MUSECA, I want you to be better

a post on tyronesama.moe

I attended Frosty Faustings last weekend. When I wasn’t busy standing in the snow, or getting DQed from my pool while trying to make sure my collapsed pool runner didn’t die,1 I spent a lot of time at a nearby Round 1, doing all the things one does at a Round 1—getting scammed by the SDVX card generator, discovering why every video of WACCA seems to contain a set of gloves, and poaching abandoned credits from every cabinet I could find.

It’s pretty common for people to just…walk away from arcade games. A dollar or less per play makes it way easier to make a time-versus-money judgement; if you’re not having fun, why stick around when you can walk 3 feet and try something new? Even if your game manages to catch someone’s eye on a crowded, flashy floor, it still has to grab them within seconds, or they’ll walk away and never play again.2 Worse, it has to do this with a player who has potentially zero prior knowledge, teaching them how to play even as it throws them directly into gameplay. Games that are successful in this regard have lines of waiting players. Games that fail have half-finished credits sadly scrolling along.

I see a lot of abandoned credits on MUSECA.

I wasn’t able to take my own video, but I found footage of MUSECA that starts from credit entry. By my count, it takes nearly two minutes for this person to make it from “credit in machine, pressed Start” to “actionable on the song select wheel”. After selecting a song, it launches into another two minutes of tutorial (which takes at least 10 seconds to skip even if you know how). For ~6 minutes of actual gameplay, assuming songs of ~2 minutes, this is hilarious. What the fuck.

Then, when this person finally gets into a song, they drown instantly, stuck on a difficulty that’s way too high for them and a HI-SPEED that’s probably way too slow. I’ve seen the opposite happen, too, where someone picks a difficulty 1 or 2 chart, stifles a snore—these are pretty slow even if you don’t have a rhythm game background—and walks.

MUSECA is probably my favorite BEMANI game. I’m absolutely in love with its upbeat and varied song selection, its sleek visual design, and its lovely brain-bending coordination gimmick; five buttons, all of which rotate around their center for “spin” inputs, and a foot pedal. But MUSECA is sooooooooooo hard to actually play.

how

Okay, so first off, this isn’t 100% fair. A lot of opening cutscenes and menu flow can be skipped if you use an e-AMUSEMENT card…which you can’t actually do anymore, because network support for MUSECA ended some time ago. Hope you enjoy the same intro, same menu tutorials, same interface grind to set up your lane darken and hitsound volume…every single time. But there was at least an option, and for a while, it did work.

The input method here is pretty unconventional. A good amount of the menu flow is taken up by control guides, and simply removing them isn’t possible; for starters, the 5 buttons are completely unlabeled, meaning you can’t get away with displaying something like “press red to select song” in the same way that pop’n music does.3 The ability to spin the buttons is also sort of non-obvious, and each step of the UI has different elements to navigate, so a control guide needs to be displayed for every one.

Even on subsequent trips to song select, since there’s no way to display simple “reminders” in an out-of-the-way location,4 it has to bring up the full control guide again—and it’s unskippable every time, presumably to protect new players from getting impatient with the billion interruptions and trying to mash to gameplay.

A set of dedicated menu buttons might have helped with this, like modern DDR cabinets, but then you risk people making it to gameplay before they know how to spin.5 Some sort of extra cue for “you tried to tap a spin note, stop that” would need to be added, or some kind of gate before your first song where you have to spin a button to proceed (make any required excuse for this).

The tutorial is just too fucking long. Good fucking lord what is going on here. “Here is this note type. I will lock your controls and slow down the game to show you how to hit it. Now I will do this a billion times with giant gaps and voiced interludes. Now you try to do this a billion times.” I’m a dumbass and I can think of, like, 10 ways to structure this better, so I’m sure Konami can think of 500, and most of them are better than my suggestions.

Hell, there are only four note types to explain to begin with, five if you’re playing on higher-level charts; Groove Coaster gets away with explaining more than that in the middle of gameplay, with an extra interstitial listing the note types for the chart you picked, and it’s easy to pick up despite the controls being way weirder and more complicated.6

As for difficulty…I don’t know, is it elitist or exclusionary in some way to say “the easy charts are literally too easy”? This isn’t IIDX, we’re not dealing with outrageously harsh timing and a complex button layout. Most people I’ve seen playing are bored by charts under 4, even if I don’t count friends with rhythm game experience.

I also think Pump it Up kinda gets it right in this regard, requiring an input code or USB save data to see harder difficulties—it’s a little garish, sure, but it does a fantastic job of preventing the player from shooting themselves in the foot, and I think that’s a big part of the reason it’s flourished for so long despite the unfair reputation as “knockoff DDR”. I just got done explaining how IIDX is brutal, but even IIDX starts players without a card in a Beginner folder with a bunch of the game’s easiest charts.7 Bring the floor up a little so people don’t bore themselves to death, then provide a safeguard against people picking hard charts without knowing what they’re getting into.

so are you done being mad yet

Never.

It is eternally frustrating that games I like are punted into the dirt by their own terrible menu flow. Dissidia NT, Quake Champions, and BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle are all worth playing, easily; whether they’re worth waiting to play is a different matter, constantly breaking flow and making continuous games annoying at best.

An arcade floor is a competitive space, where cabinets that perform poorly disappear, and player attention spans are way lower; consider the people who walk away from MUSECA, but happily insist that their favorite JRPG gets good 30 hours in. Almost all the games I can think of with The Downtime Problem, besides MUSECA, are home titles (or at least home ports), where the breaks in flow are often for pointless distractions and bolted-on progression systems. Arcade games typically don’t need or want these things—unless you’re a pencil-pushing accountant concerned with player retention. On that note…

So far I’ve been talking about MUSECA 1+1/2, a title update and rebrand for the original MUSECA. Compare their visuals, and it’s probably not hard to understand why Konami wanted to try again. Besides the obvious “I literally can’t see anything” factor,8 the changes in 1+1/2 included a major gameplay restructure.

Launch MUSECA had a huge emphasis on “Grafica”, unlockable characters from various guest artists—including such baffling cruft as a story mode, complex elemental weakness cycle, and scoring tied to your equipped Grafica. Until 1+1/2, players were forced to suffer through this on every credit; the title update relented, separating all the offending mechanics into an optional Mission mode, but what’s still there hurts the game.

Consider some of the things between you and gameplay;

  • Prompt to swipe your e-AMUSEMENT pass, for saving your progression
  • Credit selection, advertising Konami’s premium currency, “PASELI”, offering faster progression and extra perks (not even available in the US)
  • Long multi-stage cutscene explaining Grafica and the premise of Mission mode
  • Long interstitial explaining the difference between Mission and standard play
  • Control guide explaining where Grafica selection is on song select, even in standard play, for every single song

There’s even an unskippable prompt in the middle of your credit reminding you that you can switch to Mission mode.9 Oh noooooooooo. Konami…

  1. This is a simplification for comedic effect. The staff handled the situation as well as they could and did their best to make it right. Frosty was cool. 

  2. Maybe this is why everyone keeps making redemption games instead. 

  3. Okay, technically you could totally do this just by lighting each button a separate color (it already does this for the “scroll main element” button) but besides accessibility concerns, it would also look ugly as fuck next to literally every other aspect of MUSECA’s visual design—though high-level gameplay, with every button spinning near constantly, does end up looking like this anyway. Oops. 

  4. It tries, but they’re really not intuitive 

  5. If I seem weirdly concerned about this, it’s because it happened to me on my first credit 

  6. Yes, it’s a two-button game compared to MUSECA’s five, but the blind-faith “here’s a squiggly line, hope you can figure out this is for button shakes” is way more erudite than MUSECA’s “THE NOTE IS SPINNING BECAUSE YOU SPIN TO HIT THE NOTE” 

  7. and they still drown 

  8. Don’t even get me started on the speed changes and moving gimmick lanes. 

  9. Though why you’d do this without a card is beyond me, since none of your progression will be saved.