Review by vyse_1986
Despite showing some room for improvement, this game is incredibly fun.
While nobody in their right mind would have thought of releasing a portable music game during the GameBoy era, modern handhelds have seen plenty of games in this genre. The PSP in particular has been graced with the DJ MAX Portable series, which is to Konami's Beatmania/Pop'n'Music series as Giana Sisters was to Super Mario Bros. DJ MAX has gained quite a following, which has probably inspired Konami to bring their own franchise to the PSP, as well.
Content - According to the internet, Pop'n'Music Portable is a port of the arcade game Pop'n'Music 15: Adventure. It features 82 songs, a number that blows anything else I've seen in portable music games out of the water. As if this wasn't enough, each song has seven note charts: one for 5, 7 and 9 button mode respectively, a hyper (i.e. usually significantly harder) chart for each button mode, as well as an EX chart, which is what you see in those videos titled "Crazy Japanese Guy Playing Music Game". Really, I wonder if the developers themselves can beat them, or if they just put them in there to see if someone else steps up and does it. Every song is associated with a character, who will dance in a window displayed next to the notechart and is animated with a surprising amount of detail. The soundtrack itself is also top-notch, featuring a variety of original songs, remixes of tunes from classic Konami games and a few licensed songs that you might have actually heard before - the opening song of Neon Genesis Evangelion, as well as Tales of the Abyss' intro song are in here. You will find vocalised J-Pop and Rock songs, great instrumentals and some intentional joke songs. The soundtrack is very Japanese, however, so not everyone will like it. It also features some hilarious Japlish lyrics, for example: "I want to fire, take me to the higher!" Most songs are in Japanese, though.
I also like how you pass songs in this game. Instead of losing "health" for missing notes, you get a Groove Gauge that charges or depletes according to your performance and is nearly empty at the beginning. To clear a song, you have to charge it past a certain level. It works very well in this game and is more fun, because instead of getting punished for playing badly, you get rewarded for playing well. Nothing feels better than pushing the Groove Gauge just over the edge by hitting the final note in a tough song.
Controls - If you have ever seen an actual Pop'n'Music arcade machine, you might wonder how the controls work on the PSP. The answer is, not too well initially, but you get used to it. 5-Button mode works fine, and 7B mode may take some practice, but 9B mode is the real problem. Seriously, pick up your PSP and try to figure out an intuitive control scheme for a music game that has nine columns for notes displayed in a horizontal line. You won't be able to as the PSP doesn't have enough buttons to emulate that. The game suggests, from left to right: Left, L, Up, Down, Right or Square for the middle note, Triangle, X, R, Circle. Jumbled as that may seem, it actually makes sense when you play the game, and is about as good as it could get. You can set up your own custom control scheme if you want to, but after spending some time with the game I would recommend not doing so, especially because it will almost certainly make certain chords impossible to hit. It will take you hours to get used to the default button layout, especially if you already learned DJ MAX, but you will eventually learn it.
Adventure Mode - One of the game's main features, which can also be seen on many screenshots, is the Adventure Mode. Here, you jump around on a board-game like map and run into characters who will challenge you with missions. To clear those, you will have to pass a certain song and also deal with at least one Norma. Normas are special requirements, e.g. getting a 100 note combo or reaching 80.000 points. It can also mean any kind of visual effect that ranges from mildly obtrusive to making the game almost unplayable, e.g. changing the look of the notes or having the enemy character dance on top of the notechart. Konami got really creative here, and some of these distractions are downright funny.
For clearing missions in Adventure Mode, you get Pop Points that you need to be able to take the Popper's Test. Passing the Popper's Test increases, you guessed it, your Pop Level. This is needed to unlock harder missions and tear down certain barriers on the map. The map jumping itself can also get pretty challenging, as the board features teleporters, trap floors and other hazards. You can also unlock items that make exploring the map easier. This mode is surprisingly long, by the way - completing it will take you no less than 15 hours.
Adventure Mode initially seems like the best idea ever, but it is insultingly easy. The game literally forces you to play every mission on easy mode first, which is confined to 5-Button-Mode. Optional difficulties feature 7- and 9-Button-Mode as well as tougher requirements, but you get absolutely nothing for beating them and the game doesn't even bother to check them off, so you have to keep notes if you want to know which missions you have beaten. Considering the length of Adventure Mode and the fact that 51 out of the game's 82 songs have to be unlocked here, what seems like a great feature early on quickly becomes a mandatory exercise in boredom. Don't get me wrong, it's commendable that the game offers easy missions even at the end, so nobody will face a roadblock and end up not being able to unlock later songs - it just shouldn't force you to play on easy.
Other modes and Import Friendliness - Once you get past Adventure Mode, however, you can move on to Free Play, and this mode has so much replay value that you could as well dedicate your life to it. The game keeps track of which songs you cleared, cleared without missing a single note, and perfected (i.e. hit every note with Great or Cool timing). As I mentioned earlier, the game has 82 songs and up to 7 notecharts per song, so you get 570 notecharts to work with (four songs don't have an EX chart). Each song is labeled with a difficulty level that can range from 4 to 42, so you will always find something to suit your skills. If 9-Button-Mode confuses you, you can just stick to seven buttons and still choose between 82 songs and 164 notecharts - just play what you enjoy the most.
There's also Battle Mode, which allows you to play against up to three friends in Ad-Hoc mode. You will individually play the same song and the game compares your scores after four stages. You can also play this mode against AI opponents, which seems utterly pointless to be honest, as the game technically just generates random scores for you to beat. Another weird option is to play with two people on one system, which requires each player to grab one end of the PSP and play in 3-button-mode.
As a music game, Pop'n'Music Portable is of course very import-friendly. All the menus are in English, and Adventure Mode is self-explanatory, though you won't get anything out of the story. What pains me is that the song's names are mostly in Japanese, so you can only refer to some songs you like by naming something associated with it, like its genre, if you can't read the name.
The port from the arcade to the PSP is solid, by the way. The gameplay never stutters, even when tons of notes are displayed on the higher difficulties and you frantically mash the buttons in a futile effort to hit at least half of them. The loading times, however, are very tiring. Restarting a song in Free Play takes way too long, and you have to sit through several loading screens until gameplay finally starts again. This will get frustrating when you try to go for Perfects and miss one of the first notes in the song. One good thing about the port is that Hudson, the developers of the PSP version, have adjusted the notecharts to make them playable on the PSP - some chords would be impossible to hit, but they were removed or altered to make it possible with at least the default button layout.
Conclusion - Pop'n'Music Portable is a very fun game, but it is a bit hard to rate it. Everything that's great here (the music, the Norma, the notecharts and the characters) was already in the arcade version, and the new stuff, like the game's Adventure Mode, could need a few improvements. The controls will take some getting used to, and while the game does of course have an obligation to stay true to the original, DJ MAX demonstrated how a few adjustments to the gameplay and the way the notes are displayed can lead to something that's far more intuitive on the PSP. On the plus side, it features a lot of content, great music, graphics with a lot of attention to detail, and the controls stop being an issue once you learn them. The port to the PSP is very solid, and once you've really started to dig into Free-Play Mode, it will be a ton of fun. Newcomers will find a good introduction to music games here - don't be scared of the crazy videos, there's plenty of easy stuff in here as well. If you liked DJ Max Portable but grew tired of it, this game will give you a new challenge and is absolutely recommended. In the end, I decided to rate this game based on its fun factor alone, and if you only take that into account, this game is definitely a solid 8.3 or 8.4 out of 10 - rounded off to 8/10 for gamefaqs.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Pop'n Music Portable (JP, 02/04/10)
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