Sunday, November 20, 2005

Rhythmic Hopping Revolution

This is one of the first posts I'd promised way back when I started the blog. Last night I played DDR for the first time in almost a month, which got me thinking about it.

It's hard for me to pinpoint exactly when I first became aware of DDR. I probably first read a reference to it on Slashdot. I know I'd seen it discussed on Penny Arcade, and probably saw it in action for the first time during a trip to Dave & Buster's. It also had gotten some play in the press, with the angle generally being how this crazy game from Japan was actually getting kids OFF the couch for a change.

At first the idea just seemed weird to me. I doubted whether it could even be considered a real game. The more I considered it, though, the more attractive it seemed to me. I realized that I needed to start making exercise part of my routine - I've been blessed with a youngster's metabolism and coasted on that for a long time, but I can't rely on that forever. I knew I wanted some exercise to control my weight, and also to help out with my heart, where there are some hereditary concerns.

The problem is, I hate exercise. I hated gym class in school, hated running, hated competitive sports, anything at all. I hate the way all exercise ends with me feeling tired and miserable; I'd much rather sit down and read a book. There are very few forms of physical activity I enjoy, which are either too easy to be of much use (walking) or difficult to do in my current living situation (bicycling).

In the fall of 2003 I was living in a loft in downtown KC. Every day I would put in 30 to 45 minutes on a stationary bike in the workout room in the basement, and I hated every minute of it. Though I loved cycling growing up, being on a stationary was just not the same. I kept it up because I knew it was important, but kept on wishing there was another way.

I don't recall if it was pre-meditated or not, but in December of 2003 I went into a mall Electronics Boutique and walked out with a used copy of "DDRMAX Dance Dance Revolution" and a soft dance pad. (And some other game as well, I'm sure.) That night I hooked it up to my TV and began to play.

I mention this time every time I describe the game to someone, but it bears repeating: "Dance" is really a misnomer. Playing this game will not teach you how to dance, and watching someone play DDR is nothing like watching someone dance. Rather, DDR is a rhythm game that happens to use your body as a controller. The goal is to stomp on an arrow at the correct time, generally fitting with the beat of the current song.

It takes a while to get used to DDR, but it has a gentle learning curve with varying difficulty levels. Each song has different sets of "steps" for the different difficulty levels, so you can enjoy the same music while your game is improving.

Looking back, I am amazed at how much my game has improved. When I started I would flail wildly around, often slipping off the mat or bumping into things. I would gradually get better and better, then bump up the difficulty and start looking comical again. After doing it for about a year, my original dance mat was getting pretty torn up and I decided to bite the bullet and get one of the high-quality "Ignition" pads from Red Octane. It set me back by $100, but I've had little cause to regret it. The mat is much more stable and slips far less; it also provides a lot of cushion so I can play for a long time without my feet hurting. Now, for most songs, my upper body remains virtually stationary, with only my legs hopping from arrow to arrow.

I have played two of the DDR games, "DDRMAX" and "Dance Dance Revolution Extreme." Both of these games have their own sequels that I will pick up at some point; these games age extremely well so I'm content waiting for prices to fall more. While mastering the 80 or so songs on these two discs I have gotten to a point where I can beat almost everything on "Normal" difficulty. I keep meaning to move up to "Hard" mode and have occasionally done so, but that tends to wind me after just one or two songs. I still feel like I'm getting a decent workout on Normal; I'm usually sweating after the first set and after a half hour I feel tired but, amazingly, not miserable. For this reason DDR holds a special place in my heart.

In the end, the important thing to me is that DDR is fun. Any responsible person will tell you that, when choosing an exercise program, the single most important thing is to pick something you can stick with. It's far better to go for a walk every day than to run twice and then quit. And when it comes to DDR, everything about the experience is fun. I enjoy the music, which is all over the map but particularly heavy on european-style electronic music. I enjoy the bright, flashing lights. I enjoy the challenge/reward system that is intrinsic to any video game. I think this last piece is particularly important, because it gives me more reasons to keep going besides the health benefits; I also want to unlock more songs, characters, missions and reward screens.

It feels weird to be writing about how easy it is to stick with DDR when I haven't played it much at all recently. There's a couple reasons for that. First, having recently moved and living on the second story, I've been cautious about making too much noise. Again, I'm definitely pounding the floor a lot less now than when I started, but it's hard for me to gauge how noisy I'm being. Secondly, living in California has prompted me to spend more time doing things I couldn't do in Kansas City. My Saturday hike is a ritual now, as are my walks through the neighborhood and around work. (It's mid-November here; the skies are perfectly clear and we got up to 78 degrees today. I love this place.) It'd be better if these supplemented DDR rather than replace it, but given the choice I'm opting for the one that involves natural light and less chance of disturbing neighbors.

Many people have an additional motivation for playing DDR: public approval. Modern arcades are practically anchored by DDR machines, which provide a free show to people walking by. That's never been particularly attractive to me, but I have practiced on the arcade machines a couple of times. I'd definitely do it again; it's a very different game. Besides the more public setting there's also a very different lineup of songs, a far sturdier dancing surface, and way more bright flashing lights and sirens. I do feel self-conscious and goofy, since these machines reveal how the games skew younger than me, but it's also a bit of a rush.

While DDR doesn't teach you how to dance, it is surprisingly effective in teaching you to feel rhythm. When I went to my friend Josh's wedding earlier this year, I danced for the first time since New Year's Eve 2003, and while I'm still a poor dancer I felt that I could immediately find the beat in any song and do something with it. A small victory, to be sure, but small victories are what I live for.

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