Samba de Amigo is no different. Not only does it introduce a completely different type of controller to the market, (a ridiculous set of maracas that couldn't possibly be used effectively with any other game on the system) but the on-screen functions are entirely original and the gameplay itself features some unique, maraca-themed actions. Like most of its peers, Samba borrows some ideas from the competition, but on the whole it's among the more unique titles in the genre.
Fortunately enough, one can enjoy this game without first investing close to a hundred bucks on a set of specially-designed controllers. Actually, from the way the controls have been optimized for the Dreamcast's regular game pad and the availability of the standalone disc sans maracas, it would seem like the developers never really expected anybody to buy them in the first place. I'm sure using those obscene, brightly-colored, electronicized latin instruments of aural destruction adds a whole new dimension to the game, (just like the dance pads in DDR or the movement detectors in Para Para Paradise) but Samba remains completely enjoyable in their absence. Truth be told, I've never even tried the maracas and this isn't just one of my favorite music games... it's one of my favorite games, period.
The gameplay takes a little getting used to, because it's so different than anything else out there and requires nearly exact precision at all times, not to mention a better-than-average sense of rhythm. Like other games in the genre, your ultimate goal is to press specific buttons in time with the music, earning points as your string of unblemished beats grows longer and longer. Samba's interface is simple in action, but somewhat difficult to describe. Basically, the on-screen display is meant to reflect six different zones of the human body, (thigh-level, midsection-level and head-level for both the right and left hands) and players are meant to shake their maracas in those specific areas in time with the music when indicated. It's not quite as easy as "When the 'up' arrow hits the top of the screen, step forward," but it's still simple enough to figure out after a round or two. And, since the directional indicators are shot from the center of the play area, rather than slowly dragged from the bottom of the screen to the top, the experience is a little more frenzied and exciting than that of Konami's DDR titles. It's very easy to completely zone out and let your subconscious take over for you with this control scheme, which is when I've found I'm most successful at rhythm-based games anyway. Once mastered, a session with Amigo can become a strangely soothing experience, something that totally mellows you out. And, if you're already mellow coming in, more power to ya. Samba is one of my first choices when I'm drunk beyond all reason and want to play a game, not to mention one of the few I can attempt successfully in such a state.
Where the Dance Dance Revolution games use both the D-Pad and the four main buttons as mirrors of one another for gamers lacking a dance pad, (up and the triangle button perform the same function, as do right and O, etc.) Amigo puts the D-Pad and buttons to work as six completely independent inputs, matching the three scoring zones for both the right and left arm. The D-Pad right and yellow (X) buttons are never used, and the remaining inputs are relatively self-explanatory. Is the screen telling you to hit the upper region with your right arm and the middle region with your left? Hit left on the D-Pad and the green (Y) button. Both arms need to be pointed down? Press down on the D-Pad and the blue (A) button. The three leftmost directions on the D-Pad correspond with each of the three left arm positions and the three rightmost buttons correspond with, you guessed it, the same positions with your right hand. It does sound a little complicated at first glance, but after suffering through that first round or two, you'll more than likely have it mastered. There's also an alternate control scheme, but it went completely over my head and never made nearly as much sense as this one. Anyway... as your score grows, you move your way up to different scholastic "grades," starting at a C and either working up to a B or A, or dropping down to a D or F. Naturally, if you hit the "F" level, the game's over and your life is hell. Like its musical peers, Samba makes it much easier to lose levels than it does to gain them, and it's not uncommon to get through two thirds of a song without missing a beat, screw up once, lose the rhythm, and take a quick nose-dive to defeat.
The single-player mode is a little deeper than you'd think, offering a few mini games and a difficult goal-based challenge mode to accompany the standard, mindless "play whatever song you feel like and shoot for a high score" mode that seems to be standard issue with entries to this genre. The mini games are, admittedly, really weak and feel more like a digital translation of the token chomping physical challenge-style games you'll see all over the place at Chuck-E-Cheese, but the challenge mode is a hidden gold mine, a great opportunity to refine your skills. It's basically twenty two challenges of increasing difficulty and variety, ranging from the simple (complete "La Bamba" with a score of B or better on the Super Easy difficulty setting) to the confidence-crushing (Complete "Take on Me" with a perfect score on the Super Hard difficulty setting) with a little variety thrown in to keep things interesting. As you polish off each challenge, you'll also unlock hidden songs for use in the traditional and multiplayer modes.
Yep, you read that correctly. There's a multiplayer mode. But, before you find yourself joyously overwhelmed by the thought of two goons standing side by side with a pair of maracas in their hands, gyrating like a toddler in front of the epileptic episode of Pokemon, I've gotta warn you... it's extremely limited. There's no real point based head-to-head mode, and no four-player support, although I have a hard time believing anybody would be willing to drop nearly half a grand on four sets of maracas anyway. The entire multiplayer experience is limited to three options; couples mode, battle mode and a translation of the mini-games from the single player game. Couples mode works like a twisted version of those standalone love detector machines you'll find within every mall in the history of modern civilization. The two players work their way through an entire song, and when they both hit a beat at precisely the same time, a fruity "WOOOP" blasts across the speakers and their "love rating" goes up a notch. At the end of the song, you're informed just how compatible you are romantically with the other player. No, I'm serious. Battle mode is similar, in that both players work their way through a song at the same time, but the goal here is to develop the highest possible combo. As your score ascends, a bomb on your side of the screen slowly fills with power. Naturally, when your bomb is full, it's heaved over onto the opponent and they lose a little bit of life. The victory goes to the last monkey standing. While it's cool to see some ingenuity in this aspect of the game, it's really strange that there's no gimmickless heads-up multiplayer function.
Like most other titles in the musical genre, there's no real underlying story to Samba, and what little character interaction you get is abstract at best. Amigo, a sombrero-adorned, maraca-bearing monkey, is the main character (who's never named, and I've only dubbed 'Amigo' because I'm thinking the game was titled after him) and the closest thing you're gonna get to an on-screen representative of your actions. He's always right there, dancing to the music and shakin' his fists. When you do well he's hailed as a maraca god, and when you suck he's abandoned and left alone in the street after dark. You'll see some recurring figures from level to level, (presumably Amigo's various Latin friends, since they're always dancing up a storm as well) but there's no rhyme or reason to their appearances and you're never given much motivation aside from "don't lose the rhythm or you'll make the monkey cry." The character designs are elaborate and cartoony, ranging from hepcat hyena bass players to scantily-clad showgirl birds to an obviously transsexual, trumpet-playing brown cat in leopard print pants. These characters have, for lack of a better word, character, and they help to successfully establish the light-hearted tone Sega was going for here, although their movements and dances are relatively stiff and repetitive.
The visuals are charmingly low-budget, which gives them a great comedic touch and an interesting credibility. The blindingly bright shades of red, yellow and green, along with the hilarious discount graphics give the impression that you're either watching an episode of Sabado Gigante or the last sequence of opening credits from Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail. The sad little illustration and haphazard text that rolls onto the screen when you advance to the next song (or the "special stage" at the end of a cycle of songs) is simultaneously terrible and perfect. This game looks like it was broadcast directly from a second-rate network in Mexico, which fits the lighthearted theme that sets this game apart from the pack. The in-game visuals aren't anything special, but fit the art direction and flavor of the promotional materials and box art. The characters look as you'd imagine they were meant to look, and that's good enough for me.
As is the case with just about any musically-themed game, Amigo lives and dies by its selection of tunes and their application within the game. If the title hadn't already given you any kind of previous inclination, nearly every song in use has a modern southwestern Latin vibe about it, and even the few tracks without a trace of Menudo, maraca or mariachi hardly seem out of place. I don't think there's ever been a collection of music in a game quite like this one, both in terms of the big names involved, and in the way Samba can take a song you've developed a deep, emotional, passionate distaste for and turn it into something you're not only contorting your body to, but singing along with. This may be the one and only forgiveable use remaining on this planet for "The Macarana" or "Tubthumping," both songs for which I've held years of contempt, and both songs with which I've fallen deeply in love while playing this game. The music of Ricky Martin makes more than one appearance on the soundtrack, although it isn't the big man himself on vocals, and (god help me) I love hearing each one of them when that damned monkey is on my television. "Soul Bossa Nova," known a bit more commonly as the theme to Austin Powers is here, and provides one of the most challenging stages in the game. Ska band Reel Big Fish makes an appearance with their cover of the A'ha classic "Take on Me," and Spanish dance troupe Bellini makes an impact with an unmistakably catchy tune dubbed "Samba de Janeiro," which is significantly sped up, remixed and renamed in later levels of the game as "Samba de Amigo." Once everything's been unlocked, you've got probably twenty or twenty five songs, and I don't think I could part with more than one or two of them. After playing through the hideous song selection of Donkey Konga, which featured children singing "Old McDonald Had a Farm" and studio musicians' covers of "We Will Rock You" that made me embarassed to be playing, it's refreshing to hear licensed, relatively recent music performed by the original artists. Ricky Martin's the sole exception to this rule, as apparently Sony (who owns the right's to Martin's music) had a problem with his hits being used to aid the competition, (at the time, the Dreamcast was battling the PlayStation head-on) so a soundalike was brought in to perform "Livin' La Vida Loca," and I honestly didn't notice the difference. It's far from an original soundtrack, obviously, since every last one of these tunes is available commercially elsewhere, but it's an amazing compilation of sound nonetheless. You wouldn't believe how easily you can be coerced into enjoying "Love Lease."
I can't even put into words why this game is such a success, why it's one of my all-time favorites. It's truly something you must experience for yourself, either with maracas or without. It's a fresh gameplay indulgence, alone or with friends, and one of your few chances to fess up to listening to Chumbawumba and Los Del Rio without instantly sacrificing every shred of self-respect you've accumulated through the years. Samba de Amigo is more than a game, it's an experience. It's really unfortunate that it didn't take off, since it was released right around the time DDR was gaining a foothold and Amigo stands up very well with Konami's banner-wielding music games of the day. In the end, the Dreamcast's ultimate fate capped the potential of this one, similar to console brethren Shenmue, Jet Grind Radio and Crazy Taxi, although those three DC success stories have since been granted next-gen sequels. I'm itchin' for a modern dose of Samba even today, years after the original's release, which should speak to its incredible lasting appeal. If you have even a passing interest in the musical genre, it don't get much better than this.
Overall Score: 9.3