‘Rhythm Heaven’ History – Understanding Nintendo’s Cult Music Legend

Henry Gilbert
Nintendo Games
Nintendo Games

At E3 2016, Nintendo didn’t bring many games outside of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but one game got a special spotlight at the annual event. On June 16 Nintendo took a moment to launch a new game with little warning on the Nintendo 3DS. Rhythm Heaven Megamix went live on the 3DS eShop and in November, Nintendo has rereleased arguably the best franchise entry, Rhythm Heaven Fever. With both out, maybe you’re thinking, “What exactly is Rhythm Heaven?”

So, as a service to the uninitiated, let me drop some much needed musical history on you for Nintendo’s under-the-radar rhythm series. Rhythm Heaven has been around much longer than you might think.

Rhythm Heaven’s Humble Beginnings

The series came to life a decade ago in Japan, though Rhythm Heaven’s origins stretch back even further. Nintendo SPD No. 1, a smaller development team within Nintendo, made a name for itself via increasingly quirky titles like the WarioWare franchise it began on the Game Boy Advance. After creating a couple of those comedic minigame collections that amounted to a series of brief gags, the team experimented with slightly longer minigames and taking the natural rhythm of WarioWare challenges and adding some music to it.

Nintendo hired prolific musician/composer Tsunku to supply the catchy tunes, as well as art designer Ko Takeuchi to create the quirky character designs for the Japan-only Rhythm Tengoku. Though released when the GBA was on its last legs, the game was a modest success, and its catchy tunes garnered some interest in the game outside of its native country. And even though many newer songs have joined the tracklist for later entries, classics from the first Rhythm Tengoku still pop up in even the most recent entries, a full decade after the first game’s release.

Rhythm Comes to America

Unfortunately, the GBA origins of Rhythm Tengoku meant that the game wouldn’t be coming out in North America as most gamers had moved on to the Nintendo DS. But that wouldn’t slow Rhythm Heaven down, as its sophomore release would arrive on the DS. Called Rhythm Tengoku Gold overseas, the series was rechristened as Rhythm Heaven stateside in its dual screen repackaging in 2009.

The game’s localization kept in all the strange flavor of Rhythm Heaven, with iconic oddballs like Dog Ninja and Space Soccer becoming hits with fans, though not everything went over as well. Putting the series on DS meant that all the input was done through the handheld’s touch screen. Tapping along with a stylus seemed simple, but many who’d played the original entry missed the simplicity of tapping the A button along with the beat. The game wasn’t a massive success, and future entries would drop this alternate control scheme.

The Wii Has The Fever

It would be few years before Nintendo gave Rhythm Heaven another chance in either Japan or the U.S. When the time finally came for a new entry in 2011, Rhythm Heaven Fever brought all the great songs (and many new tunes) to consoles for the first time ever. After keeping the goofy antics of hairy onions and dancing monkeys to tiny handheld screens, now people could finally feel the rhythm through the Wii.

Until recently, Rhythm Heaven Fever was easily the best game in the series and the most friendly to newcomers. The bright colors and clean lines of the art looked fantastic on HD televisions, and it let more people than just the player enjoy the great songs and quirky challenges included in Fever, adding a two-player mode to make it even more inclusive. And it has some of the all-time greatest hits in the series’ history. Ringside, Tambourine, and Double Date will stick with you long after playing and are worth the price of admission alone.

Rhythm is Still Gonna Get Ya

Rhythm Heaven Primer Megamix 3DS E3 2016

That brings us full circle to Rhythm Heaven Megamix. The 3DS digital-only title came to the Japanese eShop back in June 2015 and immediately had series diehards talking worldwide. Megamix brought together some of the best songs from across the previous three games, along with a new story mode and some other surprises. It’s like a greatest hits album from your favorite band and a fantastic way for new players to give Rhythm Heaven a chance.

It hadn’t appeared on the U.S. 3DS for 12 months, leading some to fear that the series was finished in North America, but the surprise launch during E3 finally brought all the classic and redesigned music stateside. Megamix is overflowing so much of Rhythm Heaven’s history that it’s the perfect capper to a decade of overlooked excellence. Even more surprising was Nov. 10’s rerelease of Rhythm Heaven Fever on the Wii U eShop.

Now that both games are widely available, it seems like Nintendo is really behind the Rhythm Heaven series. However, let’s hope Nintendo puts a bit more publicity behind the next time the series has a new entry ready.

Henry Gilbert
Henry Gilbert is Senior Games Editor at Fandom. He's worked in the gaming press since 2008, writing for sites as diverse as GamesRadar, IGN, and Paste Magazine. He's also been known to record a podcast or two with Laser Time. Follow him on Twitter @henereyg.
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