Latest craze cuts a digital rug

Groove: A Japanese dance game is gaining enthusiastic fans in America.

April 16, 2001|By Paula Felps | Paula Felps,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Part disco but purely digital, the dance revolution has arrived. Marrying the flashing lights of a dance floor with the challenges of an arcade game, Dance Dance Revolution is laying down a new groove on its way to becoming the next big craze.

Like karaoke before it, Dance Dance Revolution, or DDR, is a Japanese import that relies on the same basic premise: The willingness of participants to get up in public and either impress or embarrass their friends and themselves.

The game takes players through a series of dance moves, rating their performances as they go. Part of the "beat game" genre, DDR has gained a cult following in the United States, thanks to its presence in arcades. Most become familiar with the game through an arcade, but some become so enamored with it that they buy a console version for their Sony PlayStation or Sega Dreamcast.

Michael Hominick, a freshman at Duke University, first saw DDR at a computer gaming convention a year ago and hasn't stopped dancing since.

"I think I was captivated by the sheer originality of the game," says the 19-year-old Dallas native. "I had never seen anything even close to a game in which you actually had to dance, and I just had to give it a try."

Taken with the high-energy interactivity, he soon bought one for his PlayStation. Although not sold in the United States, import models can be purchased over the Internet for about $60. A foldable plastic mat costs around $60, and many players and online reviewers recommend buying two mats to get the most out of the experience. The game costs $2 to play in arcades.

"I was hooked," Hominick admits. "I would play with my friends for hours on end, to the point where I could no longer move my legs. Whenever I'm back in Dallas, I play almost every day, usually at the arcade."

Created by Japanese game manufacturer Konami, DDR uses a simple concept - dancers follow glowing arrows on the arcade screen and hit corresponding buttons on the floor with their feet. In the arcade version, this is done on a metal stage that sports handrails, flashing panels on which to step, strobe lights and six large speakers.

"I think the singularly most appealing aspect of DDR is its originality, both in concept and design," Hominick says. "It represents a genre of video games that have never been breached before, and it extends to a much wider audience than I would think most video games target."

Beat games aren't entirely new. In 1984 the game "Break Dance" was released for the Commodore 64 computer, and four years later Nintendo released its Power Pad, an add-on to the Nintendo Entertainment System that was the precursor to the DDR dance pad. Nintendo released a fairly popular Dance Aerobics game in 1988 that had some of the same elements of DDR, but in a less sophisticated form.

The more modern version surfaced in 1997, when Sony released its PlayStation game, PaRappa the Rapper, combining elements of video games with Milton Bradley's 1977 game Simon, in which players hit plastic panels as they lit up.

Last fall, Sega brought the Japanese game Samba de Amigo to domestic Dreamcast consoles. Like DDR, the Latin-flavored game requires players to follow movements on the screen, but this time the gamer's movements are made with maracas ($89.99 per pair) rather than with fancy footwork.

But like the other titles, it is part game, part exercise and part boogie-oogie.

Konami initially released a home version called Dance! Dance! Dance! in Japan in 1998, but the game didn't sell well. So the company fine-tuned its effort and created the arcade version.

Konami plans to release an American home version this year, but the release date, originally set for January, has been pushed back. How well the game will play with the mainstream American market - which tends to think of "interactive" as something that can be done while sitting down - is anybody's guess.

"A lot of people like watching it but won't try it themselves," says Alphonso Jackson of Duncanville, Texas, and an avid DDR participant since discovering the game in September 1999.

"I use it for aerobic exercise, and I've lost 23 pounds since I started doing it. I wish they'd start using this at (health) clubs to work out. They have water aerobics and step aerobics, but this is probably the best exercise of all."

Among the settings on DDR is an Exercise and Diet mode, which allows dancers to see how many calories they've burned while perfecting their dance moves. DDR can be played individually or as a team.

At 31, Jackson is older than most of the people he sees participating; the game attracts players primarily in their teens and twenties. But he believes if more thirtysomethings gave dance a chance, they'd like what they find.

The eight levels of play range from "Simple" to "Exorbitant," and the game reacts to the player's movements with evaluations that include "Perfect!," "Great!" and, for the less coordinated, "Boo!"

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