The music/rhythm genre has exploded in recent years, and you could be forgiven for thinking that only games with instruments or other peripherals now exist. However, there are still some games that are more traditional with their roots and Ongaku from Smash Mouth Games is one such game. It promotes a simple interface and a game mechanic which relies on only one peripheral, a standard computer keyboard.
The story in Ongaku is fairly basic and it's introduced by an adorable cutscene at the start of the game. A battle commences between two characters, but unfortunately the dark Dr. comes out on top. This throws the world into chaos and it's up to Ongaku, a small musical being, to set the world straight by painting it in correctly.
To perform this task, you control Ongaku while listening to music. The formula is fairly similar to keyboard based music/rhythm games that have come in the past, as the arrow keys are used to input certain directions in time with the music. It's a forumla that's tried and test and it works well for the most part.
To slightly mix things up, Ongaku adds diagonals in and the ability to move Ongaku up and down on the screen. This is crucial to success as the notes appear at different levels on the screen and if Ongaku is too high, or too low, even if the correct arrow (or arrow combination) is pressed, it will count as a miss. Also, when performing extended notes, Ongaku may sometimes be required to move up or down, which further adds to the complexity.
While going through levels, you'll get different score depending on whether you're early, perfectly on-time, or late. To be on-time, you basically just have to hit the arrow key when its inside Ongaku's body and any of these will count as a positive action. However, if you miss a note, or put in an incorrect direction, it will count as a negative. And this is part of Ongaku's charm, because how successful you are, will determine what the background looks like as you go through. The canvas originally start off quite blank, but performing positive actions will cause it to become more happy. Of course, performing negative actions will allow the darkness to start creeping through.
There are 11 stages to play through, each with its own unique piece of music that works well for this style of game. It's predominantly orchestral, but there are enough instruments that play obvious beats for you to be able to connect with the music easily enough. One of the main issues really comes with the length of the pieces, as stages can drag on quite a bit. Another issue comes in the form of what happens when you miss a note, especially consecutive misses. A bogus sound plays, the music stops entirely and this causes you to lose the beat. It's annoying because notes go past Ongaku while no music is playing, so you have to use the visual aids to get the right timing, which slightly defeats the point of the game.
Despite there only being 11 stages, they can each be played on three different difficulty levels, which changes the note patterns quite a lot. If this isn't enough though, the game offers some user generated content options to give the game a few more legs. Through using these options, you can create levels either by allowing the game to auto-populate note patterns, or by doing them yourself and to music of your choice. You can also select good and bad images, allowing for some quite personalised levels. These can also be shared online with the rest of Ongaku's players.
In a genre that's struggling for innovation at the moment, it's nice to see that a game like Ongaku can still exist. It has an adorable art style and premise and the mechanics are suitably challenging. It's not an overly long game though and it relies heavily on user-generated content to provide replay value, but if the community embrace it, this game could be a whole long of fun for a long time to come.