I’m hardly what you’d call an accomplished dancer. I’ve always preferred an evening in a decent pub or a good gig to jigging around till the wee hours in an overpriced club. And at family weddings you’ll find me nearer the buffet than the dance floor.
But, rather perversely, I’ve always been partial to a good rhythm-based game. Show me an obscure Japanese rhythm action title like Gitaroo Man or Rhythm Tengoku and I’ll be there, ready to swing my digital hips to the J-Pop beat.
Other than Guitar Hero, the mobile platforms have been a little neglected when it comes to funky gameplay, and the N-Gage service hasn’t even had a whiff of the action. So here’s Dance Fabulous to get you up on your feet like a tipsy aunt at an anniversary bash.
Much has been made of the lengths the developers at Nokia has gone to in order to make Dance Fabulous special - they’ve hired motion capture experts, budding pop stars and even that crazy-looking one out of the Eurythmics. No, not Annie Lennox. The other one.
So the biggest surprise is how beautifully simple Dance Fabulous is. Rather than the Yes-style prog-rock epic we might have expected given the number of players involved, Nokia has come up with a sweet Beatles pop song - catchy as hell and accessible to all.
Worthy of first mention is the gorgeous title screen, which comes with a simple vertically scrolling menu, each item of which sounds out a single note to form a little ditty while you skim through your options. Without realising it, you’re playing with music and tempo before you’ve even started the game.
It’s an approach that informs the rest of the game. After designing your own dancer from a simple Mii-like interface, or just going with a VIP default, you can head on into the game proper. Here you tap along to the rhythm of your selected track, with various combinations on the thumb-pad initiating different dance moves.
When you consider that there are dozens of moves per style, and that there's a number of different styles to unlock, you’ll perhaps realise the potential for self expression. Especially considering the extremely relaxed game structure underpinning it all.
You see, there are no strict quotas to be met in Dance Fabulous. In fact, the only hint of precision gameplay is restricted to special Challenge sections initiated by good dancing (more on that later). Otherwise, it’s up to you to dance how you like. Of course, you are awarded points for maintaining a strong rhythm, but just as important is simply mixing things up.
Repeat a string of moves too many times and the game will tell you to loosen up and will withhold points, encouraging you to explore some of the more elaborate button combinations. While this free and easy approach is commendable, the side effect is that the dancing system is ever so slightly vague, and the precise nature of what the game classes as ‘Good rhythm’ is ill defined.
The Challenge sections mentioned earlier also suffer from a lack of rhythm. During these sections, a string of button prompts streams down the screen, requiring you to match them at the appropriate point.
While this is excellent fun, and gets very challenging the more you play the game, you get the impression that there’s little correlation between the commands and the beat of the track playing in the background.
Still, complaining about a lack of hardcore rhythm action is rather missing the point. Dancing is only half of the Dance Fabulous experience. The other, as the title suggests, is being fabulous (darling).
This game wants you to succeed, so even the dodgiest of performances will award you experience points. As you reach certain (eminently achievable) milestones, you’ll unlock new hairstyles, new clothes and accessories. You’ll even unlock VIP dancers with their own unique styles.
As you unlock more of these trinkets, your options increase in the ‘Create a Dancer’ mode. You’ll find that you can tweak your avatar to within an inch of its life, moulding not only its appearance but the very dance moves it can pull off.
You can even customise the soundtrack, as one of Dance Fabulous’s best features is the ability to incorporate your own tracks into the mix. Admittedly, this is facilitated by the game’s somewhat loose hold on the notion of rhythm, but being able to interpret the solo output of Brian Eno via the medium of hip-hop dancing has undoubtedly been one of the more memorable experiences of my gaming year.
This structure of constant reward and customisation is the same kind of mechanic found in many of the most compelling video games of recent years, from The Sims to Pokemon to Call of Duty 4. And while Dance Fabulous doesn’t really belong in such stellar company, it does deserve to reach a similarly broad audience.
Sure, the cute styling, easygoing play and chintzy accessorising is arguably going to appeal to a female ‘tweenie’ audience first and foremost.
But with such superb production values (possibly the best on N-Gage), a refreshingly open-ended game mechanic and a compelling drip-feed of unlockables, anyone with an open mind and a sense of fun should overcome their British reserve and get dancing. Preferably fabulously.