From touchscreen jams like Deemo and VOEZ to the button-based beats of Thumper and Dark Witch Music Episode: Rudymical, the Switch has already assembled an impressive collection of music games in its first year, and that trend doesn’t look set to end anytime soon. Superbeat: Xonic is the latest début to hit the system, coming from Korean developer Nurijoy of DJMax fame. Ported over after its earlier appearances on the Vita and PlayStation 4, it’s absolutely worth another spin on the Switch; though some unfortunate control issues (especially with the touchscreen) hold it back from going platinum, Xonic is still a chart-topping music game experience and an easy recommendation for rhythm fans.
If you’re familiar with its DJMax pedigree, you’ll recognise Superbeat’s same singular, arcade-like focus right from the start. There’s no story or larger setup to rationalise the rhythm action; Xonic is all about the music, and that music is made up of a stellar selection of bespoke beats from Korean and Japanese composers. The soundtrack lays a rock-solid foundation for the rhythm game ahead, running the gamut from house and vocal pop to jazz, techno, trance, samba, dubstep and virtuosic metal over its nearly 70 tracks. It’s a wide variety of genres, but tends towards dancefloor-friendly anthems, which gives it a sense of club-ready cohesion — in fact, more than anything, the stylistic mix reminded us of classic Dance Dance Revolution or Beatmania sets, and that’s high praise.
The gameplay takes after the classics as well; it’s pure tap-along action, with charts presented in a tunnel-like setup. Notes flow outwards from the centre of the screen in discrete tracks, and as they pass over the outer edges of a circle you’ll need to hit the appropriate button on the beat. The easier ‘4track’ mode divides the circle into two lanes per side, so that lower notes are hit with the D-Pad ‘Down’ or the ‘B’ button and high notes with D-Pad ‘Left/Up’ or ‘A/X’, while the harder ’6track’ mode splits each half of the circle into three, making for an easy low-medium-high mapping of D-Pad ‘Down-Left-Up’ on the left side and ‘B-A-X’ on the right. As you might imagine, the Switch’s discrete D-Pad buttons make this arrangement work beautifully. You can also play Xonic with the touchscreen, and while we have some issues with the touch controls — more on that later — it feels incredibly natural to play in tablet mode with the Joy-Con detached.
In addition to plain notes, which only require a single tap, there are also held notes (where you’ll hold down the button for the duration), flick notes (where you’ll flick the left or right analogue stick up or down), and slide notes (where you’ll hold the left or right analogue stick in the direction shown for the duration). The hardest ‘6trackFX’ mode adds ‘FX notes’ (which you’ll hit with the ‘L’ or ‘R’ buttons) to the mix, and on all three difficulties you’ll have linked notes, which need to be hit or held at the same time on opposite sides of the circle.
There’s a lot going on, then, but Superbeat balances its large number of note types by being quite forgiving in terms of timing. It’s a welcome leniency that allows for long combos with plenty of moving parts, and it feels fantastic when it gets going. The charts are exciting and imaginative, with lots of call-and-response and movement between the two sides. They tend not to focus exclusively on the main melodic or vocal line, but rather on providing an accompanying rhythm, which means your taps, flicks, and slides can slot into the music in all sorts of beautiful ways, with rhythmic echoes and syncopation galore. It’s far from easy, but mastering tough sections after repeated play is an absolute joy, and one of the most satisfying rhythm game experiences we’ve come across.
Superbeat: Xonic also does an excellent job of building up as it goes, as different note types and patterns present themselves organically as you work your way through its two interlinked modes. The first mode, ‘Stage’, consists of three levels in sequence. After choosing your difficulty (4trax, 6trax, or 6traxFX), in each level, you’ll be able to pick a song to play from a subset of the total, with later stages offering more difficult songs. You’ll be graded and scored on each song, depending on your timing and combo, and also for the run as a whole, with your performance earning you ‘XP’ to raise your DJ level.
It’s a great system that feels halfway between the full-songlist freedom of rhythm games like VOEZ and the sequential gating of others (like Hatsune Miku: Project Diva X). It always gives you a choice in what you play, but it nudges you towards trying harder songs when you’re ready, making for a natural difficulty curve that helps improve your skills as you go. You’ll also unlock new songs, button sounds and DJ Icons as you level up, which creates a nice feedback loop — DJ Icons grant bonuses when they’re equipped, such as XP multipliers, health boosts, and shields to protect against dropped combos, and so helpfully let you try out harder songs without failing before you’d otherwise be ready.
DJ Icons are also a godsend in Xonic’s second main mode, the mission-based World Tour. In World Tour, you’ll bring your DJ skills to different ‘nightclubs’ around the globe — there are 14 in all, unlocked as you level up — each of which will have three in-house challenges to test your prowess. These missions could feature a single song or a string of several, and involve clearing specific goals as you play: holding down a hundred-note combo, or missing fewer than five notes, for instance. To make things trickier they can also add in handicaps to the mix, like note fading in or out, random patterns, or a brain-melting mirror mode.
As you might expect, these get very difficult very fast, and while DJ Icon superpowers can help quite a bit, memorising charts will make the biggest difference on harder levels. There’s Free Play available for practice, but we actually found that that chart familiarity came quite naturally by bouncing back and forth between the main modes — if a mission song was giving us fits from fade-in, choosing it on a few runs through Stage play was usually all it took. Alternating between Stage and World Tour, unlocking songs in the former and challenges in the later as you go, it’s easy to happily lose hours at a time jamming out to Xonic without feeling the least bit bored, and global leaderboards are there to help quantify your rise to the top.
We love Superbeat: Xonic’s rhythm gameplay and satisfying sense of challenge, but some unfortunate control issues also get in its way from time to time. One of these is down to the system itself, and you may have already guessed it reading about the use of analogue sticks above: the Switch’s asymmetrical controller layout, with the left stick above the D-Pad buttons and the right stick below the face buttons, can be tricky to reconcile with their triggers’ symmetrical placement in Xonic’s charts, originally designed with the PlayStation Vita & DualShock 4 layouts in mind.
This asymmetry isn’t just a conceptual problem, either. Because of where both sticks fall in your hands, the right Switch stick can be flicked up or down without moving your thumb from the face buttons, but the left one requires a reach away from the D-Pad buttons, and in quicker sections with lots going on, that extra split-second can make a difference. Slide notes make the gap even more apparent, and while playing with separated Joy-Con or using a ‘claw’ formation with our second finger on the left stick helped a bit, neither of these were complete fixes. Still, your milage may vary, and while we flubbed more flick and slide notes than we’d have liked on harder songs, it didn’t dampen our overall enjoyment of the game.
More of an issue, unfortunately, is that the flick, slide, and hold notes seem susceptible to dropped inputs when using the touchscreen controls. Fairly frequently, we’d have flicks fail to catch (especially the second or third of a few in quick succession), or slide/hold notes stop registering in the middle of their path, even with a finger still in place on the screen. It’s unpredictable but not infrequent, and when it pops up in the middle of a long combo it’s deeply frustrating. The Switch’s stick placement can be thought of as an extra bit of challenge, surmountable with skill, but randomly dropped inputs are a real problem in a rhythm game where precision is key.
It’s disappointing, especially because in other ways Xonic seems made to be played on the Switch’s touchscreen — the screen is the perfect size to be held without Joy-Con and played comfortably with two thumbs, and the inputs are certainly easier to conceptualise in terms of touch than the (wonderfully fun!) “Bop It”-style gymnastics of the button controls. But as much as we enjoyed playing in tablet mode, dropped inputs meant we couldn’t get anywhere near our best scores without buttons.
Similarly, it’s a real shame that there’s no touchscreen mapping for the FX notes; they can only be hit with the ‘L’ & ‘R’ shoulder buttons. That means to play 6traxFX in touch mode, you need to keep the JoyCon on, which requires either reaching over them to play with your thumbs or using fingers instead, neither of which are elegant (or winning!) solutions.
Control issues aside, Xonic otherwise feels supremely polished, and it’s a beautifully presented game. It looks lovely both on the big screen and in handheld mode, with song-specific visualisations providing a soft-focus backdrop behind the appealingly colourful charts. The effect lends a surprisingly different feel to each song — from strobed techno and multicolour rave palettes to sun-drenched pop tones — but is subtle enough to avoid readability issues. Several smaller visual details reinforce that focus as well, including thorough colour-coordination of note types and concurrent hits being highlighted and outlined. Our sole complaint is that the art cards which introduce each song go by much too quickly — a downside of quick load times! — and it would be nice to be able to view them elsewhere to appreciate the personality they bring to each piece. Finally, while the load times are commendably quick, it’s worth mentioning that Xonic takes up around 7GB of your Switch’s potentially precious storage space — that’s seven times the footprint of VOEZ, which packs in several times the tunes.
With a club-ready soundtrack and brilliant rhythm gameplay, Superbeat: Xonic is an excellent addition to the Switch’s growing music game hit parade. It’s stylish, fun, and challenging in all the right ways, and does a great job easing players into its frenetic charts with forgiving timing and balanced progression. Some frustrating touch-control issues mean that VOEZ or Deemo are better bets for touchscreen tunes, but if you’re onboard with button-based beats, Xonic is a super choice.