Japanese developer iNiS might ring a bell to those in love with the rhythm game genre. Creators of the PS2 classic Gitaroo Man, iNiS is no stranger to inventive gameplay. Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! adds another notch to their belt with a feverishly addictive formula backed by catchy songs from some of Japan's top artists.
The title essentially means "Go! Fight! Cheer Squad!" and puts you in the role of some tough-looking boys with the power to end local troubles via head-rocking cheer sequences. A main hub map shows various folks around town that are in a pinch, and selecting one of them puts you right into story. These levels are played out via a mix of modestly-animated manga sequences on the top screen, the outcome of which can be affected by your performance.
The real action is on the bottom screen, where you use the stylus to tap "hit markers" to the beat of the current song. The hit markers are small numbered circles with another circle closing in around each one that indicates when you need to tap it. Following the markers numerically, you'll be dancing the stylus across the screen with ease after the first few levels. A variation on the hit markers comes in the form of some lines on which, after touching the marker, a ball appears that you have to follow with the stylus until it hits the end of the line. The controls work remarkably well and reward precision without being unforgiving. It's amazing how quickly this all becomes second nature. The stories on the top screen are split into different parts that all have a positive or negative outcome, so mess up too much and you'll make someone's problems that much worse.
This simplicity is one of the keys to Ouendan's success. The other is, naturally, the music. Big time Japanese pop/rock artists like L'arc En Ciel, Tomoyasu Hotei, and Asian Kung-Fu Generation deliver great sounding full-length hits on this tiny DS cartridge. This is why retrying a level after a failure is never a chore. Visually, the thick-lined art style looks fantastic and, even with no understanding of Japanese, the stories are as self-explanatory as cave paintings. The difference between the two difficulties (which each star a different leader of the cheer squad trio) is enough to warrant playing through both, and you can also bust out a few more systems for some co-op or versus play.
With all it has going for it, the only negative thing about Ouendan can be said about many DS games with emphasis on stylus controls. At times, it can be hard to figure out a comfortable way to position your hand without obscuring the oncoming hit markers. In a game that's so dependent on timing, this can be occasionally problematic. Still, this is one of the best DS games yet released, and one of the most fun games of 2005 on any console. Even if Ouendan doesn't see the light stateside, the language barrier isn't standing in the way of any would-be importers. Go! The fate of the planet rests on your cheering!