There's a great scene in the film Lost in Translation where the transplanted American stumbles into a Japanese videogame arcade and finds gamers who aren't blowing things up with guns, but are instead making music. There's a guy banging a pseudo-taiko drum in Namco's Taiko no Tatsujin while another enthusiastically pops little coloured capsules in time to the beat in Pop 'n Music, and then the black-leather rockstar wannabe standing in front of the Guitar Freaks cabinet with the giant wooden guitar controller in his hands and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth while the girlfriend looks on.
There's a whole subset of these rhythm-action games that aren't often seen outside of Japan, which is a shame for foreign fans who have no choice but to import the expensive and arguably inferior home console versions. Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) is the one game that has successfully crossed over and made itself a fixture in arcades and homes outside of Japan. There's no better affirmation of DDR's overseas success than DDR: Ultramix, tailored exclusively for the oh-so-American Xbox.
So what is it about DDR specifically that we gaijin like so much? Rock n' roll is American, but Guitar Freaks and DrumMania are met with comparative apathy in the States. Para Para Paradise (another arcade dance game based on arm-movements) is just as much performance art as DDR, yet it's not a fraction as popular. Pop 'n Music is capable of instigating the same displays of competitive virtuosic one-upsmanship as the beloved American shooter—just ask the girl who I recently witnessed in an arcade playing verses mode against herself by manipulating both halves of the controls at the same time.
Perhaps DDR's success is linked to the fact that it is the most accessible of the BEMANI-style games. Following dance steps is more instinctive to us than manipulating giant fake instruments or trying to figure out the intimidating controls of Pop 'n Music or DJ-wannabe vehicle Beatmania. At the same time, DDR, even in North Americanized translations like Ultramix and the PlayStation 2's DDRMAX, still retains some of its foreign quirkiness that is far more intriguing than Britney's Dance Beat or American Idol, America's comparatively vapid offerings to the dance subgenre.
Ultramix is a typical DDR experience: dancehall music plays in the background and arrows scroll up the screen. As the arrow enters the "step zone," the corresponding arrow on the dance pad controller must be pressed down with the player's feet. Steps are combined into routines, and honest-to-goodness dancing results even from the most awkward body. (A regular controller can also be used, but it makes for a dull ordeal.)
Most of the modes will be recognizable from other versions. Training mode allows the songs to be slowed down and mastered before attempting arcade mode. Challenge mode is a rather silly affair that requires the player to execute goals like achieving a certain number of combos within a song. Workout mode keeps track of the number of calories burned and allows the player to set fitness goals. The problem with workout mode is that there is no continuous play option, and the player will have to pause after each song to manipulate the menus and choose another song. Each song burns around fifteen calories.
Ultramix was the first localized version of DDR I played; that is to say, all the menus were in English as opposed to Japanese. It's always interesting to play imports and have to muddle through menus, learn commands through trial and error, and have the general sense that something was being missed. On the other hand, part of what made import DDRs so great was that there was always the chance that out of the blue a lyric might float by like, "Oh Nickie not so quick, you know that makes me sick, I wanna feel you forever."
The lyrics in Ultramix are sanitized for the most part, with one curious exception: The words to "After the Game of Love" are heard in full with all references to the "Beasty Rendezvous" and "Doin' it Greco-Roman style" intact. I'm not quite sure how this song managed to slip under the radar, since it was heavily censored in other North American releases. Perhaps something got lost in the translation.