Kickbeat is marketed as an “innovative rhythm game with a Kung Fu theme,” but its level of innovation, when games like Final Fantasy Theatrhythm have explored adding combat and RPG elements to rhythm games in well-developed ways that closely tie licensed music to game theming, seems quite limited. Kickbeat is a straightforward rhythm game dressed up in theming that impedes play to an extent, and with a selection of music that is small compared to most competitors (Theatrhythm Curtain Call, which came out on handhelds around the same time, has a significantly larger and more varied song library – and even free-to-play rhythm games on mobile like Cytus and Love Live School Idol Festival have comparably sized or larger track lists.)
Its gameplay is effectively that of Guitar Hero or any of its ilk; notes approach a target point, and the player must either tap a button or hold a button to not miss. Points are awarded for accurately hitting notes, and as a combo is built up a bonus mode activates. As a result the controls are simple; the four face buttons, plus shoulder buttons to trigger power-ups and bonus mode. Yet it manages to make this most simple of rhythm game mechanics feel unsatisfying; I would argue that music games are a genre which has benefited from the rise in touch controls and bespoke control devices like DJ Hero‘s turntable, or the use of DS and mobile touchscreens. Holding a note by tapping the screen feels more direct than pressing a button on a controller – and Theatrhythm‘s swipe gestures add another level of complexity when combined with held notes. Even Love Live, which keeps the same “tap or hold” simplicity, uses the entire touchscreen space of a mobile device to become a different sort of reaction test – there are multiple zones notes can head towards, and so the feeling is more like playing an instrument. In Kickbeat the fighting-game theming impedes the most important part of the mechanics – making the targets easily identifiable. Its top-down, arena-fighter camera angle, combined with the fact the “notes” are fully sized NPC enemies walking around, obscures the target zones at times. Furthermore, there is no real audio feedback for when a note is hit – other games have an audio cue cutting over the music to identify good hits, misses and partial hits. Kickbeat has no feedback beyond either the note vanishing, or the player character throwing the enemy offscreen – and the result is in frantic sections it is very difficult to keep a good combo going because the game itself is unclear about timings. That the controls at times also feel unresponsive simply compounds these basic mechanical failings.
Thus mechanically it is fundamentally flawed – the UI, too strongly focused on the game’s “narrative” and aesthetic, impedes play, while the gameplay itself is hardly innovative and seems to have ignored the numerous developments the now-crowded genre has undergone. Generic mechanics would have been forgiveable if they had been scrupulously executed and dressed in an enjoyable aesthetic – a good example is Space Channel 5, which takes a similar “rhythm combat” concept and has if anything even simpler gameplay with a simon-says mechanic, but at the same time has an enjoyable, pulp-SF look that stands out and has simplistic yet snappy and fun dialogue and characters. Kickbeat‘s theming and aesthetic – and the absurdly over-emphasised narrative – is dull, out-of-date and borderline offensive. The plot, given the bombast of a modern movie blockbuster, concerns a weedy martial artist called Lee with an irritating voice fighting to save good music from evil record labels that want to make everyone listen to chart pop. This can only be done with the help of a bunch of absurdly reductive Asian stereotypes with broken English, inappropriate one-liners and cliché costumes that evoke The Karate Kid. The jokes spouted by the characters include such quality lines as “why bother the Ethereal Channel when I have signal… Can you hear me now?” (referencing a notoriously irritating Verizon TV ad from 2002), giving the whole thing a strangely out-of-date Michael Bay dialogue feel.
So thus the characters and dialogue are broad, annoying stereotypes – and the plot, with its belief that “true music” needs to be protected to save the world is idiotic in how seriously it is taken (Space Channel 5, by contrast, is colourful, silly and directly referencing children’s cartoons in its aesthetic and dialogue pitch, and so is far more tolerable). Kickbeat illustrates, perhaps more than even the trend towards militarism and war games, how juvenile and masculine video games want to be presented as by their creators. Kickbeat’s soundtrack is sold on the appeal of 90s-early 2000s light, commercial metal and dance music – it proudly touts having songs by POD, Marilyn Manson and Papa Roach, none of which have arguably been popular in the public eye for decades – and this is supposed to be the good music that needs supernatural ancient kung fu protectors to save it from Justin Bieber (called out by name in the game’s cutscenes). Thematically it is a juvenile, teen-boy mess – metal rules, pop is lame, kung fu is cool and practiced by Asian people with broken English, the Big Labels want to take away the Good Music – that adds up to something whose day seems well and truly done. It is childish – reaching out to teenagers who think that it is “mature.”
This complaining about Kickbeat’s themes and soundtrack is not so much complaining about the music out of a personal distaste of the genre or any given song; I am no huge lover of J-idol music but could see the good qualities of Love Live. But it is the entire juvenile, edgy adolescent package that seems irrelevant nowadays and the combination of uninspired music and borderline-offensive stereotyping drags it down. Commercialised controversy, the very safe edginess of the artists chosen, is used to tell a story that plays on absurd, outmoded stereotypes and the whole thing is saturated with overblown attempts at being “badass” if “badass” means snarky, weak one-liners and people being disposed to beating lots of people up to fight for their musical taste. When critics say games should “grow up” I feel it is these sorts of games – the ones that fetishise this adolescent, immature world view – that are being criticised. In an era when rhythm games have never been more popular and diverse, Kickbeat, with its tiny soundtrack of music that feels like a strange time capsule of my adolescence and simple, clumsily-executed mechanics, is an unwelcome antique.