In many ways, the year 2020 was itself, rogue-like. Those of us in prolonged quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic routinely found ourselves with limited resources, engaging in the same mechanics day in and day out, with our decisions providing us with wildly different routes through the journey. It was only fitting that one of the most highly acclaimed titles of the year was Hades, which found its way into the hearts of many that were new to the genre.
But there was another! In May, Steam users were treated to the release of Rhythm Fighter, a 2D, rhythm-based, side-scrolling beat-em-up with rogue-like elements. Now, at the outset of a new year, that honor has also been bestowed upon Nintendo Switch players. The combination of great style, killer beats, and a consistently solid well of content makes for a pretty stunning package.
STORY – VILE VIBING VEGETABLES
Our story is set on Earth, which is suffering from an invasion by Commander Chaos, of Beatara. Using Dark Energy, Chaos has turned all of the vegetables into evil monsters, fighting back against the cute animals of the planet and ushering in an age of havoc.
Players are aided in their fight by the mysterious Mr. Disco, who came from Chaos’s homeworld to stop the invasion and restore the natural order of furry friends and vegetables. By working with Mr. Disco’s dope jams and moving to the beat, our heroes will restore the planet in no time.
For a rogue-like title, there’s a decent amount of story to be found here, even if it amounts to little more than set dressing. I’ve sunk many, many hours into titles such as Dead Cells and definitely can’t provide you with any plot points. But what helps here is that instead of one singular character or spirit to carry through each run, we have a choice of heroes with different abilities and skills. They naturally provide a bit more set-dressing by way of simply being a varied cast.
Granted, the centerpiece of a title in this genre is the gameplay, not the story it’s draped with. To that end, the plot here doesn’t end up amounting to much, overall. I was pleasantly surprised to find flavor text on just about everything. Weapons, enemies, abilities, everything has a one-liner or two that gives a bit of information beyond the numbers game of stats.
The narrative background is simple and hits that specific nerve of slightly outrageous, evoking memories of Earthbound or something similar. It hits that brand of content that lends itself to evil, anthropomorphic food, and lots of laser beams. It’s not nearly as impactful or memorable as Shigesato Itoi’s role-playing masterpiece, but it gets the job done.
GAMEPLAY – GARBANZO IN THE KEY OF G
Let’s start with the basics: Rhythm Fighter has a lot of mechanics at play here. It’s side-scrolling, it’s rhythm-based, there are rogue-like systems at work. Levels are procedurally generated. There’s a leveling system. Multiple playable characters. Equippable weapons and skills. Personal abilities. It’s jam-packed, but everything ends up working really well together.
Movement is entirely done along with the beat of the music (the soundtrack is sick, we’ll get into that in a bit), much like Crypt of the Necrodancer, but there aren’t any accessibility options to move freely as we saw in Cadence of Hyrule. While that may have been the only way that I was able to finish the Zelda-themed rhythm title, I had no choice but to embrace the beat in this instance.
Two decades of drumming experience was quickly deemed irrelevant when I saw how many “OK” and “Miss” alerts I was seeing. I had to fall back into the specific groove you hit when playing these games, which, yes, is a touch different when hitting buttons on the Switch than hitting drums with sticks. To compound my difficulty, I played on the Switch Lite, which does not support vibration.
But what I thought was going to be a simple and straightforward title turned out to be the new hook I was looking for. The branching paths of each world give me lots of room to explore, filled with shops and secrets that inevitably leave me with a better arsenal than when I started.
The little added touch that I appreciated was the Timer Room found at the end of each world. By racing through and beating the boss within the time limit, you’re rewarded with a bonus chest that usually doubles the value of the loot you get for completing the area. This was a great addition that both propelled me forward to obtain that bonus, but also hit that sweet spot between minimal and necessary that allowed me to ignore that timer if I so desired.
Each character is styled and crafted in unique ways, allowing for some variety in your loadouts. From a DJ bunny to what is best described as a Metal Gear dog, everybody has their own flavor (pun intended). It’s really satisfying to have different options to choose from, especially in the face of the many different enemies we encounter as well. One could argue that everything boils down to jumping and attacking, but the same could be said for most games, couldn’t it?
The loop centers around fighting, dying, leveling up, and fighting again. It’s not a new idea or unique process, but I really enjoyed playing runs and trying out different upgrades as I settled on my preferred items. Here’s a taste: I hate ranged weapons! Give me spikey knuckles any day.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – ASPARAGUS ARPEGGIO
I’ve mentioned this before, but I don’t usually play games with the sound on, due to Dad Responsibilities and a general ability to make it through a game without needing to listen. Subtitles usually get the job done, and I can keep an ear out to make sure nobody gets all up into the pancake mix.
With Rhythm Fighter, muting wasn’t an option. The whole game is built around the mechanic of actions in time with the beat of the music, so obviously, that’s not something that would be easy to do without sound. A note for those without the sense of hearing, there are many visual cues within the game to follow along with, as well as vibration (unless you’re using the Switch Lite). It is entirely possible to get an immense amount of value from this title without relying on sound. I, however, am coming into this with a lifetime of relying on my sense of hearing, and can’t in good conscience speak for how the game plays to a community that I don’t belong to.
That being said, I actually have some thoughts on the soundtrack. In short, it slaps. As needed, the beats hit hard, but it’s more than just a thumping metronome. Each world is themed differently, and the music changes along with it. There’s a world based on ancient China and the music changes to beautifully incorporate the use of the guzheng. The city area boosts up the synth, and a world based on a museum of ancient Greece is filled with the sounds of the pan flute and the lyre.
Have I mentioned yet that the title also looks fantastic? The designs of the enemy vegetables are clear and creative, each player character has its own style, and the bosses are fantastic. Specific shoutout to Catgoyle, the only gargoyle I need in my life. What might be the most surprising thing is that, for all of the visual effects and sound that must have been pushing the limits of the Switch Lite hardware, I didn’t encounter any instances of frame drops or slowdowns.
Rhythm Fighter was reviewed for Nintendo Switch. A key was provided by Sandbox Strategies.