The Super Smash Bros. Brawl of Music Games
Western attempts at music games that aren’t peripheral based are few and far between, and that’s part of what makes the 2016 reboot of Amplitude so interesting. While mechanically the game feels great and it looks beautiful, a handful of careless mistakes prevent the game from having the replayability you’d expect from a good music game.
The previous Amplitude featured lots of licensed songs across multiple genres, such as pop, rock, hip-hop, jazz, dance, and punk. The new Amplitude does away with licensed songs entirely, choosing to make its 15-song campaign mode a concept album by in-house artists telling the story of bringing back a comatose patient with the power of synesthesia.
If that sounds like the most unoriginal cliché story you could come up with for a music game, you’d be correct! Not only is the story so lame that it might as well not be there, but it feels like they wanted to stick to the idea of being a “concept album” so badly that it sucked most of the musical diversity out of the campaign in order to avoid jarring genre changes and maintain a common sound.
There are other songs available outside of the campaign of course, gated off by the total amount of songs you’ve played. You’ll need to play through the songs available to you about three or four times before you can have everything unlocked. The tracks are all listed in the quick play mode from the moment you first launch the game, but no preview can be heard when hovering over them, so you have no idea if it’s even worth pursuing these tracks. While a handful of tracks do stand out in the end, too much of the game is musically bland, and that’s death for a game revolving entirely around its music.
But even if the music was fantastic, there’s a big issue with how Amplitude saves your scores for the songs you’ve played. Instead of saving an individual score for each difficulty available on a song (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, Expert), the score and grade that are saved are global to all difficulties. This also extends to online leaderboards. So what are the repercussions of this?
You can’t track your progress on a per-difficulty basis. If you have the highest score on Advanced and Expert continues to hand you your ass every time you give it a shot, there’s no way to track if you’ve been improving on the Expert chart until after your score surpasses your Advanced one. Then there’s the grade issue: if you play a song on Beginner first and get the highest grade, then you will permanently have this highest grade listed in the song list even if you get a higher numerical score of a lower grade on a higher difficulty later. If you play the higher difficulty first and then go back to Beginner, your highest grade scores won’t overwrite your mediocre grade unless your Beginner score somehow surpasses your original score. This effectively makes the saved grade completely meaningless as there is no way to tell where it came from. Luckily, the only thing grade is really used for in-game is unlocking bonus tracks in the campaign, and only the grade within that campaign run is considered.
Japanese music games are often incredibly challenging, but the flip side of that is the sense of achievement you feel when you overcome the next big wall in your progression. This year will be my tenth year playing the beatmania IIDX series, and I still have a long way to go before I hit the ceiling of what is possible in that game.
Western music games have almost never aspired to be massive investments of your time. They’ve always put the priority on being an accessible party game first. Amplitude is the Super Smash Bros. Brawl of music games. It seems like it’s actively trying to be what people who take music games (too?) seriously don’t want. You’ll have a fun time running through all the tracks once or twice, and then you’ll put it away and go back to sinking more time into a game that respects the investment you’ve put into it.