Two pilots fly over forested wetlands. Tree roots twist and pale beneath the water, obscured by many leafy tops. The machines race on, cresting the growth below, until one pilot speaks without extending a glance to his companion.
“You know what I like when I’m flying?” From the plane to his left, the dog turns for the answer.
As they climb in altitude and the wetlands change to a bed of clouds, the cat produces a paddle, and the game begins.
This is an establishing scene for Air Rally, a mini-game in Rhythm Heaven Fever—one of the last relevant titles released on Nintendo’s graying Wii, and a testament to the possibilities of simple controls and the prioritization of simple joys.
To progress past the game’s title screen, you press the A and B buttons simultaneously. This screen pulsates with the beat of the background music even before you take action, and it’s likely that when you depress the buttons it’s in time with the infectious tone. In a reductive sense, you experience the scope of Rhythm Heaven’s gameplay in this moment.
The Wii Remote is a curious tool: straightforward, free from extraneous grips and curves in its design for a single hand. The controller’s shape and motion sensing capabilities encourage pointing, twisting, and often some type of controlled flailing. The largest of the buttons are set beneath the thumb and forefinger. Rhythm Heaven passes on the Wii Remote’s often misapplied motion controls to maximize the play of these two fixed inputs. The buttons themselves aren’t special—you could play the bulk of Rhythm Heaven with two simple buttons from any controller. But from them the game extracts scenarios as fantastic as Air Rally, and outcomes equally cordial and optimistic.
A new game of Rhythm Heaven opens to the curious faces of three characters formed from simple shapes. “We hope you’ll enjoy Rhythm Heaven Fever,” one says. Following their explanation of the rules, you move through clinical, decidedly non-musical tests, each stressing the importance of punctual button taps. When the empirical results show, one of the characters addresses you again.
“It’s not important how well you did in the test,” she says. “As long as you have fun, that’s the main thing. We’ve got quite a few games in store for you.”
Rhythm Heaven’s games are tests of skill in a funhouse. Each self-contained scenario is a reciprocation of button taps as something fantastic among the mundane. In Micro-Row, your tiny actions as a microorganism build to a small-scale celebration, as each stroke of your rowing routine decorates the canvas of an empty petri dish. Rhythm Heaven delights in this structured absurdity, but also the player’s very plain and perfunctory role in staging its amusements.
Monkey Watch may be the best example of this credo. A small primate clings to the end of a wristwatch’s second hand. With each advancing tick, fellow monkeys burst forth; as you move past, you simply tap the A button to high five each in time to the music, occasionally trading skin on the upbeat with rogue purple monkeys. By the time you complete a third and fourth circuit, your own internal pace has matched the watch’s, and pressing the button is merely a compulsory trigger for connecting in perfect gesticular harmony. What transpires on the face of this watch (surely the best watch ever) is a thing of simple attraction and complete foolishness, driven more by an aspiration to perplex in concept and delight in outcome than by a need to challenge.
In this way, Rhythm Heaven makes the player’s modest participation less so in the end. The game doesn’t blanket failure in judgment, nor does it shower you in a surfeit of praise upon victory. Success is often summed up with a simple “OK,” and failure with some motivational copy and a prompt to try again. Less hit-or-miss, more hit-or-miss-but-just-keep-enjoying-the-motion. This primary intention of moving the player through each scene translates rhythmic accuracy into a series of small, topical triumphs.
Rhythm Heaven’s is a very specific reality, in which cynicism doesn’t exist and failure is only an invitation to try a little more. Everything pulses and, like the seals of Flipper-Flop, an activity that has you conducting the choreography of four such animals, most things smile.
Though conservative in its use of the Wii Remote, the game has no hesitations in the immediate contextual payoff for each activity. Rhythm Heaven occupies the middle space of a Venn diagram composed of surreal premises, skewed objectives, and uncommon means of accomplishment. The line from inactivity to success in each performance is, subsequently, very short, but it’s a line Rhythm Heaven requests you try to draw perfectly and at length. Connecting its dots—tracing illogical yet confident patterns—always brings about a quaint, self-satisfied conclusion.
The game’s simplification of things, problems, and solutions makes it a fitting embodiment of the mini-game model. Each small game comprises a complete situational arc, defining your role and reward with minimal resources.
In Double Date, a boy and girl sit on a secluded bench. They enjoy each other’s company, but also that of the friendly male and female weasels poking out from the ground near their feet. To protect the animal companions and keep the romantic engagement free of distraction, the boy spends his time kicking away the different sports balls that happen to bounce their way. You don’t see the outcome of the date, but to the game your every kick is the solution that ensures it goes well, a panacea apropos of nothing for a bizarre problem that wraps up the moment cleanly.
This is the freedom Rhythm Heaven affords itself. Its segmented activities eschew logic, excessive control, and any kind of connective tissue that might distract from a unique set of circumstances and a fanciful resolution. Playing makes you party to these small victories more than it does to any test of competency in pressing buttons. Rhythm Heaven favors beautiful, temporary performances over the complexities of chasing your own perfection, and encourages you to experience it in kind.