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Fried Take - "Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX" (2015)

It's around 2:30 AM where I am, and I should probably be getting to bed. But after spending a good bit of time with Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX today, I felt compelled to write something about it. So, here I am. Why did I feel so compelled, you ask?

Because it's one of the best 3DS games I've played in ages.

Now, even though I've never actually reviewed any of the Vocaloid games (weird, right?) that have made it stateside, I definitely have played them and have a pretty strong opinion on them. And that opinion is, well, they're pretty alright. The rhythm mechanic is nifty, if a little confusing, and the music is uniformly good across the board. Ditto for the visuals But everything else? Eh. I can take it or leave it, to be totally frank. It's basically a bad idol management sim, and a vaguely voyeuristic "raise a human" sort of affair. Most of it is sort of tedious, and I've never felt compelled to spend a whole lot of time with it. Oh, and a lot of the video accompaniments to the music often feel like an edgy teenager's photo collage. Some bright, colorful, candy vomit coupled with grim-dark angst. I mean, I get that they're virtual pop stars, and just like real pop stars, do different types of videos, but yeesh. Tone it down a little. But yeah. I generally like the Project Diva games, despite their issues.

Which brings me to Project Mirai DX, the perfect antidote to all my complaints with Hatsune Miku as a video game series. Vaguely confusing rhythm components? Nah, make it simpler and faster. Edgy teenage anime fan attitude? Forget it, make everything cute. Obnoxious "raise a person" weirdness? Here's an idea, make it more like a Tamagotchi. All jokes aside, the complete overhaul of what it means to be a Vocaloid rhythm game here is nothing short of marvelous, at least in my opinion. Everything is cute, bright, and happy, and even the more edgy-sounding bits of music have visuals that don't feel like cringe-y fan service.

The music here is among the best out there, whether in a Vocaloid game or rhythm game in general. You have fun, upbeat pop numbers like "Electric Love" and "LOL." You've got cutesy and charming ditties like "Sweet Magic" and "Animal Fortune Telling." Then there's the more serious, wistful numbers, like "Deep Sea Girl," "Melancholic" and "Senbonzakura." There are 48 tracks, all told, and insofar, they're all charming in their own way. It's rare enough that Western audiences get a rhythm game these days, and even rarer that all the music is uniformly good. That, in and of itself, is a treat.

Also a treat is the compelling, fast, and somewhat innovative gameplay. Unlike the Project Diva series of Vocaloid games, in which button prompts swirl in from every which way, sometimes overlapping into a visual mess, Project Mirai DX takes a different approach entirely. The buttons you press (please don't use the touch controls, that's asking for a scratched touch screen) are on a line that's constantly moving. A circular cursor overlaps the button prompt on the line, indicating when you're supposed to tap. It's super intuitive and is a far less cluttered system than what we've seen out of the franchise so far. Oh, and sometimes, the lines make little shapes, like bunny heads and hearts, to correspond to the songs. Adorable.

"Adorable" applies to everything else here, too. As a fan/addict of the Nendoroid toy line, I was really happy to learn that Project Mirai, as a brand, is the result of a collab between Crypton Media Group, Sega and Good Smile Company (the makers of Nendoroids). As a result, everything is cute to an absurd degree. Even when Miku is riding a train that shoots lasers out of a front-mounted cannon amid a forest of cherry blossom trees (!), her short stature and alarmingly large noggin makes the whole thing feel fun and silly. Some people might miss the stylish, edgy music videos of the Project Diva series, and I get that. "The world don't move to the beat of just one drum" and all that jazz. But personally? I love this stylistic direction. On top of just being cute, there's something bizarre and entrancing of watching a tiny-bodied, big-headed micro-human do choreographed dances to Japanese pop music. Like, what other game has that? Plus, the 3D is among the most ingeniously-used and visually arresting on the 3DS, which is a neat little perk.

The cuteness and absurdity luckily carry over to the other gameplay elements as well. For the first time in a Vocaloid game, I actually cared about taking care of my Vocaloid and raising them and building them a house and feeding them tiny food. It's oddly relaxing to buy a strawberry shortcake for a Nendo-person, watch them eat it and love it, then buy them a new outfit and give them an allowance. None of it feels creepy because they barely look human, so it feels much more like a virtual pet situation than it does "give this adult/teenage human sexy outfits then feed them, you 18-21 year-old anime fan." You can talk to your Vocaloid, take them shopping, let them watch videos, etc., etc. It's like a lighter, more otaku-bait take on last year's strangely appealing Tomodachi Life, and there's nothing wrong with that, in my books.

I don't have a lot to say beyond that. Yeah, the touch controls aren't great. Sure, this game's appeal is limited to anime fans and rhythm game players. But for that core demographic? Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX knocks it out of the park, and then some. It addresses every issue I've had with the franchise (faux-edge, long loading times, boring raising sim mechanics,) then adds heaps upon heaps of substantial content and doesn't bother the player with reminders that DLC can be purchased. When you buy this game, you're getting a cute, addictive rhythm game crashed into a light virtual pet sim, chockful of content just waiting to be unlocked the old-fashioned way: with in-game currency you earn by doing well. There are even sub-games to idle away your time.

For its intended audience, Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX is a complete must-have. For everyone else, it's one of the best introductions to rhythm games outside of your Guitar Heroes and Rock Bands. But, above all else, it's just a cute, fun, wonderful little gem of a game that stands out in a year already filled with great releases.

Now I should probably hit the hay, but I know I'm going to try and least play one more song... or a dozen.


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