Dance Dance Revolution first hit Western arcades in 1999 and quickly became a phenomenon as it had in Japan the previous year. Much has changed since the original release and while arcades have continued to decline DDR has managed to remain relevant both in Japan and internationally. Why is that? What is it about this game that has seen it endure into the modern day?
With the series celebrating its 20th anniversary let us look back on why it has managed to build the die-hard fan base it has today.
For the uninitiated Dance Dance Revolution is a rhythm action game where players hit a series of scrolling arrows in time to a musical beat. This design is simplistic and otherwise unremarkable but what makes DDR standout is the method of play. DDR isn’t played with a controller or your hands, instead DDR has the player use their feet to press panels on a metallic mat as the in-game arrows line up with the indicators at the top of the screen.
At first glance DDR hardly impresses; especially when played at lower difficulties. To truly understand the appeal of Dance Dance Revolution we first must talk about the concept of video games as performance.
Video games as performance are situations where the act of playing becomes a spectacle to be observed. Many games have grown through the spectacle of competition, leading to the rapidly growing esports streaming industry we have today. While almost any game can be made into a spectacle few have been able to merge real and virtual quite like Dance Dance Revolution. Whether you are watching the game or the player there is something impressive on show at the higher levels of play.
The virtual impresses through a display of arrows being pressed at a speed the average person would struggle to follow while the real expresses a degree of athleticism and quick footwork that can only be obtained through hard work. When combined the experience can sell itself easily to non-players, it looks legitimately difficult and makes for a captivating display.
The Appeal of DDR
DDR’s appeal only grows as the player improves. There are few games which can as effortlessly combine all three areas of human performance as it demands players have the physicality to match the games pace, the mentality to push on when the body is at its limit, and the skill to match the in-game actions. DDR pushes all three when most titles only push two.
This trifecta of abilities allows DDR to become an addiction for those who enjoy its gameplay loop. It is a game which can drag the player into a state of flow faster than most as it demands nothing but the best.
Video game addiction is often spoken of in negative terms, but DDR manages to be immune from such negativity thanks to the demands of its design. If you are playing DDR enough to be addicted, then you are likely at a level where the game is challenging you physically and mentally.
No matter how deep the addiction becomes the player will eventually burn out and be unable to keep playing. It is a physically exhausting game that gives high impact exercise in 90 second to 2 minute bursts; to stop within that time span will mean failure. Such motivations are enough to push players past their ceiling of ability and reach new heights of performance.
DDR encourages what can only be seen as a healthy relationship with games, one that wants you to enjoy the game but also cares about the players well being enough to force them to take breaks.
The game has been hailed for its health benefits as beating difficult songs requires a good standard of physical fitness, something even the best DDR players are aware of as they take measures to exercise regularly. It takes solid conditioning to play the game at the level they aspire to perform at.
DDR: The Motivator
DDR is a game where failure is not only common but expected. It is not rare for players to fail difficult songs on the first, second, or even fifth attempt but the game never berates the player for failing. DDR is a game of positive reinforcement: it knows when you’re on a hot streak, knows when you’re struggling, and knows when you’re having an off day. Play a high-level song and the announcer will shout words of encouragement as you inch towards the songs climax, it is the difference maker which allows players to push through and survive when their legs start to give out. The game wants you to improve and do better, but it does not want you to feel bad when you fail.
Positive reinforcement is especially important in the game’s competitive nature where the players biggest opponent is often themselves. The only real obstacle in DDR is your own ability to beat your personal bests.
This focus on personal betterment will mean all players will eventually encounter the white whale, the song they wish to beat but cannot. This song that is on the cusp of the players ability can occupy their attention for weeks, months, and sometimes even years.
My personal white whales were Fascination MAXX and Fascination ~eternal love mix~. For a full year the thought of becoming skilled enough to beat these songs on difficult would become an obsession. I never lost my Fascination for Fascination and would occasionally challenge the songs to gauge my improvement (and fail miserably).
A change of scenery would be a blessing as a year in Tokyo would show me just how ingrained DDR was in Japanese gaming. Not only was DDR still a common presence at arcades, but the quality of the machines was leaps and bounds ahead of the UK. The latest version was present at every arcade with even the older machines being modified and maintained to accommodate for it. Tokyo would be the ideal place to make an earnest effort to improve at DDR.
During my exchange year I would learn to survive and overcome level 15 songs (difficulty is rated on a scale of 1-20), a feat so strenuous I dropped to floor from exhaustion the first time I did it. A year after beginning my DDR journey I would finally conquer Fascination MAXX on difficult. This song’s high BMP causes arrows to fly up the screen at a blistering speed and serves as a gatekeeper for players who have not learned how read steps quickly.
It would take another half year before ~Eternal Love Mix~ also fell, it’s heavy use of stutters and sudden jump arrows being the biggest obstacle. Conquering Fascination and reaching level 15 was an exhausting and painful (not to mention costly) experience, but they were also among the greatest rushes I had ever felt playing a video game. DDR shines when you put personal stake into wanting to do something just to show that you can.
My experiences will resonate with anyone who has ever taken DDR up as a serious hobby. It is an autotelic video game, to play is its own reward. Fans dedication and commitment is such that it continues to be the subject of videos detailing the world of competitive Dance Dance Revolution.
DDR through the years
Dance Dance Revolution has continued to evolve since its first release in 1998. The first generation of DDR consisted of the original game and its respective remixes with each containing between 10 and 30 songs. Little changed between versions as the game evolved naturally through increasingly challenging charts for players to overcome. Paranoia, the original boss song, would quickly be overthrown as the likes Afronova Primeval and Paranoia Eternal would push the players to improve further.
DDR Max would begin the second generation of DDR as it introduced the freeze arrows, a new step which required players to keep their foot planted on the panel until the arrow had completely passed. The series would also up the ante on difficulty with MAX 300 sitting at the top of the pile as the king of calf killers.
SuperNOVA gave the series a brief resurgence as arcades would swap out their ageing DDR machines for this new and improved version that contained the crispest sound and visuals the series had seen to date. The track list was beefed up with the game containing over 100 songs new and old. It was a step forward and served as the basis for where the series stands today. It would also destroy the difficulty barrier with Fascination MAXX, and Fascination ~Eternal Love Mix~ still ranking among the most difficult tracks in the series 13 years later.
The SuperNOVA era would be short lived, lasting two games before Konami debuted the most radical change in machine design to date. DDR X would be the first designed for high definition display as it would ditch the 29” flat CRT for a 37” LCD display. The change would controversial as the western machines suffered from inferior build quality to their Asian counterparts.
DDR X would celebrate the series 10th anniversary as it remixed numerous tracks from the original Dance Dance Revolution. The game would also bring a new gimmick to challenge mode in the form of shock arrows which would penalise the player when stepped on.
Today, the series has seen a massive expansion to its song roster. The original Dance Dance Revolution contained a measly 11 songs while the new 20th anniversary release (DDR A20) features over 800. With such a rich selection it is no wonder DDR has continued to appeal.
The Music of DDR
Song choice is only one part of DDR’s longevity. While it is nice to have options there is nothing stopping players spending their time mastering a small selection of tracks as they compete to set world records. With so many songs it is not expected for players to complete them all, instead players have the freedom to play the game how they want.
Original music is why DDR has managed to endure for twenty years. Games like Guitar hero were built around the illusion of being the lead guitarist of famous bands such as Gun N’ Roses and Aerosmith. While it would bring the series into popularity it would also be a design limitation as it leaned heavily on licensed tracks that were never created with video games in mind. Guitar Hero would eventually reach the point where the pool of in-demand music became smaller until there was little reason to purchase new entries.
This is a pitfall DDR has never fallen into thanks to the efforts of Konami’s Bemani division working with musicians to continuously produce original songs for the game. Konami originals follow a design structure over their 90 second to 2-minute run time. We can break the typical 90 second song into three stages. To demonstrate let’s look at Flow -True Style- as an example.
The song begins with a basic pattern, the step-jump. Each arrow in this opening sequence is followed by a double step, otherwise known as a jump. The song then adds irregular beats to force quicksteps between step-jumps, this isn’t to catch the player off guard but to let them know that they will need to utilise quick-steps into their routine. Another layer is then added to the beat, merging these quicksteps into the existing step-jump pattern, resulting in quickstep-jumps.
The song throws these patterns at the player demanding they execute several in a row with no breaks. If the player succeeds, they’ll keep their combo, fail and they’ll just about survive into the beginning of section two.
The opening 30 seconds establish the main pattern and expects the player to learn it for later. It is no coincidence that the introduction is itself split into three parts. If the player fails the first two parts of the intro then they will game over before the end of part three. If they can manage the opening two-thirds but not the final third, then the game will throw them a bone and put them on a last chance basis.
The quickstep-jump pattern ceases following the end of the introduction. The designer knows players excel in some areas better than others and that a player who struggled with the quickstep-jump may fare better when faced with a stream. A stream is when arrows come at the player continuously with no breaks or irregularities in timing. The player doesn’t need to know how to do the sequence, they need only be able to react and move fast enough to match the arrows.
This second section of Flow may be faster but it gives players who have not mastered quickstep-jumps time to collect themselves and rebuild meter. The second half of the mid-section reintroduces the step-jump to see if the player has the technique down. Multiple jump arrows are also put between step-jump sequences to give the player a break. The game wants the player to have time for mental adjustment if they are still learning the technique.
The last 30 seconds are often the most difficult, either because the song throws its biggest obstacles at the player, or because the player is already exhausted. The last 30 seconds of Flow demonstrate the former as it goes from a stream sequence straight into successive quickstep-jumps. This sudden change is the now-or-never moment, the final exam, has the player mastered the technique to use at a moment’s notice? This is the question the game presents to the player and their success will ride on their ability to answer. Fail and the dance meter will evaporate, survive and you will have successfully completed a level 13 on expert difficulty.
To reiterate: Part 1 introduces the pattern and teaches the player what to do. Part 2 has the player revise previous exercises while taking breaks in between, presenting the opportunity for variety. Part 3 is the final test as players must demonstrate mastery of the core pattern.
This is the design many DDR charts follow and one which allows the game to continuously feel fresh as the music and play co-exist in perfect harmony. It gives the player a carefully planned challenge and helps them actively improve at the game without the need or tutorials or additional advice.
20 Years On
Overall, Dance Dance Revolution is intelligently made and stands as one of the best examples of how to design a music game. It is a series which has survived long past the initial craze and has seen rise to a cult community of players who continue to push the boundaries of what we thought was possible with Konami’s rhythm action series.
2019 saw the 8th edition the Konami Arcade Championships take place in Japan and with the recent release of the Gold DDR A20 it is likely that such support will continue for a few years more.
If nothing else may this article allow you to find a deeper appreciation for Konami’s dance series and the people whose dedication has helped keep it alive for a new generation. Dance Dance Revolution is a relic of an age long past and it would be a shame for such a unique and inventive music game to be lost to the world.
While it may have been years since Konami’s last official home release you can be rest assured that fans will continue its legacy as they constantly update homemade DDR simulators such as StepMania. If picking up DDR is something that interests you then start there before you consider buying that plane ticket to the nearest Japanese arcade or you might just end up with more than you bargained for.