When the Dance Dance Revolution series got its start back in 1998, few could have predicted that it would go on to garner such a huge and dedicated following. Since then, the Japanese version of the series has been through more than seven different iterations, some of which just added more music to dance to and some of which made real enhancements and additions to the gameplay. While the series has surely inspired many to look into importing Japanese software, DDR has also made a few official forays onto North American consoles. Most of these were merely collections of songs from the various Japanese editions of the game. With the release of DDRMAX2 Dance Dance Revolution, the US is finally getting a collection of songs that contains a few hits from this country rather than relying on the Eurodance and Japanese pop music for which the series is known.
Let's back up for a second. If you're unfamiliar with the long-running series, Dance Dance Revolution is an interactive rhythm-based dancing game you play with a mat controller that is placed on the floor. The concept is basic. Directional arrows scroll up the screen, meeting with a set of arrow silhouettes that rest at the top of the screen. When the scrolling arrow meets the stationary one, that's your cue to step on the corresponding spot on the dance mat. You're scored based on how perfectly you time your steps. When you do well, the game begins to count the number of steps you've correctly executed as a combo. The goal, of course, is to not miss any steps at all. If you miss too many, the game ends. The game can be played by two players simultaneously, or, if you're feeling up to the challenge, the game allows you to use two mats at once for a special one-player mode called double. DDRMAX2 is the second game in the series to include freeze steps, which ask you to hold one of your feet on an arrow for a specified length of time, often while using your other foot (or your hands or elbows, if you're a crazy dancing machine) to hit the other arrows. If you wish, you can play the game with a standard PS2 controller, but playing without a dance mat is pretty much a big waste of time and defeats the purpose of playing the game.
The basic modes found in previous entries in the series are found here. Aside from the regular three-song arcade mode, the game has a workout mode that asks for your weight and then approximates how many calories you're burning by playing. Lesson mode does a good job of teaching the basics of DDR theory. DDRMAX2 also has a nonstop mode that lets you dance a series of songs back-to-back, with only a limited pause between tracks. The game has a collection of preset nonstop courses, but you can also configure your own, if you wish. DDRMAX2 contains an array of unlockable items, the most important of which are new songs. Previous games have been a little mysterious about what you unlock and when you unlock it, but DDRMAX2 lets you know how many points you need to unlock each bonus, and the information screen gives you details on your unlocked items as well as brief biographical tidbits on some of the artists in the game.
When it comes to Konami's series of music-themed games, song selection is the make-or-break factor for each installment. As previously stated, the US release of DDRMAX2 contains songs that have never appeared in any other version of the game, as well as some songs from previous installments. The series has always been focused on European club music and a wide array of Japanese music. Konami has licensed some more familiar artists and tracks for this release, though don't expect any painfully out-of-place indie rock or other mainstream genres. The new songs stick to the dance genre and generally fit well with the other tracks. The roster includes songs from The Crystal Method, Kylie Minogue, DJ Sammy, Dirty Vegas, and Jocelyn Enriquez. In addition to these, you'll also find songs from DDR favorites, like Be 4 U, Captain Jack, and Thomas Howard. All in all, this is a well-rounded collection of dance music, though some purists will still come away from this game feeling that the Japanese release of DDR 3rd Mix is still the high-water mark for the series.
Graphically, DDRMAX2 looks roughly the same as the original DDRMAX, but improvements have been made. The random video that plays in the background of most tracks looks a little better. Additionally, some of the more popular songs, like Kylie Minogue's "Love At First Sight" and DJ Aligator Project's "The Whistle Song," to name a couple, actually play portions of the song's music video in the background. However, these video clips have been encoded at pretty low bit rates, so don't expect DVD-quality playback here. You'll see some pretty noticeable blur and compression artifacts. Considering that when you're actually playing the game, you need to keep a Tetris-like focus on the scrolling arrows, you never really notice anything about the game's background graphics. Pre-MAX installments of DDR didn't contain full-motion video, instead opting to show polygonal dancers stepping to the rhythms. At the outset, you dance without any polygonal companions, but you eventually unlock a dancer options screen that lets you enable them for any song that doesn't have an official music video. The dancers look better than ever, with each one receiving a substantial cel-shaded makeover. As you might imagine, the dance animation is much smoother now as well.
The Dance Dance Revolution series has always been a great game to play in groups, and it's also appealing to dance music fans who might not play many other video games. With its varied difficulty settings and a collection of music that is slightly less likely to cause culture shock to those unfamiliar with the series, DDRMAX2 is the most accessible version of the game to make its way to the US. Even series veterans will find something to like here, since, unlike most of the previous US releases, it contains enough exclusive tracks to make it worthwhile for the hardcore fan who may have already imported all the Japanese versions of the game. In short, if you own dance mats and a PlayStation 2, DDRMAX2 is worth owning. If you don't own any dance mats...well, Konami is selling a version of the game that comes packaged with a dance mat, giving potential hotsteppers no excuse to not get started.