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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Review: Hatsune Miku Project Diva Mega39 (Nintendo Switch)


Review by Matt S.

I love Hatsune Miku. I know that’s stating the obvious, and anyone reading DigitallyDownloaded.net knows just how much I really, really love Hatsune Miku, but as far as I'm concerned, a Miku game really has been the one missing gap in the Nintendo Switch’s otherwise stellar library. This console has given me some much of just about everything I like: JRPGs, rhythm games, narrative driven art things, right through to games that exist almost exclusively to provide fan service. I'd never complain about what is there. But until now it has lacked that all-important Miku experience. Thankfully the wait has been worth it. Hatsune Miku Project Diva Mega39 is exactly what I wanted on my Switch.


In basic terms, Mega39 is Project Diva Future Tone from the PlayStation 4, with about half the tracklist, but with the addition of a new visual engine for rendering Miku and the other vocaloids, and one or two tiny additional features, such as the option to play with motion controls and a t-shirt decorating mode where you can create basic decors for the characters to wear in-game. There's a fair amount to unpack there, so to run through those in reverse order:

The Switch-specific features don’t mean that much, truth be told. The motion controls work, but the basic button inputs are better and, having spent (well) over 1,000 hours playing Miku games now, playing any other way feels deeply counter-intuitive. I’m sure that there are a couple of newer players that will end up preferring the motion controls, but they’re more a gimmick than a valuable edition to the property. The T-shirt creator is far too fiddly and simplistic to produce anything but silliest of scrawls, without spending an awful lot of time and patience in there. It’s a bit of fun to play with briefly, but no t-shirt design you come up with is going to replace your favourite costume from the dozens upon dozens that you can play dress up with.


The new visual engine, however, is a big bonus on the Nintendo Switch. Project Diva Future Tone was a console-perfect port of the arcade rhythm game that has been around for almost as long as Miku herself. As such, while it’s aesthetically gorgeous (and far be it for me to ever say a bad thing about my absolute favourite game of all time), the character models in there do have a "Barbie Doll" sheen that was due for a refresh. With Mega39, the character designs are given a more modern anime look, and while the impact it has is subtle, it is significant to the overall impression that it leaves on players.

Most notably, it makes sure that Mega39 looks gorgeous in handheld. The resolution drops a few notches undocked, and when zoomed out is noticeably fuzzy, but for any close up, Mega39’s character models are crisp, clean, and a significant step up on anything we’ve seen in previous mobile Miku titles. Were SEGA to stick with the "Barbie Doll" look, I suspect it would have looked like a fuzzy mess at all times, as that look really does need a high resolution to have the right impact. When such a significant amount of a Miku game’s appeal is wrapped up in how much fun it is to play dress-up and mix and match characters, costumes, and stages, Mega39 needed to look good, and it delivers to brief. Given the overall complexity of dance routines, the quality of animation and character models cements this as one of the better looking Switch titles out there.

Finally, there's the condensed track list. This is where people will complain, no doubt, as half of a previous game’s track list does seem like a step back in terms of raw content, particularly when there’s a season pass to further sell another 36 or so tracks, and also given that it’s the same basic game, with the same video clips, the same dance routines, and the same characters and costumes. To look at it another way, however, the track list is also almost as extensive as all three PlayStation Vita Miku games combined, and dwarfs what was on offer with the Project Mirai title on 3DS. Furthermore, the track list really does operate as a “best of,” and with only a passing few notable exceptions, all your favourite hits are going to be in there, and the ones left off are the ones you never played anyway. I do personally believe that Future Tone’s track list was excessive, and at 110 or so tracks now (and counting), Mega39 has more than enough content to be worth well over its asking price.


The appeal of Hatsune Miku

I almost wish that Mega39 was my first Hatsune Miku title, so I could be completely blown away with it all over again. The only real criticisms that you can level at Mega39 have to do with comparing it to previous titles. In isolation, this is, by some leagues, the best rhythm game on Nintendo Switch, and it all has to do with its titular lead character.


Most rhythm games are both esoteric and highly abstracted. Even those that have some kind of effort to provide players with mascots to enjoy as part of the experience, such as Groove Coaster or Taiko the Drum, can’t quite compare to what Miku offers players. Where all of those games have a limited visual design that allows players to focus on the rhythm game action itself, Mega39 instead behaves like a music video show, with the rhythm game action superimposed over video clips of Miku and her friends dancing away like there's no tomorrow.

Truth be told, way back on the PlayStation Vita when I first played a Miku game, this creative decision both confused and frustrated me. When I wanted to concentrate on the rhythm game, there would be all kinds of stuff happening in the background that would distract me, causing me to make mistakes. Admittedly that was generally my fault because I can never resist dressing Miku up in a swimsuit and… Miku in a swimsuit does distract me a great deal, but nonetheless it struck me as fundamentally at odds with the gameplay design elements.


Many years and hundreds of hours of play later I’ve become quite good at these games, often despite myself (I still dress Miku up in swimsuits…), and now I fully embrace the aesthetics and energy that these clips bring. A big part of it is the knowledge that in so many ways, Miku is crowdsourced. The vocaloid music software is so cheap that anyone can pick it up, and while the stuff in the game is the high-end, highly skilled stuff that almost no one would be able to create just by shoving the software on their PCs and noodling around, the creation of music using Miku is nonetheless a community activity, made by people whose only buy in was that bit of software.

So too are the video clips (which can be made in a piece of free software called MikuMikuDance, or MMD). So too are the costumes (“modules”), art, and everything else about Miku. Once of the positive consequences of Crypton being surprisingly lax on control over its IP (by Japanese standards), is that every fan is allowed to take their own ownership over Miku, and that plays out in games like Mega39, where the developer, SEGA, acts more like curator than creator.

Because everyone is invited to engage with Miku on their own terms, the Miku rhythm games are rare in that they hold a genuinely wide appeal. With other rhythm games you need to be able to enjoy them on their terms – Taiko the Drum is great, but you’ve got to love manic energy. Groove Coaster is wonderful but you’ve got to be a fan of pure rhythm game action. You can enjoy Mega39 without needing to be a fan of rhythm games... in fact, you can enjoy it without playing it at all. There is the option to simply watch the video clips with your choice of character and costume, and there are many hours of entertainment there. When I’m not in the mood to “play a game” I tend to default to Miku games for that very reason.


The lowest difficulty “Easy” mode, meanwhile, is ridiculously easy and accessible to absolutely everyone. There are plenty of other rhythm games that are not so forgiving and require a base level of rhythmical understanding at even the entry level. On the other end of the spectrum, by the time you get to “Extreme”, you need a high level of skill, and while many people never see the value of pushing themselves to that degree, for another section of the Miku audience, showing off that level of raw skill is how they enjoy engaging with the game (and character).


I will say that Future Tone – and Mega39 off the back of that – did lose some of its credibility as being something for every Miku fan in that you can’t create your own routines as some other Miku titles in the past have allowed. Over the years I’ve had great fun taking the limited, but accessible, choreography tools available to see what I can come up with, but as ports of the Arcade game, this hasn’t been an option with this particular sub-series. Nonetheless, as someone who really enjoys the fan service side of Miku, the ability to pause those gorgeous clips at any point has given me plenty to play with on my own terms, too, and people who follow me on Twitter know how much I enjoy sharing those screenshots.

Miku the pioneer

These days it’s easy to forget that Hatsune Miku really is a pioneer. She wasn’t the first “digital celebrity” to have some kind of impact in the “real” world, but she was the first to have a major impact. From her wildly popular (and now global) concerts, and launching a collectibles business that the likes of Fate/Zero and others would later aspire to, through to appearing in everything from TV advertisements, to operas, kabuki plays, and Dominos pizza boxes, Hatsune Miku has transcended the digital and become a very real part of a lot of people’s lives.


These days it’s not something we really bat an eyelid at. Kizuna AI demonstrated that virtual YouTubers are often better than the real thing, and certainly less likely to pull stupid stunts like going body-hunting in suicide forests. Lil Miquela demonstrated that, in the world of fashion, which is always looking for “perfect beauty”, perhaps that perfection is better created than discovered. Now we even have the sex industry up in arms because Projekt Melody, a virtual cam girl, is proving to be a little too popular, and is pushing human cam girls off the front page of certain NSFW sites.

All of this is a fairly overt application of the theory of supernormal stimulii, and it’s one that we, as a society, are not quite ready to work through the ramifications just yet. There will be ramifications, though, and not just because your favourite porn stars, musicians, and models suddenly need to work that little bit harder to compete with creations that are, by design, perfect. No, the sociological implications of being able to replace the “real” world with a digitally-blended space of our own making is going to change everything about how we live, work, play, and interact with the world around us. So when you’re sitting there, playing Mega39, just remember that future historians will be tracing this phenomenon back to Miku, and games like this. If games are art, and art is an introspective reflection on society at a given point of time, then I’d be struggling to think of many better examples of art in its most pure form in video games than what we see with the Miku series.

But is it fun?

As mentioned, if you’ve never played a Hatsune Miku game, the “Easy” mode is the place you want to start, as it offers such a comfortable experience that you’ll be having a great time and getting good scores in no time. As a game, part of the appeal of Mega39 is just how simple it really is. Icons appear on the screen in time with the music, and you need to hit the corresponding button at just the right time so that you’re “playing” along with the music.


Getting a good score simply means getting a string of “good” timing results. If you miss, the combo counter will reset, and, worse, a “health meter” will start to drop. Miss enough notes and you’ll get a game over. With that being said, Miku titles don’t aim to fail players and, even on the higher difficulty scores, getting a “pass” is fairly easy. How fans then entertain themselves as they get drawn deeper and deeper into the digital siren’s web is that they start to try and get “perfect” results, and given that the typical track will involve hundreds of button presses, getting those perfects takes skill, training, and precision. Thankfully it’s an enjoyable process, because the music is so catchy and infectious, the presentation values are so high, and the game is incredibly fair. Each track has its easier and more challenging sections, but not once will you feel like it’s throwing tricks at you for the arbitrary sake of it. These days I have my groove at “Hard” difficulty, where I do feel like I’m playing along rhythmically with the music, and even after having played some of these tracks over a hundred times by now, I still find them eminently enjoyable.


One final consideration is, of course, whether to import. Currently Mega39 does have a western release planned for “2020”, but there’s no specific date set (it will be called "MegaMix" here). You could wait, but I couldn’t imagine why you'd want to. As a rhythm game there’s no need to understand the language to be able to understand, and then master, the mechanics, and there’s no narrative to follow along. The menus are simple to navigate, and the one or two more complex features can be figured out with a little trial-and-error. With the Switch being region free, this is one of the safest imports of all… and with the added benefit that you can play the game now.

In the end, Mega 39 does one, very special thing: it takes the incredible Hatsune Miku Project Diva Future Tone, and makes it portable. You can bellyache all you like about a relatively thin tracklist, but “relatively thin” to the ridiculous bloat of Future Tone isn’t really a fault. Not when what is in the pack is still more than any other rhythm game on the Switch, and with the optional DLC to come. Most importantly of all, however, is that Mega39 is a celebration of the world’s greatest digital idol, and a digital celebrity I truly care a great deal about. As such, it fills a major gap in something that I've wanted on my Switch since the day it released. I am now fully on board with the Nintendo Switch being the greatest console ever.

(What the hell else was I ever going to give a Miku game...?)

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb


Review: Hatsune Miku Project Diva Mega39 (Nintendo Switch)
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