Pop’n Music: Playing Musical Whack-A-Mole With Your Hands

Pop’n Music: Playing Musical Whack-A-Mole With Your Hands

How satisfying does that sound? 9 colorful and clicky dome-shaped buttons in front of you to smash to the beat of quirky music. 

This is the core of one of Konami’s first entries to the “Bemani” series of rhythm games.

Released in Japanese arcades in 1998 at basically the same time that Dance Dance Revolution made its first appearance, Pop’n Music gained early popularity as a game that couples could play together easily on dates, due to the sufficiently large 9 buttons covering a wide play area. 

Each song in the game featured a genre of music (sometimes real, sometimes made up to suit the aesthetic of the character or song), and a cutesy anime-style character that went with the song. During the gameplay, characters would have animations based on how well you (and your partner if applicable) play the song. Recurring genres and characters would follow in the subsequent versions of the game, numbering in the mid-20s as of 2020, as more and more songs piled up.

In the beginning, Pop’n was a rather leisurely, basic game. 

The Road to Button-Smashing Hell, Featuring Bruises

At some point along the way, there was a drastic change of scenery for Pop’n. With Bemani growing in popularity as Beatmania, Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Freaks, and Drummania all flourished, the complexity of each and every one of these games slowly began to rise. While Pop’n retained the same cutesy design aesthetic and principles it was created by, as the player base grew more talented at playing the game, the content would follow suit.

Shortly after Beatmania IIDX began to accelerate at full momentum and go balls to the walls with song difficulty at the highest levels of gameplay, Pop’n Music began to see a similar increase in difficulty. While the game still would retain its appeal towards more casual audiences, content for the hardcore player was inevitable.

The average difficulty rating of songs (On a scale from 1 to 43 in these times) began to jump from the 20s to the 30s as songs around and above level 40 debuted. Around the level 40 level, there was an exponential difficulty curve jump at every single digit of difficulty increase. 42 was the “boss” song level in legacy Pop’n Music throughout the 00’ decade, with level 43 songs often being limited to specific gimmicks and or home versions of the game. Appropriately dubbed “Hell” expert courses awaited the high-level players at the end of each new version’s content release cycle, and an additional timing window became a standard of the game, roughly matching IIDX’s 5 different grades for each individual note. 

The Modern Pop’n difficulty scale has been revamped up to level 50, with the old difficulties gaining 5-7 points in an attempt to adjust them into the new scale. While Beatmania IIDX’s 14 key mode remains the absolute summit of hardcore gameplay in the realm of arcade-based rhythm games, being able to clear level 50 songs in Pop’n comes in at a close second with the number of players able to achieve such outside of Asia likely countable on fingers, making high-level Pop’n one of hardcore gaming’s most challenging cult niches.

You Want to Play Pop’n Music at Home? Maybe you Should Give your Battered Limbs a Rest, you Freak

Official home versions of Pop’n Music’s numerous arcade versions, as well as exclusive home releases, were popular during the Playstation and Playstation 2 eras of gaming, with some other consoles like Dreamcast and even the PSP seeing releases. 

While standard D-pad/button controllers are somewhat if barely suitable, your best bet for massacring your palms and wrists in the comfort of your own home is an arcade-style controller. 

Officially licensed mini controllers, as well as a premium arcade-style controller with a Playstation/Playstation 2 connection was sold by Konami for a period of time around the turn of the century.

Pop’n Music still sees new releases and content updates in the arcade to this day. However, with the death of the Playstation 2, Pop’n Music’s official home releases have long since come to an end. Unlike Beatmania IIDX and Sound Voltex, there has not yet been a modernized PC release for Pop’n. Supposing one day there is, there are already numerous venues where one can purchase a third party arcade style controller.DJ Dao, to name a popular one, makes controllers with an even higher quality standard than the official ones of the Playstation era for a number of rhythm games, Pop’n included. These controllers usually support Playstation and or USB connections and are often used by PC programs that attempt to simulate the Pop’n Music experience. If only there were an official Pop’n release for the PC, the controller options would be absolutely covered.

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