This is the first time I have ever played DDR. I'm no longer a shame to the PGC staff.
Like a few other Nintendo fans out there, I've been curious about this DDR thing for a while, but never really checked it out myself, despite owning multiple consoles and having plenty of chances when other PGC staff came to town. What this means is that over the past week, I haven't been reviewing DDR Mario Mix so much as trying to figure the crazy thing out.
The game starts with the whole song list pretty much locked up, making you start out in the story mode. The "story" is essentially a series of conversations with Toad, leading you from song to song with odd scenarios like "Mario, the river is flooded, how are we going to cross? I know: dance!" You then proceed to get on a boat as the song starts. How your dancing helps the boat cross, rather than capsizing it, is anyone's guess. While it's bad enough to laugh at the first time through, not being able to skip the story sequences makes it a dreaded annoyance on the repeated runs necessary to unlock all the songs. Story mode also has a few other quirks, like mini-games thrown in between songs and shops with special items that can be equipped to refill your dance meter, change arrow speed, or have other effects.
Once you have all of the songs (just shy of thirty in all), you can abandon the story mode and stick to free play, where you choose songs and difficulty levels as you like. You can also create profiles to count the calories you burn as you play. Mario and Luigi dance in the background just like in story mode, but it can be even funnier out of context as friends walk up and ask, "Why is Mario fishing?" As you'd expect, Mario Mix is filled with songs inspired by Mario tunes from across a wide spectrum of games: songs from Super Mario World to Dr. Mario, Wrecking Crew, Wario World, and even a song from a Famicom Disk System game. There are also some classical and traditional tunes like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but Konami merely took the original themes for all of these and integrated them into their own beat-filled constructions. While you can certainly catch glimpses of the original tunes, most of the songs take their own directions. For instance, the Donkey Kong tune is a pleasing mix of sounds from the arcade classic integrated with music from Donkey Kong Country.
The range of difficulty is broad enough for players of any skill level to feel uncomfortable. The easiest setting only uses the left and right arrows, making the game super-simple for novices and children. Normal uses all four arrows and is a good setting to get oriented with the game. Hard presents a good challenge for most players, and really lets you feel the rhythms with your feet. Beyond that, Very Hard is the last stop for the sane. With some practice, players can get through the first few songs, but it quickly becomes difficult to even finish a song, much less get an A or B rating. Once you do clear a song on Very Hard, you'll unlock a Super Hard setting for that song. At this level, even if you had eight legs, the arrows are moving so quickly and close together, that your brain simply shuts down, shocked, mesmerized, and in disbelief of the information climbing up the screen. DDR veterans will be pleased with Super Hard; everyone else will curl up in the fetal position and cry for their mommies.
The relative difficulty of each song is unfortunately influenced by the progression of the story mode, causing a lack of balance when you get to free mode. The first song is pitifully easy on the Normal setting and Bowser's song is always the hardest. The disparity lessens as you move into the harder difficulty settings, but it's still noticeable.
Mario Mix also has a new feature called Mush Mode that I'm sure is a center of debate among experienced DDR players and novices alike. Basically, Mush Mode throws random Mario objects into the mix with various effects. Many of them, like goombas, hammers, and koopas, just need to be stomped or double stomped like the arrows, but they can be a bit tougher since they don't stand out as much and they move at different rates or in arcs to throw you off. There are other mush objects too: spinies and freezies shouldn't be stepped on, multiple bullets need to be deflected to destroy cannons, and cheep-cheeps are the worst since they will actually smack into your arrows, switching the steps at the last moment. Mush Mode is certainly more challenging, but each player will have to decide whether it's an improvement or an annoyance, especially since it's on by default and has to be turned off every time you boot up the game.
As a newbie, it took some time to really "get" how to move on the pad. While playing on the normal setting, I was just kind of staying in the center, bouncing my legs over to an arrow and back to the middle. Hard forced me to realize that my technique was inadequate, and I was nearly ready to give-in when suddenly something just clicked, and I understood exactly how I needed to move my feet with the rhythm. My scores went from F's and D's on every song to B's and A's – for a little while at least. Also, once I got over the initial anxiety of playing by myself, I was no longer embarrassed to play in front of others when we had our Halloween party, which then led to me feeling more comfortable to go out and do whatever I felt like on the real dance floor. I doubt it's actually improved my skill in dancing, though.
Since this is the only first-party game to use the "Action Pad" on the GameCube, somebody decided to relive the glory days of the NES Power Pad and include a variety of mini-games in addition to the dancing. Most of them aren't very noteworthy, involving things like "Whack a Goomba", dodging giant snowballs, or running in place to escape a chain chomp. A few like the Super Mario Bros. flagpole leap and jumping across platforms to collect notes are kind of nifty, but there's not enough depth to make them worth playing over and over to improve your score.
As for the Action Pad itself, while it's a soft pad, it seems durable and responsive. It can slide a bit at times if you're not picking up your feet properly. And since it's a Nintendo product, it's covered in warnings: kids, be sure not to drink alcohol before use and place cushions around the pad in case of a fall. Those interested in using a pad designed for another platform may have mixed success. We had a $200 hard-pad available to us for the party, and while the arrows worked fine when we hooked it up, the A button was mapped to B on the pad and none of the pad's buttons triggered the B or Z functions, causing us to switch controllers when we needed to change settings in the menus. So, if you do need to buy an extra pad, it would be wise to try before you buy, or you can get another official pad from Nintendo's online store for a cheap twenty bucks.
While you'll have to see Jonny's review to get a better opinion on how Mario Mix compares to other DDR games, it's a simple, addictive, and exhausting experience that should please DDR and Nintendo fans alike.