To those who know her, she needs no introduction: Hatsune Miku is a star. To those who don't, she definitely requires some explanation: Hatsune Miku is a 'virtual idol' and the world's most popular Vocaloid, a personification of a software synthesizer given background, personality, and a constant stream of songs to sing by composers and fans around the world. She's performed in real-life concerts (via hologram), had #1 singles, and starred in a hugely successful series of rhythm games by SEGA, now making its Western Nintendo début on the 3DS with Project Mirai DX. It's a fantastic title and a perfect place to jump on the bandwagon; with wonderful music, fun, varied gameplay, and a whole host of extras to keep you playing, Miku's latest deserves heavy rotation in any rhythm fan's playlist.
Like other Hatsune Miku games, Project Mirai DX features Miku and several of her synthesizer friends - including Rin, Len, Luka, Meiko, Kaito, and newcomer Gumi - on vocals, as you guide them through different tracks in familiar rhythm game fashion. You'll follow an on-screen chart as a circle moves across a line with coloured symbols on it, and try to time your taps with the moment the circle hits each note - the closer you are to perfect, the more points you'll get, and keeping up a string of well-timed hits lets you rack up combos for even higher scores.
The twist here - in addition to the characters' chibi appearances, based on their Nendoroid figures - is that Project Mirai DX offers two distinct ways to play, with both Button and Tap modes available. In Button Mode players use the 3DS' face buttons - two buttons on Easy, three on Normal, and all four on Hard - to tap and hold notes, hitting the D-Pad for occasional directional inputs on a second note stream, and spinning the Circle Pad while holding down a face button for 'Rainbow' notes. In Tap Mode, players tap on different coloured sections of the touchscreen - one on Easy mode, two on Normal, and three on Hard - to hit regular and held notes, flick the stylus in a given direction for 'Swipe' notes, and spin the stylus, Ouendan-style, for Rainbow notes.
Both modes are a blast to play, with fun patterns and plenty of the the precision-performance-based rush that fuels the finest rhythm games. Best of all, each mode feels completely distinct from the other. Button Mode takes full advantage of the parallel D-Pad notes for background vocals and harmonies, and the hardest charts have a "pat-your-stomach-rub-your-head" feel as you trade off holding directions, hitting face buttons, and vice-versa in time. In Tap Mode, meanwhile, the physical space between touchpad areas feels makes Mirai feel more like an arcade music game, and the stylus is a perfect fit for franticly tapping out quick, complicated rhythms. While you're likely to pick a favourite and run with it, it's fantastic to have both; after finishing every track with buttons, we went back through using the stylus, and it felt like having a whole new game to play.
The three difficulty levels scale well in both modes too, with Easy letting anyone enjoy the music, and Hard matching the vocal rhythms nearly note-for-note, making for tricky scores that let you feel like you're really playing through the song instead of simply tapping along to it. Also, while very few songs will present veteran rhythm gamers with any real chance of failing, even on Hard, the grading for each note is seriously strict, so that getting all 'Cool's - the only way to 100% a song - on any one chart is a massive challenge. Six of the toughest tracks also feature unlockable 'Super Hard' variants - one of which did give us quite a few 'Game Over' screens, never mind keeping up a combo! - so even experienced players will get to test their skills.
No matter which mode and difficulty you play on, one thing that stands out in Project Mirai's music gameplay is the note paths themselves. Rather than proceeding in a straight line (ala some modes in Theatrhythm) or coming in from all directions (as in the Project Diva games), the notes in each song follow a bespoke path that's thoughtfully integrated with the music and video behind it. In 'Deep Sea Girl', for instance, the track line sinks slowly down the left side of the screen as our heroine falls through the sea, undulates from left to right while she's on the seafloor, and bursts upwards at a frantic angle as she heads for the surface in the song's finale. Even smaller touches - like the chorus of 'Clover Club' arcing out a four-leaf pattern over several measures, or 'Cendrillon''s twin tracks twisting closer together as the vocalists dance through the duet - raise a smile, and feel like little easter eggs to find as you play; it's a great integration of gameplay, music and each song's story.
Of course, the best patterns and most engaging gameplay couldn't carry a rhythm game without music, and thankfully Project Mirai DX's playlist is absolutely top-notch. There are 48 full-length songs here, and almost all are catchy and fun, with a variety to the selection that goes well beyond what you might initially think of as 'Vocaloid music'. There's plenty of technopop and J-rock, of course, but you'll also find lounge jazz, chiptunes, and club beats alongside operatic ballads, downtempo electronica and '60s samba. It's an eclectic, melodic mix that feels like a natural set thanks to the unifying vocal stylings provided by Miku and her friends, and - for our money - it's the strongest setlist in any localized Hatsune Miku game to date.
The music videos behind these beats are impressive spectacles in and of themselves, too, with Miku and company dressing up in period costumes and over-the-top outfits to deliver some surprisingly stylish performances. Since you won't be able to really admire these videos while you're playing, there's a handy Theatre mode that lets you watch the video of any song you've cleared at your leisure - you can even jam along to your heart's content using the 3DS' buttons, and leave timestamped text and emoji comments at specific spots in the video, Niconico style.
And if you think you can do better than the videos provided, Project Mirai's Dance Studio lets you choreograph your own routine to any song in the game. This can be as involved as you'd like it to be - you can freestyle in Simple Mode, dancing along by hitting buttons as the song plays, or really get into the groove in Advanced, sequencing individual dance steps to each measure of the music. There are over a hundred moves to bust in total, with new ones unlocked as you play through the main game, and while it's not as robust as something like Project Diva f's Edit Mode, it definitely scratches the creative itch - we happily spent the better part of an hour tweaking a routine to 'Tricolor Airline'.
You won't have to keep all that creative choreography to yourself, either; Project Mirai DX has a fun StreetPass feature that lets you swap profile cards with other players, and in addition to customizing your cards with unlockable poses, backgrounds, accents, and taglines, you can also choose to send along your dance routines, video comments, and a personal tune composed via simple synthesizer software. As an especially nice extra, your collected cards will actually update after-the-fact via SpotPass, so you'll have reason to keep checking back as your fellow superstars climb the charts.
Elsewhere, Project Mirai's creative streak continues into the 'My Room' component, which serves as the frame for the entire game. When you first make your way to Mirai Town, you'll pick a Vocaloid character to be your partner, and your companion will then rent out a 3D room on the top screen of the main menu. You can select from several apartment styles - and swap houses and partners at any time - and can then set to decorating your new friend's space as you see fit.
As you play through the rhythm game, you'll earn Mirai Points, which you can spend on a massive catalogue of furniture and fun items to decorate, from instruments and plants to arcade machines, stuffed animals, and vintage SEGA memorabilia, including OpaOpa and Sonic the Hedgehog toys (in-game description: "Gotta go fast!"). Taking full advantage of the Nendoroid license, Mirai DX even sports a lineup of real-life Miku figures to collect, so if weren't quick enough to get in a preorder for Snow Miku 2015 before the scalpers swept them all up, you can still pad out your dream shelf in Project Mirai. Decorating is limited to a few predetermined 'slots', so there's much less freedom here than in Animal Crossing, for instance, but it's still fun to rearrange the room and make it your own.
In a time-honoured tradition of Miku music games, you can also play dress-up with your Vocaloids, unlocking new options for use both in-home and in-song by purchasing outfits with Mirai Points and hitting certain milestones in-game. Most of these are costumes worn by the characters in music videos, but there are also several based on figure designs and a few special ensembles to unlock, with lots of fun, creative designs. It's no Style Savvy, but there's still a surprising amount of options in Miku's closet - you can mix and match clothing and hairstyles, too, and with 40+ of each for Miku alone, you can make plenty of cool, original outfits.
Along with dress-up and decorating, you can also interact directly with your partner through the 'Hang Out' option. It's another long-standing staple of SEGA's Vocaloid games, but it's handled especially well here, with no touchscreen 'petting' in sight. You can speak to Miku and friends using simple voice commands, offer them food and drinks purchased from the Mirai Mall, and even play 'Mikuversi', a Vocaloid-themed version of the classic tile-flipping boardgame which, as it turns out, Miku is much better at than we are.
If you rack up enough Mirai Points in the rhythm game, you can even take your Vocaloid partner on holiday, by renting out either a penthouse suite or island villa - both enormous, luxury living spaces that add in slots for new types of furniture and decorations - for a real-world week. The limited time of these events make them feel like special occasions, and each getaway carries plenty of new activities and animations, so while we fully acknowledge the absurdity of the following sentence: we definitely enjoyed taking our anthropomorphized synthesizer on a digital vacation.
Speaking of vacations, Project Mirai DX also somewhat unexpectedly marks the end of Puyo Puyo's extended holiday from the West, by including a mini-game rendition of the match-four puzzle classic. Puyo Puyo 39 - so called in reference to an alternate pronunciation of the Japanese characters in Miku's name - features five stages of progressively more difficult Puyo-popping action, where you'll go head-to-head against the computer - or a friend, if they have a copy of the game - on one of three difficulty levels. The gameplay is based on the Puyo Puyo Tsu rules, and is as addicting as ever - if you played a localized version in Mean Bean Machine or Kirby's Avalanche back in the day, you'll feel right at home here. Best of all, it's all wrapped up in a heavy dose of Miku-infused charm; 3D character models (optionally) pop-out to celebrate combos or lament losses, the background music is made up of randomly selected songs from the game, and you can choose between Mirai or old-school Puyo shapes - doing well will even unlock some Puyo-themed outfits for Miku and friends. It really is an amazing extra; Puyo Puyo is one of the best battle-puzzlers out there, and we've already sunk several hours into this mode alone.
Finally, true to Miku's superstar status, Project Mirai DX's presentation is polished to a sheen. The graphics are lovely, bright and colourful, and the stereoscopic 3D is put to great use keeping the note charts distinctly on top of everything else. The interface is insanely customizable as well; you can change designs and colours for the button prompts, rearrange and recolour the touchscreen panels, adjust the size and speed of circles in the note paths, and individually show or hide a host of on-screen indicators. We're also big fans of how Miku's Nendoroid-inspired design works in-game; not only is it cute, it also lends Project Mirai a sunny, lighthearted feel throughout, and ensures any melodrama in the music videos is tempered by the Vocaloids' comically large heads on their chibi 3D bodies.
On the aural side of the equation, audio quality is excellent - a good pair of headphones is a must! - and the sound can be customized as much as the visuals; you can choose different sounds for each button or touch panel type on every individual song, and adjust music, sound effects, button press, and voice volumes independently.
Our sole complaints with Mirai's presentation are some conspicuous load-times between menus - less frequent than those in the Project Diva games, but also not accompanied by awesome fan-art - and the absence of any lyric translations. Brief descriptions give you the basic gist for each song, but the lyrics are almost exclusively in Japanese, and since Project Diva f 2nd provided optional English subtitles, it would have been nice to see them here too. These are minor quibbles, however, and on the whole, Project Mirai's presentation is sparkling.
With pitch-perfect gameplay and an excellent, expansive tracklist, Project Mirai DX is a must-play for Miku and music game fans alike. Its rhythm game core is inspired and addictive, the presentation is charming and fun, and there's no shortage of activities to keep you happily busy between songs, with dress-up, interior decorating, choreography, and a full-on Puyo Puyo mode all providing enjoyable distractions from the dancefloor. As a complete package, Project Mirai DX puts on a virtuoso performance that easily stands alongside Curtain Call, HarmoKnight, and Rhythm Thief as one of the 3DS' greatest hits.