Ever wish you could play two games at the same time?
Ontamarama continues the unexplainable penchant for O*ama-named games. The oddly-named rhythm game features anime-style characters and a distinctively modern Japanese soundtrack. Its gameplay sets it apart from other rhythm games, though probably for a good reason. Can you pat your head while rubbing your stomach? You’ll need more multitasking ability than that to play this game successfully.
The rhythm portion of the game works much like Dance Dance Revolution. Directional indicators scroll from the right, and their corresponding directions must be pressed when it enters a circle on the left. Sustained notes must be triggered and released at the appropriate times. The game accommodates both right and left handed players here, allowing use of the D-pad or face buttons. The big twist that makes Ontamarama unique is that the directional indicators must be charged up with Puyo blob-like creatures called ontama before they become active. The ontama appear on the touch screen and must be touched at any time before their corresponding directions scroll past. The result is more like playing two games simultaneously, a standard rhythm game and a DS touch screen game.
In normal mode, this is completely manageable and a pretty fun challenge. However, there is a huge difficulty jump in hard mode, and the game just ends up seeming evil. While neither the directions that must be pressed nor the ontama that must be cleared ever become overwhelming by themselves, managing to clear all of the ontama in time for the incoming notes becomes a formidable task. As if the gameplay wasn't frantic enough in Hard mode, songs sometimes require players to hit two directions at once besides dealing with all the ontama. This means that players have to use both thumbs while also juggling the stylus. If you’re looking for a DS acrobatics challenge, you’ve found it. Harder levels will literally require you to split your attention and gaze between the note scroller and the ontama board. Good peripheral vision and quick planning skills are an absolute must.
There are several variations of ontama that add challenge. Giant ontama must be touched twice before they disappear. Groups of same-colored ontama may be cleared by drawing a circle around them. Unfortunately, the drawing recognition is a little flaky, which can easily result in death. Finally, there are white and black ontama. White ontama increase the player’s performance gauge while black ones do the opposite. Black ones are particularly nefarious as they move around and cover the other colored ontama. As a last resort when the number of ontama on-screen becomes unmanageable, players can blow into the microphone to generate a whirlwind that clears all of the creatures away, thus filling up the oncoming notes. This can be done up to three times per round (or up to five times, if upgrades are purchased).
Ontamarama is full of characters named after musical terms. Players can start the story mode as either a boy named Beat or a girl named Rest. In the story, players come upon an ontama that is being pursued by a variety of characters. Wanting to protect the ontama and figure out why it is being pursued, the protagonist must defeat these characters through ontama battles. Story mode features a dozen music tracks, which vary from jazz to pop to death metal. The majority of the songs are upbeat, memorable, and fun to get into; however, they suffer somewhat from audio compression. Additionally, the sounds generated by pressing directions changes throughout the song to match the given active instrument. This can be confusing, especially when a single button press can generate several notes. Timing sometimes feels slightly off as well.
After the story mode is cleared, several other modes become available. Challenge mode groups sets of four songs together that must be cleared in sequence, while free play mode lets players try for their best scores on each individual song. Points are awarded for completing songs, which may be exchanged at the shop for in-game upgrades such as longer stylus drawing capability and extra breath usage. Automatic clearing of songs as well as completely new songs can also be purchased in the store.
Though the gameplay often resides on the frustrating side of the fence, the game features a relatively short but memorable soundtrack and plenty of colorful characters. Ontamarama is certainly no Elite Beat Agents, but its style of gameplay is definitely unique. Perhaps it should have been called Multitasking Training in Japan in order to gain better sales.