We use the word “niche” a lot to talk about JRPGs or strategy games, ones with audiences that aren’t exactly everyone. Still, most of these have a widespread following. Superbeat Xonic is niche in the truest sense, though: a release tailored for one specific, small group and virtually no one else. It doesn’t try to broaden its appeal with higher production values, lessened difficulty or modern game mechanics. It invests all its time and effort into one target type of player, and everyone else can just move along.
Developed by the team behind the DJMax series, Superbeat Xonic is the continuation of a long line of games that embraced the ’90s Bemani era and never looked back. For a game on a system like the Vita, it’s weird to build around a three-song structure. Not only do three songs take a while to play when you’re on the go and have a free moment, but it’s just strange to end each set with a “thanks for playing” splash screen. This only makes sense in the context of the arcade, where these games find their origin. Yet here it is on a portable in 2015, because this particular niche demands what it knows.
The gameplay itself is also a throwback. You’ll tap areas of the screen (or buttons) to hit notes in tracks, and all of these tracks feel like they’re from Beatmania or Pump It Up. You won’t find songs you know here, and each of the heavy dance grooves is introduced with art and credits because, well, that’s how this thing is done. The screen’s cluttered with score tracks, meters and all the flashing lights you can handle… again, because that would totally get your attention in a darkened room of cabinets, even though it’s totally not in that context anymore. Don’t get me wrong: there are people who will like that. But that audience isn’t exactly growing.
Superbeat Xonic is the continuation of a long line of games that embraced the ’90s Bemani era and never looked back.
As for those notes themselves: Superbeat Xonic has a variety of these, from standard taps and holds to flicks and drags. These flicks and drags will be familiar to those who have played the Theatrhythm games, but here, they’re performed without stylus input. That’s not a problem in principle, but the execution is problematic. The button controls are, well, there, but they feel awkward and crammed in at the last minute. These directional notes are hit with the analog sticks, but this means notes are heading down one of the six lanes that really should be going toward the bottom analogs, making things inherently confusing.
Your best option is the touch interface, as it’s the primary design and not arbitrarily assigned to various buttons, triggers and sticks. Here, though, the flicks and drags become another sort of issue, as getting the game to recognize your movements is a tricky proposition. It regularly decides not to register your gesture or sliding finger, and since these games aren’t designed to be forgiving, that blip cuts off an entire multi-second note through no fault of your own. It’s not an every-time occurrence, but it doesn’t need to be to serve as a torpedo to the game’s goal: it’s for high-level score-chasers, and any run ruined by a system glitch is bound to make players throw their Vitas against the nearest brick wall.
In addition to just playing a batch of songs, you can take on the game’s World Tour mode’s specific challenges for a more guided experience. This is a good idea for a rhythm game, and has the potential to teach you the ins and outs of the mechanics. Unfortunately, most of Xonic‘s challenges are based on combo streaks, and for a game that occasionally just doesn’t register your input, combo-based goals exacerbate the existing frustration. There’s also a free-play mode for individual songs in addition to the various lane number options of the three-song game. This is positioned as a side activity, though, and isn’t the focus of the title.
I realize I’m being rather negative about Superbeat Xonic, but there’s some clear care and attention here. Unfortunately it doesn’t show up much in the gameplay itself, but the aesthetics and menus? There’s no doubt that it has serious style and class, and that the art team has done some stellar work. That’s not surprising; it’s had a lot of time to practice, both during the DJMax days and with its last project, the Korea-only arcade game Beatcraft Cyclon.
Though the songs aren’t anything most have heard before, they’re more varied than these games’ selection can sometimes be. The track list is a celebration of longtime fixtures in these games, and over time, the more distinct sounds have stood out and developed a following. These tunes are undeniably cool to hear when you throw on your headphones and zone out to the beat.
There’s no doubt that Xonic has serious style and class, and that the art team has done some stellar work.
The same is true for the song art, and if you do manage to get into the game, it can be fun to unlock all of the player icons based on these creations. There are also some interesting sound options you can equip while you play, though you’ll probably revert to the least obtrusive option after a play or two. Die-hard players (which, after all, are the game’s audience) will enjoy the robust leaderboard system, letting them compete with their friends in the way they would in an arcade: striving for the highest scores in each of the game’s difficulties and configurations.
Uh, if it works for you, that is. During my time with the game, I tried multiple times to set a picture for myself, but the game never saved the settings. It would often crash when attempting to bring up the rankings, and never did it register any of my personal progress on the board. This isn’t universal; others have found success with these activities. But know that it can be spotty.
It’s fine to make a product for a small, passionate audience. The challenge, of course, is delivering an effort that’s strong enough to earn the dedication of the group, and Superbeat Xonic just isn’t there. Yet. The team behind it has delivered strong titles in the past (including an excellent Vita release, DJMax Technika Tune). It certainly could again in the future, and its fans will be there to support it, but Xonic represents a period of tumult and transition. The talent and enthusiasm are there, but the execution simply needs some work.