The world of import gaming is a very strange place. For the most part, the Japanese gaming scene remains pretty true to itself, pumping out many of the same games that domestic gamers will be playing a few months down the line, with a few token "weird" games, like dating simulations and esoteric strategy games based on semipopular anime. Then there are titles like vib-ribbon, which makes just about any other game seem completely mainstream by comparison. But while vib-ribbon's music-game stylings might not be for everyone, it manages to be the type of cult game that demands attention.
In vib-ribbon, you play as Vibri, a rabbit-like character. As Vibri walks across a level, obstacles such as loops, crevices, and, uh, squiggly lines force you into action. Each obstacle has a button assigned to it. So you'll have to hit the R1 button to successfully traverse a loop, X for squiggly lines, "down" for dips in the road, and L1 for block shapes. There are four basic shapes, but sometimes two shapes will combine to form a new type of shape. These combo obstacles require you to hit two buttons simultaneously. So if you see a loop made of squiggly lines, you'll need to hit both R1 and the X button. After a few hours of play, the combo shapes become second nature.
Depending on your skill at passing these obstacles, Vibri will evolve or devolve as you play. The rabbit form will transform into a winged prince if you're doing well or to a frog or worm if you're constantly mistiming your moves. Timing plays an extremely important role in vib-ribbon. The levels and shapes are all based on whatever music track is currently playing. The songs that come with the game are full of tempo changes and other musical tricks that make the levels interesting. But the game gets really wild when you start popping your own music into the PlayStation. The game will generate levels based on the beat and tempo of any track you give it. Slower songs usually result in slow-moving levels that are fairly easy to complete, while dropping some up-tempo tracks will make Vibri's job extremely difficult. The game requires extreme concentration, and after a while you get completely absorbed in the game. It feels as though your button-pushing is keeping the music going (which, technically, it is), and you feel compelled to keep the beats rocking for as long as you possibly can.
The graphics are another interesting part of vib-ribbon. The entire game is drawn in a line-based style, giving the game a very Tempest-like vector graphics look. The simplistic style barely taxes the PlayStation's hardware to be sure, but it gives the game a very defining look that definitely adds to the game. The lines animate pretty well, also, making the whole experience feel as though you're playing a game based on those cartoons where a kid falls asleep at school and dreams about running around on the chalkboard while all sorts of letters, numbers, and lines chase him.
While the main draw of the game may be to see what sort of levels your own CDs will generate, the music that comes with vib-ribbon, all sung by Yoko Fujita and written by Laugh & Peace, is extremely strange and extremely catchy. Love it or hate it, you'll find yourself humming quite a bit.
Whether or not you'll enjoy vib-ribbon depends on your perspective. It's very easy to dismiss it as "yet another weird Japanese music game," but in some ways, it comes across as a work of art, designed in an extremely deliberate way. Regardless of your perspective, vib-ribbon is one of those games that you'll never see in English, but it's definitely worth checking out.