I stayed up until 1:00AM last night guiding a wireframe rabbit through a black-and-white world while listening to quirky Japanese pop music. I played levels multiple times, just to hear a song again, and when I did really good the rabbit danced for me. It's something I'd been waiting more than a decade to experience.
Vib-Ribbon is the brainchild of Masaya Matsuura, a designer best known for his wildly influential rhythm game Parappa the Rapper. Released in 1996 on the original PlayStation, the weird game about a rapping dog helped pioneer the concept of fusing gameplay and music, paving the way for games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Parappa was followed by UmJammer Lammy in 1999, a game about a guitar-playing lamb, and Vib-Ribbon came out later that year — but not for everyone. Vib-Ribbon first launched in Japan, followed by Europe, but never made its way to North America in any official capacity. As a high school student, I never managed to scrounge together the cash to spend $100 or more on an import copy. But yesterday Sony finally released the game here as a download on the PS3 and Vita (a PS4 version is expected later, though no date has been announced).
For $5.99 I was able to experience a 15-year-old game as if it were brand new. And I fell in love.
'Vib-Ribbon' is inscrutable at first
Vib-Ribbon is inscrutable at first. You play as a charmingly animated rabbit walking down a straight line, and eventually obstacles like spikes and ledges start to appear in time to the music. You have to do... something to get past them, but the game never actually tells you what, so those first few minutes are a bit bewildering. Once you figure it out, the core gameplay is pretty simple: there are four different types of obstacles, and you just have to hit the corresponding button to get past it. That means there are only four buttons in the whole game, but that doesn't make things easy, as you still have to worry about keeping in time to the music. It feels remarkably like wielding a guitar in Rock Band, just a lot more abstract. Screw up too often and the rabbit will devolve; first into a frog, and then some sort of worm with a TV for a head. Make too many mistakes and you'll fail the level, but stay perfect long enough and the rabbit will turn into an angel and boost your high score.
The most remarkable thing about Vib-Ribbon is that, as someone who has never played it before, it feels to me completely fresh despite being released three console generations ago. A lot of this has to do with the minimalist visual style, which almost makes it feel like a modern indie release. The graphics are a bit jaggy, sure, but infused with so much personality that it's fun to just watch the rabbit jump around. When you get a high score, it sings you a little song. It's absolutely adorable. The soundtrack is equally fantastic, with six quirky pop songs from Japanese band Laugh & Smile. The songs fluctuate between genres, and I've found myself replaying levels multiple times just to hear them again.
The "one that got away"
One of Vib-Ribbon's defining features back in 1999 was the ability to generate new levels based on your music. You could swap in a music CD after the game had loaded, and the songs would be turned into new stages to play through, giving Vib-Ribbon a virtually never-ending supply of content. That feature is still available in the PS3 version but obviously you can't swap a CD in your Vita. That limits the portable version of the game to just six songs; still, the Vita might be my favorite way to play, and it doesn't hurt that each of those six songs is fantastic. There's just something about holding the device in your hands, close to your face, with a nice pair of headphones, that makes it ideal for music games.
It's why I love titles like Sound Shapes and Hohokum so much, games I boot up every now and then just to listen to certain songs as I would with a favorite album. Vib-Ribbon is now part of that list. It's technically 15 years old but, for me, it came out yesterday. When announcing the downloadable version of Vib-Ribbon, SCEA president and CEO Shawn Layden called it the "one that got away," describing his disappointment that the game never made it to North America when it first launched.
Luckily for me, it didn't stay away forever.