A truly Epic Enterprise.
Groove Coaster is a rhythm game flourishing in a wonderful visual style with similarly energetic and sugary electronic music that’s also a lot simpler to play than it initially seems. Having started life as an iOS game, it soon migrated to arcade where its game design truly shined and proudly displayed all of its strengths. Now that we’re finally graced with it on PC, considering how different of an approach gameplay would end up being (moving from phone to cabinet to keyboard/controller), does it manage to stick the transition?
For the most part, it does! Instead of tapping a screen or using the cabinet’s boosters, you can simply press corresponding keys/buttons on different sides of whatever you’re using to play to hit notes. Players must hit many types of notes, such as holds, directional notes (or slides), dual notes, scratches (wiggling a booster back and forth, or in this case, mashing two different buttons on the same side), beats (rapidly hitting different boosters), and variations thereof on some of these. While it’s a lot to take in at first, gameplay becomes intuitive pretty quickly, feeling enthralling as you learn to master what Groove Coaster tries to throw at you.
Groove Coaster‘s soundtrack is an absolute delight. The nature of the game suits it best for fast and blood-pumping dance music of all kinds, with many different genres represented. It’s not just limited to electronic music either, with a few rock songs sprinkled into the mix that help appeal to a wider audience than those into loud EDM. Artists represented in the game aren’t going to be that well-known to those who aren’t already following Groove Coaster or Bemani‘s numerous rhythm games. This isn’t an issue, as each song has its own flavor and identity, with even slower or mid-tempo songs in the mix. These help ease you into the game and the kind of music you can expect to encounter, and a lot of them are great in their own right. As every song is bite-sized, even the few songs that feel like filler are over quickly.
The game encourages playing at your own pace, with 32 of the game’s 36 songs being unlocked to play right from the start. In order to play a song’s higher difficulties however, you need to clear lower difficulties, an obvious holdover from the iOS version of the game. This allows you to learn a song and get accustomed to the game, although this can become an annoyance as you get better at the game. Considering how vital it can be to not only learn a song’s chart, but its course as well, this isn’t too much of a drawback in the long run.
Charts gradually get harder with each difficulty, trickier combinations or note types being introduced, which often forces you to change your approach to any given song. This introduces a weird quirk with some songs however. Throughout a song, notes don’t just correspond to synths or keys; they can also be mapped to a song’s percussion, as well as its vocals. Higher difficulties can often be more difficult than a song’s lower difficulties may indicate due to mapping notes across multiple instruments. On the flip-side, lower difficulties can end up being harder at points due to odd instances of undercharting, or having you play along to another instrument in a jarring manner because of undercharting. This isn’t a persistent issue, and the added challenge on higher difficulties often keeps songs fresh to play, while any weird undercharting is rare enough to be nothing more than minor bumps when learning the game.
One of Groove Coaster’s most dazzling and creative features by far has always been its song courses, still just as wonderfully realized on PC as they are on phone or arcade. The course line twists, turns, and zags as you play; the background shifts in color and intensity to match certain parts of the song; the camera can pull in and out on your icon flawlessly in certain sections. As someone who gets nauseous easily during intense or vividly-colored sections of movies or games, I’ve never felt sick playing Groove Coaster for Steam. Even during the over-the-top or indulgent moments of a course, everything still feels comfortable to take in, and I didn’t have to worry about songs becoming incomprehensible. It’s dazzling, even making songs being played for the 50th time a rush.
Unfortunately, Groove Coaster has a few prominent flaws. With 36 songs, there’s not much diversity. Songs rarely break the 2:30 mark, meaning you’ll go through nearly all the content in the game real quickly. While the soundtrack as a whole is pretty great for someone who is generally into fast and hard electronic music, if you’re not, the game can become more of a chore than anything else. Coupled with an inability to restart songs (you need to quit to the song select screen and then find the song you were currently playing, if it wasn’t your last completed song), and the game starts to feel like a grind if you don’t pace yourself.
This issue is most prevalent in how the game handles leaderboards. Your position on a song’s leaderboards is determined on the cumulative score you have across every difficulty on said song. If you’re looking to edge out a few more points, you will inevitably run into the issue of restarting a song over and over again, meaning you’ll lose more time than you’d like to simply navigating the menus repeatedly. Even if you accidentally pick the wrong difficulty of a song, you’ll still have to navigate back to the song you’re playing just to pick the right difficulty. True, completing the song you want to grind first is one way to circumvent a chunk of pointless menu navigation, but it still isn’t preferable to a restart option, and makes the game more of a hassle than it should be.
However, the biggest problem Groove Coaster has by far is a lack of feedback on how well you’re actually doing. It’s never quite easy to tell when you’re hitting a note accurately and when you’re a little off, especially as you get into faster and more difficult songs. You can adjust the calibration in the settings, but because it’s all manual, and that there’s no way to accurately get the calibration you want without a lot of trial and error, doing well in the game can require you spend a number of runs simply getting a feel for whether or not your calibration is good. Even then, that won’t always be the case as calibration can only be adjusted in half-seconds. This will generally work, but incredibly fast charts can’t be accounted for in this way, making the process an uphill battle.
This can result in the most difficult songs of the whole game being a pain to go through under the worst circumstances. Hitting weirdly-sequenced charts, nailing dual slides, or even hitting a bunch of fast notes can be a challenge if you’re still not sure you have the best calibration settings, and no way to tell how accurate you’re being. This makes aiming for certain ranks or even clears on the hardest songs an uphill battle. Pair this with the lack of a restart option, and the late game can end up more tedious than anything else.
Even through all of its negatives, no flaw has kept me from diving into Groove Coaster again and again. I’ve consistently wanted to learn all of its tricks and persistently get better at it. From the aesthetics and layout to how it feels to play, everything about it is wonderfully addictive. While best played in short bursts, I can’t help but go back to it for long sessions, chipping away at my scores again and again and having a blast for most of it. Despite the issues it has, I can’t help but adore it all the same when the positives heavily outweigh the negatives.