The quality of rhythm games as they've appeared on handhelds so far has been dubious at best. Lackluster ports or Konami's DDR and Beatmania to the Gameboy certainly didn't benefit from the tinny sounds and lack of control input. Things are a-changin' with the CD-quality sound and increased control input allowed by the PSP, though. Now, straight from Korea, comes the portable's first true and unique music game – DJ Portable Max.
If you've ever played Beatmania before, the underlying concept is already familiar to you. Rectangle-shaped notes come down from the top of the screen. As they pass by the red bar at the bottom in time with the music, hit the corresponding button. Harder songs incorporate Holds which require you to keep a key pressed for a certain amount of time and a certain type of note where you rotate the analog nub as much as you can to rack up more combos. Essentially what you're doing is filling in notes over the background tune as indicated by markers and the end-result is what the fully-instrumented song should like.
DJ Portable Max takes the formula a bit further, though, with the introduction of different note-skins and "gears" which change the look of the playing field. Respectively, they can also give you a MAX multiplier or extra HP. MAX is the "currency" of the game and is determined by your accuracy in hitting all of the notes in a song. Obviously, the more accurate you are, the more MAX you'll make and the faster you'll unlock the myriad of extra items that DJPM has to offer. HP represents the amount of "life" you have which is depleted by missing notes and regained by maintaining your combo. Thankfully, unlike Beatmania, DJPM doesn't penalize you for hitting notes where there aren't any, only when you actually miss them. Different gears will either decrease or increase your maximum HP. Both gears and note-skins, as mentioned above, will change the look of your playing field, sometimes making it fundamentally harder to read notes, so the trade-off is up to you.
Pentavision, the developers, have implemented several different modes for all types of players. They are 4 (left, up, triangle, circle), 6 (plus right, square), and 8-key (plus L and R) respectively. It should be noted that 8-key is not available at the beginning. Many songs also have more difficult note patterns selected by pushing up when selecting them. An icon in the upper-left corner of the screen will indicate whether or not a song has a Hard Mode or an incredibly challenging MX Mode.
There is also a Club mode which has you playing several songs back-to-back and a Free mode which allows you to play any of the game's 50+ tunes. By taking a peek in the Gallery, you can view all of the plentiful images, discs (awards given out for achieving certain conditions in Free mode), and videos that you've unlocked.
The songs themselves span a wider variety of genres than Beatmania, though most of it remains some variation of RnB/Dance/Techno. Unlike Konami's series, though, they don't seem quite as memorable. This is perhaps due to the fact that certain songs are drilled into your head over the many iterations of the Beatmania series and you can't help but remember them, while there's only one version of DJPM available as of yet. Many of them sound great, though, and given time, they can become classics, too.
Each ditty has its own, animated backdrop, as well. They're a bit more coherent than you'll find in a Beatmania game and they're better-looking, too. The videos eschew weird-looking 3D shapes in favor of largely 2D characters and sequences that tell a rough story. DJPM allows you to watch videos and listen to the soundtrack outside of play if you so choose.
In many ways, it is a better game than Beatmania, which, like many other of Konami's music game series, has been stagnating in recent years. However, it still falls victims to a few problems inherent to porting these games to a handheld. As mentioned, the control possibilities for the PSP are greater than that of a Gameboy, but moving between the small buttons can be both a boon and a bane. At times, it is nice to be able to slide your fingers from one key to the next in order to nail complex patterns, but certain note combinations prove difficult on this setup. Also, the Random modifier (yes, many of the modifiers you find in DJPM can be found in Beatmania, such as Mirror, Fade, and Speed mods) seems to have some bugs in it, where you'll occasionally get impossible-to-hit notes. Other patterns are simply tough, but given enough time and practice, any obstacle can be overcome. DJPM does have an easier learning curve than Beatmania, but the toughest songs are still incredibly demanding.
DJPM started life as an online game in Korea titled, appropriately, DJ Max. Somewhat of a copy of O2Jam (itself, a copy of Beatmania), it's a shame that no internet or multiplayer mode was integrated. Still, it seems that Pentavision wanted to focus more on the music and presentation, where it does deliver in spades. Any way you look at it, DJ Portable Max is an excellent game and very import friendly. The only Korean text you'll encounter is when you unlock a new item, but it is easy to figure out what you've unlocked. This is a great fix for anybody who loves rhythm games, especially those who have always dreamed of throwing down a quick game when they're out-and-about. The only caveat, of course, is that the use of headphones to truly appreciate the music in public is a must. All in all, it's challenging, it's pretty, it sounds good, and the whole package is exceedingly well-produced. There is even a Prestige Set being offered, which includes a nice case, the OST, and a number of other goodies as part of the deal. The game alone, at only $50 or so at most online import retailers, is only a little more than you'd spend on most domestic PSP games, and the same as you'd spend on most console games. Ironically, it's also much less than the sum cost of trying to import Beatmania games. No matter which way you slice it, DJ Portable Max is a winner and one of the best reasons to own a PSP right now.