. The gameplay doesn't involve online, team-based tactics or any sort of deep strategy. The game has none of the contrivances that make modern gaming so modern.
It may seem odd, then, that DDRMAX has affected me emotionally more than many games that have all these things.
As a strict sum of parts, the entire Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) series seems a bit underwhelming. There's a thumping J-pop soundtrack, a gimmicky dance pad controller, a stream of flashing arrows, and that's about it. Except for the CD-quality audio, it doesn't contain anything that couldn't have been done on the NES. But to understand what makes DDRMAX special, one has to look past the technical specifications and focus more on the unique experience that is playing it.
When I started out with the DDR series almost two years ago at a local theme park, I was a nervous, shy kid that didn't know quite what to expect from this strange Japanese game with the four-arrow foot controller. I would stand rigid as a statue in the middle of the dancing stage as I clumsily hit the notes based one where I saw them on the screen, not when I heard them in the music. I played the game as if it were a reflex test, jerking my feet from one note to the next like I was playing a foot-controlled version of the tabletop game Simon.
My curiosity was piqued by that excursion. I bought a flimsy dance pad and the first U.S. version of the game and started practicing in the privacy of my own home. Soon I learned how to feel out the beat of the music and use the rhythm to hit the notes more accurately. I learned how to make my steps flow by alternating my feet and, eventually, twisting my whole body away from the screen momentarily. With each new song I was able to beat, I felt less like I was playing a reflex test and more like I was actually dancing.
The most amazing thing about all of the DDR games is the sense of accomplishment and growth that beating a tough song provides. With other games I've felt similar feelings after beating an especially tough boss or solving a taxing puzzle. But when I truly master a song in DDRMAX, the sweat on my face and the swift beating of my heart magnifies the feeling. The soreness in my muscles and the burning in my lungs tell my body that I have actually done something worthwhile. It's a singular sensation that can make other games seem like meaningless fumbling with the controller.
With DDRMAX, the performance is the game. The music and the steps are nothing without a player on the pad, ready to bring them to life. Watching a game of DDRMAX isn't about watching the action on the screen, but about watching the dancer play out each song in his or her own unique way. There is an option to play DDRMAX using a hand controller, but it is useless for everything except beating tougher songs to unlock new ones. By de-emphasizing the images on the screen, DDRMAX emphasizes the interactive experience of playing the game.
Much of DDRMAX's appeal also comes from the social aspects of the game. Playing the game alone is good for practice, but showing off in front of a group of people raises the experience to the level of performance art. The potential to develop freestyle routines that inject your own personality into the dance belies the seemingly rigid nature of the step arrows and can make for some incredible performances.
Watching two people dance at the same time emphasizes the fact that there is no one right way to dance a DDRMAX song. A DDRMAX match is just as likely to end up like a freestyle rap battle as it is to be like synchronized swimming. There is the potential for embarrassment, especially with beginners, but that only heightens the tension and excitement of the dance. After all, what is the potential for success without the equally damning potential for failure?
Many people will scoff at DDRMAX because it doesn't include the things I mentioned at the beginning of this review. Some will claim that they just don't like dance music and refuse to play a game that focuses on it. Others will feel too shy and uncoordinated to try what is often a very public display of their motor skills. But for those who get past these feelings enough to immerse themselves completely in the dance, they'll find an experience that is unique to the DDR series.