Rhythm Heaven, Revisited

I’m the oldest of four brothers. All of us play games to varying degrees and, as with any family and any medium, our tastes vary. There is only one game that’s ever resonated with all four of us in equal measure: Rhythm Heaven on the Nintendo DS.

I couldn’t tell you why, but every single one of us was completely obsessed with it – so much so that when I first put it my brother Porter’s hands three summers ago, he played it for four hours nonstop, determined to Superb each song before moving onto the next one.

It’s hard to overstate how unified our love of Rhythm Heaven was. I have fond memories of the four of us passing a DS Lite around a rented house during a family beach trip, gradually working our way through every song in the game. Like most first-party Nintendo games, there’s only three save files in Rhythm Heaven so, naturally, the two oldest brothers got our own slots, and the youngest two (ages nine and 10 at the time) shared one. We talked endlessly about the game that week: our favorite songs, the hardest stages, tips on specific levels. All four of us shared that tangible, electric excitement that comes with just loving the shit out of a game. We even went out of our way not to progress too far ahead of each other, for the sake of preserving that shared enthusiasm.

It was really, really cool and I wanted it to happen again.

Last Christmas, I set out to get my brothers an import copy of the Wii’s Rhythm Heaven installment, Rhythm Heaven Fever – a game that, at the time, hadn’t been announced for a North American release yet. Successfully pulling this off was important to me; it was my last Christmas as a college student in North Carolina and, since I knew I’d be moving to San Francisco after graduation, I wasn’t sure when I’d get to see all my brothers at once again.

It was a lot harder than I expected. I stayed up embarrassingly late the night before Christmas Eve trying to get everything working, but after significant hardware tinkering, struggling to apply an fan-made English patch and about a trillion other inscrutable technological hiccups, it finally happened. The mission was a success: they were able to open a new Rhythm Heaven – a game they didn’t even know existed yet – to play on Christmas morning. We spent the rest of December playing through it together.

If I sound proud of this, it’s because I am. Not because I made some pretty rudimentary modifications to the most eminently hackable console on the market today. I’m proud because it’s so rare that you get to re-bottle magic two and a half years later. What’s more, the fact that Rhythm Heaven Fever is the first game in the series with multiplayer meant the game was actually built to be a cooperative experience this time around, but ultimately, that didn’t matter; we shared the same exact joy we did with the last solo outing in the series, because the important part was that we played it together.

There’s something special about games. There are TV shows and bands and stuff that all four of us are equally crazy about, but I don’t think even our voracious appetite for Adventure Time can touch the intensity of our combined love for Rhythm Heaven. The experience of enjoying any other medium is a passive one. There’s something about the involvedness of a really great game – the active nature of it, the challenge, the element of performance – that just hooks into your soul in a wholly unique way. It’s like a crush. And like an actual crush, it consumes you, and you find yourself dying for an outlet to share what you’re feeling with someone who gets it.

So far, I haven’t found a better outlet than my three little bros – and I don’t expect to. What I do know is this: the next time a Rhythm Heaven game happens, I’m going to do everything I can to get all four of us in the same place to play it.

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This article is a remix of a more mechanics-centric piece about Rhythm Heaven written earlier this year. Follow Nick Robinson on Twitter @Babylonian. Illustrations by Amber Harris.

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