Released in 1998 on the PS1, Bust-a-Groove, at its core, is essentially a game where you tap predetermined buttons in time with the soundtrack. However simplistic this sounds, it piles on so much fun and charm that it ranks as one of my favourite games of all time.
From its opening moments the presentation screams '90s popular culture, scratch-mixed samples and quick video cuts transporting you back to a time when MTV wasn’t clogged up with reality shows about dopey teenage girls.
To begin, you have the option of choosing one of ten characters: the fat break-dancing burger-freak Hamm; a creepy, sexually licentious, adult-baby called Kelly; the Capoeira Twins – a pair of dancing aliens lifted straight from the X Files; a 200ft high voguing robot – Robo Z; a school girl called Shorty who dances with her pet mouse, and many others. Each character is distinct and unique, with their own bizarre costumes, individual dance routines, and songs that echo the character’s personality.
After tweaking your fully-editable move set, it’s time to play through the game. Whereas modern rhythm games have a tendency to licence songs from existing artists, or provide a substandard cover version of a famous song with the moniker “as made famous by...”, Bust-a-Groove had its own original soundtrack. The songs spanned the genres: from Funk to Hip-Hop; Disco to House. Each tune was infectious and memorable. And if you made a mistake, you weren’t punished for it in the way that you are on later games where you get hit in the ears by a horrible guitar crunch, or are simply kicked off for your ineptitude. Instead, your character shakes themselves off like a wet dog, and tries to get back into the rhythm – this feature made the game incredibly accessible. Indeed, the difficulty of the button combos performed can be chosen during play as you are given the choice of two options with each line of the song, meaning that a player has control over exactly how difficult they want their experience to be without a leaving the round and tweaking the game’s difficulty settings.
After stripping my thumbs on the game, I sought an English version and played it relentlessly, figuring out all the tricks and hidden dance moves and attacks that can be utilised in multi-player mode.
Though the game is entertaining in single-player mode, Bust-a-Groove really comes into its own in the multiplayer mode. The accessibility of the game balances perfectly with its depth. I first came across Bust-a-Groove through a mate of mine who owned a chipped Playstation. He brought it round my house and we played the Japanese version of the game non-stop for about a week. Ironically, the guy owned the biggest collection of pirated games I think I’ve ever seen, and now works as a Trading Standards officer – I wonder if he ever mentioned his games collection at work? After stripping the skin off my thumbs on the game, I sought an English version and played it relentlessly, figuring out all the tricks and hidden dance moves and attacks that can be utilised in multi-player mode.
The rest of my family hadn’t mastered the game like I had, but we could all sit around in my sister’s bedroom and play the game; I always won of course, but it didn’t matter because we all had fun playing it and it was neither here nor there who was the better player. There are very few multiplayer games, even now, that transcend the generations and allow even the weakest players to have fun and play each level right to the end. Even family favourites like Mario Kart kick the losing players off the game before everyone has finished the course. Bust-a-Groove rewards competent players once the round is finished by the inclusion of Fever Time. Fever Time doesn’t activate if you simply beat your opponent, it comes into effect when you hit most of the beats in the song. Fever Time allows you to watch as your character flips and dances across the screen in celebration – it’s very satisfying to watch.
Over a decade later, I still find myself occasionally humming the tune to Shorty and the EZ Mouse.