The Playstation 2 is one of those consoles that regardless of the genre, there are so many great games available that it’s an embarrassment of riches. The list of all time greats is so long that I’m not even going to start here since it would take its own article just to list them all. No matter what you are itching for, there is almost certainly at least a handful of titles, if not more, to scratch it.
One place in particular where Sony’s second console really shined however was rhythm games. Titles like Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution, Beatmania, Rez, and so many others formed a collection of games that still have strong followings even to this day.
On top of this, those titles formed the foundation for future rhythm games like Sound Voltex that, without these forerunners, may never have had the chance at success they enjoy now. However, not every game can be a super influential mega-title. Sometimes games, even great ones, enjoy more modest success and find themselves spoken about with whispered reverence rather than with a maxed out megaphone.
That doesn’t make them any less worthy of praise, and perhaps their influence is felt in other ways, or it is something enjoyed more with a cult status.
Gitaroo Man is one such game, which is a shame because it’s one of the best rhythm games ever made.
Carrying A Tune
Even by 2001, the rhythm genre of games was starting to really take off. Dance Dance Revolution was on its 5th Mix, Dance Summit 2001, sequel to Bust-a-Groove 2, released a year prior exclusively in Japan, and there was an increasing space for music games and realizing their potential.
On top of this, games in general were in an experimental phase. The Playstation 2 allowed for more powerful, better looking games unlike anything ever seen on consoles before up until that point, and developers were keen to play around with what was possible. There are a lot of oddball games that were released from the console’s release through 2004.
Games like Mad Maestro, Mister Mosquito, Chulip, and others were, and still are odd games with strange mechanics that in most cases never were replicated or imitated. They didn’t have the same lasting charm, appeal, and most importantly sales figures as 2004’s Katamari Damacy would prove to. Despite that they were games that were trying to express and explore things in odd ways to create a unique experience, even if that experience was running around town kissing a whole bunch of people.
To say the stage was set for an oddball rhythm game in the midst of all this would be a bit of an understatement.
Gitaroo Man was released in 2001 in Japan and 2002 in the U.S. and E.U. regions, and became one of those beloved games that those who played it cherish, but couldn’t have hoped to stand up to the enormous titles released that same year. We’ll talk about that a bit more later.
If by chance you came across this game in the wild nineteen years ago in a Babbages or some other game store GameStop would come to eat up, you’d be confronted with the bold, colorful art of Mitsuru Nakamura featuring a cast of strangely dressed characters, one of whom in the center holds what could be passably called a guitar. Flipping the box over the words “Music tames the savage beast… An entirely new form of music entertainment.” blaze across the top while telling you to fill the shoes of the legendary Gitaroo Man and of the game’s numerous features.
You’d be well within your rights within that moment to ask yourself “who and what is this game even about?” After all, the back of the case shows screenshots whose UI looks like that of a fighting game, and the art at the bottom seems like something more out of a weird high school manga than any kind of “normal” video game of 2001.
Having played the game quite a bit in my adolescence and again recently when my nostalgia reached critical mass a few weeks ago, I have that answer.
Gitaroo Man is about the horrors of puberty.
Okay well, it isn’t about that. But it is, in part, about the awkwardness of being a teenager and the things that come with it as we learn to grow and become better versions of ourselves.
A Rock Odyssey
Like all epic tales, Gitaroo Man starts at the beginning. Our hero? U-1, a teenage boy that sucks at everything.
He’s awkward, ridiculed by his peers, doesn’t have many friends, is ignored by the girl he likes, and constantly shown up by Kazuya, who is effortlessly good at all the things U-1 wishes he was good at. Worst of all? U-1 can’t even do simple skateboarding tricks, mostly because he refuses to actually apply himself to learn anything.
As far as heroes go he’s not exactly an inspiring individual. What he is however, is terrifyingly normal in a way that, while not exactly relatable for everyone, is incredibly familiar. If you weren’t U-1 as a kid, you probably knew someone who was.
Thankfully there’s Puma, U-1’s donut eating, talking dog. Just go with it, it is going to get wilder from here. Mostly because Puma wants to teach U-1 guitar so that he can take up a Gitaroo, a legendary musical battle instrument that is more a keytar synth than a guitar.
Like with most things U-1 has little interest in actually learning how to play. But when a lil’ devil named Panpeus shows up the choice is made for our lackadaisical wastrel, and he transforms into the legendary Gitaroo-Man.
From here, U-1 and Puma are launched into a wild, space faring musical odyssey of J-pop aliens, jazz bees, mariachi percussion skeletons, dueling Gitaroos, and young love. This journey culminates in U-1 actually getting good at something, learning a lot of lessons about life, gaining confidence, and starting to come into his own. U-1 goes from complaining about every encounter and the things happening to him to working alongside Puma to deftly defeat the villains and save the universe from evil music enslavement at the hands of Zowie, leader of the Gravillian Empire, and someone that looks a lot like Kazuya.
By the story’s end, after a climatic Gitaroo duel, U-1 returns to his normal life, but with a measure of more confidence and experience. In a very Campbellian return to home, when his bully Kazuya appears, rather than be pushed over, U-1 takes action, gleefully running off into the credits.
For a rhythm game, Gitaroo Man packs a lot of story, a lot of heart, and a lot of meaning about self improvement and the general awkwardness of being a teenager. While it wasn’t groundbreaking fare for the era, and is chock full of quintessential shonen anime tropes, it’s still a fun action romp that manages to be enjoyable through the game’s entire length.
That fun action is something that applies to the gameplay as well. Each stage is broken up into Attack, Charge, and Defense sections. During Attack and Charge sections, the player must follow a line while pressing the O button on rhythm with the prompts to either fill their health bar or deplete their opponents. During the Defense section, timed presses of the Playstation 2’s face buttons are required to avoid damage.
While it starts off simply enough the game’s steady difficulty curve introduces new mechanics bit by bit to keep the player on their toes, forcing them to master the gameplay in order to advance, especially with some of the game’s later encounters with the Sanbone Trio and Gregorio III.
Even decades later the game holds up, and the music itself is fun, with several songs genuinely being earworms with phrases that just stick around in your head.
On top of this, the game features multiple challenge modes, including a “Master’s Play” for those looking to really test their skills, and a multiplayer mode for versus play.
Something that’s nice though, is that the gameplay challenges are in part, aligned with the game’s themes and story. U-1 can’t really achieve anything until he starts committing to things and rising up to the occasion, and the game enforces that via gameplay. Some of the challenges are incredibly difficult, and failure can result in a swift game over. But with perseverance and mastering the game’s controls, you can overcome the obstacles set in front of you.
Keeping it Underground
Gitaroo Man is an incredible game. Its creators, iNiS Corporation, went on to make the much loved Elite Beat Agents and Ouendan games, as well several other music-based games. But Gitaroo Man never really rose above a cult status despite just how good it is.
If you’re tempted to ask yourself why, here’s just a sample of other games that released in 2001 and 2002:
- Animal Crossing
- Devil May Cry
- Deus Ex
- The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
- Final Fantasy XI
- Grand Theft Auto 3
- Halo: Combat Evolved
- Kingdom Hearts
- Max Payne
- Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3
- Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos
- And so many more
In short, though Gitaroo Man was, and still is a great game, there was just no way it was going to be able to be able to stand among the genre defining behemoths being released around it. Though the fact that it is still a title that gets spoken about is a testament to its enduring quality.
Playing on the Off Beats
The Playstation 2 is a console that has so many great games that there are no doubt dozens of hidden gems like Gitaroo Man out there, regardless of their genre.
However if you are a fan of rhythm games and are the type to enjoy something with an offbeat sense of humor and a genuinely well told, if familiar story about adolescence and growth, Gitaroo Man is a must play.
That said, the game is starting to rise in price as a collector’s item due to low print runs during its release, and again during a reprinting in 2005. However for the handheld enthusiasts in the crowd, a PSP remake, Gitaroo Man Lives! (Gitaroo Man Live! in Japan) is a fun alternative that features new content exclusive to its release.
No matter how you play though, Gitaroo Man remains one of those games that, much like the voice that calls out every time U-1 gets his Gitaroo, elicits a great deal of joy and excitement from those who play it. It talks to a time when games were in an adolescent, experimental phase, figuring themselves out and laying the groundwork for the medium going forward. While we can’t sit idle languishing in the past, it’s nice to revisit it sometimes, even if that mans also confronting the embarrassing stuff we did.