Why to get started in Dance Dance Revolution

I came in to DDR pretty late. Oh sure, I'd heard of it for years, glanced at various DDR and 3rd party knock-off machines in mall arcades as I wandered by, and saw various parodies of the genre such as SomethingAwful.com's Dance Dance Karnov. But I never directly saw the appeal of stomping on squares on the floor in time to music until I had the opportunity to try the game out at one of e2's famous nodermeets. I was hooked instantly.

The major appeal of DDR to me is that it makes exercising fun. I have a desk job and don't do much on a day-to-day basis to get my heart rate up, because quite frankly exercise is dull. Whether it's running around in large circles, lifting heavy objects and putting them back down, or performing interminable repetitive motions while standing in place, there is practically no immediate gratification involved. So it's hard to keep up with.

DDR takes the basic concept of step aerobics to music, removes the tedium, and adds a scoreboard. It triggers your brain's reward centers and — here's the kicker — you can fail. There's an element of challenge involved, multiple skill levels to master, and various goals to achieve. Instead of performing the same half-dozen steps over and over again you have to watch the arrows on the screen and make every combination of left, down, up, and right, including occasional jumps to hit two arrows at once. It's rewarding and lets you increase the challenge as you get better.

My weight is down, my energy levels are up, and my overall health has improved noticeably. And I'm having fun!

What you'll need to get started in Dance Dance Revolution

How to get the above on a budget

Practically everyone already has a television set. If you're one of those freaks who doesn't (like I was) you can find a small 18" CRT from Wal-Mart for about $120. Don't worry, nobody is forcing you to actually hook it up to an antenna.

Most people under 40 already have one of the major 6th or 7th generation video game consoles such as Playstation 2 (6th) or Wii (7th). If you don't, you can pick up a used Playstation 2 at used video game stores such as GameStop for about $80.

DDR in some form is available for almost all of the recent consoles. There are several editions of the game available depending on the age of the game and the console. If you're using Playstation2, I recommend starting with Dance Dance Revolution Supernova 2. It's a relatively recent (2007) edition of the game with good graphics and some decent music tracks to dance to, including highly recognizable hits like Rockafeller Skank by Fatboy Slim and Take On Me by Aha, and more recent hits like Suddenly I See by K.T. Tunstall and Number 1 by Goldfrapp. There's a lot of J-Pop on it as well, including the opening theme to the anime Sky Girls (which, by the way, has a terribly distracting background video that plays while you're trying to concentrate on the arrows) and only a few tracks by artists such as Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, or Justin Timberlake that I don't care for.

It's probably worth noting, however, that most people are unlikely to recognize the majority of the songs in the game's playlist. By necessity, they focus on dance hits rather than top 40, and what titles you do recognize are likely to be dance covers or remixes rather than the originals.

Dance Pads are available sold separately, but you'll probably want to get one bundled with the game. You can get Supernova 2 with a dance pad included for about $60. However the affordable dance pads are foldable, flexible, and soft for packaging and storage, and during the more energetic songs they have a tendency to slide around on the rug, making it difficult to keep your footing accurate. A popular way to solve this problem is to carpet tape the dance pad to a plastic office chair mat. This not only provides a firmer, flatter surface to dance on but the little plastic spikes keep the mat secured to the rug. Office chair mats usually run around $15.

All told, that comes to $275, which is significantly less than you'd pay for a 7th generation console on its own.

How to play Dance Dance Revolution

DDR is very similar to step aerobics, except much less tedious because of the variety of steps and combinations you are expected to perform. During basic gameplay, you will see a row of arrows (guide arrows) across the top of the screen like so:

← ↓ ↑ →

Matching arrows will scroll up from the bottom of the screen, one or two at a time, like so:

← ↓ ↑ →
  ↓ ↑
←     →
  ↓ ↑

The basic idea is to stomp the corresponding arrows on the dance pad when the scrolling arrow reaches the guide row, which will be on a beat of the song (basic arrows being on the 1/4 beats). It takes practice, and it's harder than it looks. The trick to it is, don't pay so much visual attention to when the arrows hit the guide row, rather get a feel for the rhythm of the song and step on the beats. One complication is that the arrows are all in a row on the screen, but like this on the dance pad:

←   →

So it's easy to confuse the up and down arrows until you get the hang of it. Additionally, while the combinations ←+→ and ↓+↑ are easy enough, it takes practice to quickly recognize and react to corners (e.g. ←+↑ and ↓+→).

Beginners on the easy levels will usually start a song by standing on the center (neutral position between all the arrows), hitting an arrow, and returning to the center. Do not do this, it's a very bad habit to get into although you can get away with it on the beginner levels. DDR does not penalize you for standing on an arrow longer than necessary, nor does it penalize you for hitting arrows you don't need to. Keep your feet on the arrows rather than the center, and don't be afraid to move into a more convenient position during a break to hit that next combination coming up.

So there's a significant learning curve, and multiple techniques that must be mastered on easy levels before you try them out on harder levels. If you don't, you will be overwhelmed by the relentless advance of arrows, and you won't get any better at them if they're coming too fast for your brain to process what's happening. DDR is not a game that you can just jump into on the expert level and try to grow into.

Fortunately DDR has a training mode which allows you to practice songs by slowing them down, adding claps on the steps, and trying particular sections of the song rather than doing the whole thing.

What I do is group familiar combinations of arrows together in my head and take them combination by combination rather than arrow by arrow.

Types of steps in Dance Dance Revolution

A step on a 1/4, 1/8, etc. beat of the song. You only need to hit these briefly but you can stand on them without penalty.
Sometimes you need to hit two arrows at once. To do this, you need to jump, lifting both feet off the pad, and land on both arrows at the same time.
Freeze arrows look like regular arrows with a tail. You need to step on these like a basic arrow but hold you foot down until the entire tail has gone past the guide row. Often songs will make you hit arrows with the other foot while holding one of these.

Difficulty in Dance Dance Revolution

There are two ways of gauging a song's difficulty in DDR. The classic way is by "foot rating", that is, a number from 1-10 representing how difficult the song is. A 1 or 2 rating will only have you hit an arrow every few seconds and won't have any jumps or freezes. A 9 or 10 rating will look like a continuous stream of arrows advancing so rapidly that it doesn't look humanly possible to think, let alone move, fast enough. And yet there are YouTube videos...

The newer way is with the "groove radar", that is, a pentagon-shaped meter that displays a song's difficulty based on Stream (overall density of steps), Voltage (maximum density of steps), Air (number of jumps), Freeze (number of freeze arrows), and Chaos (steps that don't fall on 1/4 or 1/8 beats).

Either way, each song will generally have four difficulty levels to beat. Typically beginner levels are 1–3, basic levels are 3–5, difficult levels are 5–7, and expert levels are 7–10. If you can't beat a song on one difficulty level, it's a good idea to move down to the next easier one, master that, and then come back. Otherwise, try it out in training mode.

Scoring in Dance Dance Revolution

Scoring in DDR is based on several factors, including how precisely you match a step's timing, how long you can keep combos running, and how many of the freeze arrows you successfully stayed on for their entire length. You'll be given both a numerical score and a letter grade for your efforts.

Different editions of the game have slightly different terminology or scoring methods. I will be using Supernova 2's methods.

How precisely you match the beat of the song when stepping on an arrow is important. You will be rated Marvelous, Perfect, Great, Good, Almost, or Bad (miss). Yes, Marvelous is better than Perfect. No, I don't know why.
Health Bar
The game displays a health bar at the top of the screen that keeps track of how many of the arrows you hit or miss. Good timing will increase your health bar, bad timing will decrease it. If your bar runs out, you will fail the song.
Any step rating a Great or better is counting toward your combo streak. Good or worse will break your streak, starting the numbering over again. The game will display your streak on the screen and the announcer will (usually) let you know when you hit multiples of 100 (most songs have less than 200 steps, but some modes of play count sets of songs together). If you manage to combo the entire song, you will be rewarded with a star in addition to your letter grade.
The game keeps track of how many of the freeze arrows you stayed on for their entire length, rating them OK or No Good. As long as you hit the initial arrow, though, letting up too soon on the freeze will not affect your combo.
Letter Grade
Letter grades start at E (fail, usually, but not always, because your health bar ran out) and go up to D, C, B, A, then AA, and finally AAA (perfect timing and no mistakes). Most people will probably never see a AAA score so don't worry about it too much. If you manage to play the whole song as one unbroken combo (great or better on every step), you will get a star added to the grade.

Fun in Dance Dance Revolution

DDR has several modes of play. In basic mode, you choose your song and difficulty level and are graded at the end of the song, and also graded on your overall performance in the group of songs you played (generally 3–5 depending on the options you choose). The game saves your high scores on each song so you can see yourself improving. Older versions of the game (for example DDR Extreme) will bring you back to the main menu after your group of songs is done. This is annoying and wastes your time if you want to keep playing. Later editions such as Supernova 2 let you keep playing without that extra step.

Another mode of play is exercise mode, in which you play pre-set or customize your own routines of songs and the game estimates how many calories you burned and tracks your progress on a graph. Unlike Wii Fit, however, the game cannot weigh you so you have to do that yourself and tell the game (if you want to track that).

Training mode, as mentioned earlier, lets you practice songs by slowing them down, adding claps on the steps, only playing through the section of the song you want, and other helpful additions. This can be critical for learning how to play certain unfamiliar step combinations. Of course, training mode does not save your high scores.

There are also various challenge modes that allow you to play through "stages" by beating songs with a twist: some gimmick that makes the song harder. Sometimes you'll need to beat a certain score or run your combo streak up to a certain level, other times the arrows will scroll from top to bottom, or vanish before they reach the guide bar, or change scrolling speeds, or other tricks to trip you up. As you play through, you can unlock power-ups that can make the gimmicks easier to beat.

Finally there are also routines to play through, sets of 3+ songs that you play back-to-back, running combos and maintaining your health bar through one song to the next.

And all the while you're unlocking more and more options for play. You can unlock, for example, more songs to play, or more outfits for your on-screen avatar to wear, or more modes of play or more levels for the challenge stages and routines. Everything about the game is focused on keeping your interest level up for as long as possible, and it's very good at doing exactly that.

I can't recommend Dance Dance Revolution enough for anyone who wants to play games that get you off the couch. But if you really want to get off the couch, I recommend a Wii and DDR Hottest Party 2, which is more polished than Hottest Party and allows you to unlock your Mii's head for your on-screen avatar.

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