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Nodame Cantabile DS, Dimps and Namco-Bandai, 2007, Grade: B+
The Nodame Cantibile manga ran in Kiss magazine from 2001 to 2009 and was collected into 29 volumes, and released in the U.S. by Del Rey Manga. It follows Megumi "Nodame" Noda (nodame is a play on her last name, and "no" = "brain" + "dame" = "no good"), a messy student at the Momogaoka School of Music, studying the piano. She meets Shinichi Chiaki, the top student at the school, multilingual and a virtuoso with the piano and violin. He wants to become a professional conductor, but he's currently trapped in Japan because he has a fear of flying. Over time, Megumi becomes a good pianist, and she graduates from the school, helps Chiaki overcome his fear, and the two of them move to Paris. Megumi continues studying the piano at the Conservatoire de Paris, and Chiaki starts his career as a conductor.
(Main map screen.)
There were three games based on the manga, all released in 2007, for the DS, the Playstation 2 and the Wii. The DS game has fairly weak character artwork. The designs are stiff and amateurish-looking and are used simply for fixed poses during the dialog sequences. The background artwork is good, but it's mostly interiors based on a real school in Tokyo. The voice acting is decent, but generally limited to sound effects (kya, doh). The entire point of the game is the music, and in this sense it's a great introduction to the works of Schubert, Ravel, Beethoven and many others. You play a new student to the school (you choose your own name). As you arrive at the gates, you're greeted by your adviser, who tells you how the menu system works. You get a map of the school, with some arrows indicating places you can visit (no arrow, you can't go there) such as the school gate, the cafeteria, a ramen shop, the dorms, some classrooms and concert halls, etc. Some of the arrows have a mongoose icon (Nodame wanders the school in a mongoose costume, carrying a stuffed snake doll and playing a recorder), these are required story events. The non-mongoose arrows represent places you can check out, but about half the time there's no one there. When you do encounter someone new, they're entered into your character diary, and you get to learn a bit about them.
(Non-story character encounter. You can't interact with this NPC, he's just here to be entered into the character diary.)
The event points can be divided into two broad types - mini-games, and music challenges. Mini-games are things like trying to remember three to five ingredients for cooking dishes at the Chinese restaurant; sorting out trash, clothes and books in dirty rooms; and running across the moon to get to a rocket to return safely to Earth (apparently based on a fictional game in the manga). Each game can be replayed in easy, moderate and hard levels, and beating each one for the first time will unlock still artwork in the gallery mode. For the music challenges, most of the songs are of the "tap the falling notes at the right time to get the music to play correctly" type (generally, piano notes). However, there are two songs that are lifted directly from the drum simulator machine at the video arcades. You tap on the taiko drum icon at the right time to play part of the rhythm track. For all songs, making a mistake adds vibrato to the notes to get a "do-ing" effect until you start playing correctly again. The closer to a perfect tap, the higher your score bar gets (there's no numerical score, just a visual "thermometer" style gauge that gives you a color-coded approximate percentage. Blue is bad, Yellow is very good. You can choose to ignore the non-event map points, but you have to do the story events. When you complete all of the events (mini-games and song performances) for that stage with at least an "average" rating, you get to meet your adviser again. She rates your performance, and the better you did, the more perks you receive (usually just in the form of one or two artwork stills being unlocked in the gallery. Then you get the map and another set of map points to visit.
(One of the story event dialog scenes, which leads into a song performance.)
The Map has a button in the upper right corner marked "free movement." Tapping on this with the stylus gives you access to the Gallery, the Song List, and shortcuts to each of the mini-games you've finished so far. The Gallery has the character history, the still artwork, and the option to try to connect to a friend running the game on a second DS. The Song List section lets you replay any of the songs you've unlocked, to try to get better scores, or to simply practice. You can also read about the various composers, or study different instruments. Just about every category (songs, composers, instruments, still artwork) has 40 different unlockables each. In some cases, unlocking a composition requires that your adviser gives you a near-perfect rating for the stage. After finishing the game twice, I've met all of the characters, and gotten all but 5 of the songs, and all but 15 composer entries.
(The song performance part of the game. As the music plays, notes fall from the top of the screen. The point of the game is to tap the black circle exactly when the falling note fills the cutout in the middle of the circle. The closer to perfect timing, the more the result gauge at the left of the top screen fills up.)
I'm still missing many of the gallery stills and composers, although I've gotten all of the instrument descriptions (which required having a walkthrough). I've beaten all of the mini-games at Hard level, but don't really like any of them enough to want to play them more than once. I missed the secret level the first time through the game, too. Turns out that when you reach the last story song, which is your formal graduation concert performance, you get the game credits roll. After that, the word "Fin" appears. If you wait long enough (I didn't), you get the secret last character, composer and song challenge. Otherwise, tapping on the screen too early gets you the "New Plus" game (indicated by a quarter note in the save file name. You keep everything you've unlocked so far, but you're starting the story all over again. I played the game a second time, and the story doesn't change. If you get the secret concert, then Nodame, in her mongoose costume, conducts George Gershwin on the recorder. This should give you all the characters in the character diary. To get the instrument descriptions, you have to go to the Free Movement map, select the Conductors-Songs icon, and then play specific songs when specific characters are conducting them. (You get 6 conductors, such as Chiaki and Nodame, and all of them can conduct any of the unlocked songs. Only 4-5 combinations give you instrument descriptions, though.) To unlock the final conductor, Mongoose Nodame S, you have to complete the secret concert twice.
(Free Movement map.
Nodame Cantibile DS is a great way to listen to various classical compositions, including some selections that you may not have encountered before. You do get the standards, like Beethoven's 5th and 7th, the William Tell Overture and Bolero. But, there were at least 2 (including Romeo and Juliet) songs I didn't recognize, and I did really badly on those because I had no feel for the timing. You can play with the sound turned off and try to hit the notes when they fall within the target circles, and just make this a plain visual mini-game. The point, though, is to really get into the music and tap the notes as close to when they're supposed to be played. There are a few places where you're supposed to slide the stylus on the screen to create glides or bends, and then almost immediately tap on the next note, and that's really tough. If it was a song I wasn't ready for, the slide-taps just destroyed my scores (pun not intended). But, with compositions I've heard hundreds of times, like Beethoven's 5th, I got high scores on my first try, although my nerves were shot when I was done. You're not playing chords, or even the complete arrangements of whatever instrument they've given you, but you're still given enough work to make playing the game a pretty good way to learn more about the piece you are on at the moment. Sure, it's not anywhere near as beneficial as if you had a real piano, but it's better than nothing, and it's fun music.
(Composer information screen, for the composers you've unlocked.)
Also, it's a fast game. I finished the story and got the end credits after 6 hours of total play time. One weird thing is that there were 3 old save data files (I got the game used from Book Off for 500 yen), and the most recent one was for 2012 or so. Two of the games had 1 hour of play time, and one had 6 hours. None of the games had been played to the end credits. I guess the previous owners just didn't like playing it and gave up right away. Oh well. Their loss, my gain. I do want to improve my results on the concerts and unlock a few more of the gallery stills and conductor descriptions, but I'm just going to race past the mini-games when needed. The one thing I wish had been done better is the save game function. That is, there isn't one. You can't choose "save game". Instead, when you press the Start button, you're asked if you want to return to the title screen, or the starting company credits. Apparently, the game is automatically saved at that point, but there's no message saying "don't power off the machine or remove the cartridge", and there's no long pause indicating the game is being saved. It just seems to happen quickly and behind the scenes, which always leaves me feeling like I'm going to lose everything. That's a definite minus.
(When you use the Free Movement map to replay the unlocked songs, you have the option of reading snippets of the manga, too.)
Overall, I'm surprised that I like Nodame Cantibile as much as I do. I want it for my collection of music and synth software, and I am going to keep practicing with it for a while longer to listen to the songs more. The character art isn't as good as it could be, and I would have liked more real animation and to have some anime cut scenes. And, I really wish I could find a better walkthrough on the net explaining how to get all of the Gallery stills, composers and songs. But, for 500 yen ($4 USD), it's a steal. Recommended if you like classical music, or the Nodame Cantible manga.
Side note: Cantibile is a specific style of Italian music where the instruments are played to sound like human voices.