In 1996, developer NanaOn-Sha propelled the rhythm-action genre into mainstream popularity with their seminal Playstation hit, Parappa the Rapper. Three years later and the market was swollen with games trading on the current music buzz, including NanaOn-Sha’s own Parappa pseudo-sequel, Um Jammer Lammy. Small wonder it is, then, that their other 1999 release, Vib Ribbon, was left floundering and somewhat forgotten in the miasma of rapping dogs, groove-busting hipsters and gyrating space-ladies. It was perhaps this quirk-overkill which dented Vib Ribbon’s chances; it was released at a time when oddball Japanese music games were not in short supply. Was it worthy of more attention than it received? Perhaps!
As with designer Masaya Matsuura’s previous (and future) efforts, Vib Ribbon featured a very distinctive design aesthetic, displaying the entire game, including menus, in wireframe vector graphics. The game relies rather heavily on its cute-appeal; the badly drawn, angular lines of Vibri the rabbit look adorably childlike, and you can’t help but feel contented as she dances about, babbling on in helium-voiced Japanese and singing nonsensically at the score screen.
The simplicity of design is matched only by the gameplay; using just four of the controller’s buttons, the player must guide Vibri along the titular ribbon, navigating obstacles by pressing the corresponding button. The game becomes more complex when obstacles are combined; a loop with a pitfall in it, or a block with a loop on top, for example, requires the player to hit both buttons simultaneously. On top of this, obstacles can also travel along the ribbon at different speeds and cross over each other, meaning that the later stages can be a little tricky. The challenge is ramped up further by the fact that the stability of the ribbon (and everything on it) deteriorates when you hit a duff note; the wildly oscillating wireframe can make it very difficult to time your next move, often leading to further blunders. Making too many mistakes causes poor Vibri to devolve, first into a frog, and finally an insect. Playing well earns points (represented by abstract symbols spinning at the top of the screen), and will allow Vibri to evolve back into a rabbit and then an angel.
The crux of any rhythm-action game is undoubtedly the quality of the music itself, and in this regard, Vib ribbon comes out on top of all the competition. The soundtrack comprises six original songs by the Japanese group Laugh and Peace (often erroneously referred to as “Laugh and Beats”), and even non-devotees of J-Pop should find themselves captivated by the largely upbeat tunes and quirky mix of Japanese and English lyrics, with their childlike delivery. If nothing else, the music certainly fits the style of the game. There is enough variety, both across the whole soundtrack, and in each individual song, that you will not be able to rest on your laurels when it comes to keeping in time; sudden changes in tempo from ultra slow-mo to aggressively speedy (with lyrics to match) are not uncommon. Any Japanese learners trying to sing along will be sorely tested.
The game’s downfall, if it has one, is surely in its brevity. With only six songs to go with the ultimately simplistic gameplay, no Parappa style story, and no variable difficulty (the game is automatically grouped into bronze, silver and gold, with two songs for each) the player can see everything the game has to offer in a very short time indeed. To counter this, there is the ability to insert your own CDs and play along to them, and it is a welcome addition, if not without its flaws. User generated levels seem less natural, and are prone to erratic leaps in difficulty. Perhaps a greater problem is that the number of players whose music collection is still on CD is dwindling by the day, and modern rhythm games offer a deeper interaction with our favourite songs.
Ultimately, Vib Ribbon is of interest chiefly as a curio thanks to its endearing design, and engaging soundtrack (which is accommodatingly included on the game disc as Red Book audio files), though it must be said that fans of kooky Japanese games with a unique style, such as Parappa, Patapon, and Katamari, cannot afford to miss out.