Once You Pop, You Can't Stop
Animefringe talks shop and all things Pop'n Music with Random of Ransai.com
Beatmania, Guitar Freaks, Drummania, Keyboardmania, even Dance Dance Revolution--all of these Bemani titles pale in comparison to the addictive mojo that Pop'n Music emits from its brightly colored nine buttons. Now twelve arcade installments strong in Japan, with such spin-offs as the two installments of the anime-themed Pop'n Music Animelo Mix and the DDR-inspired Pop'n Stage, Pop'n Music has quite possibly become the one Bemani title next to Beatmania IIDX that has a chance for a prolonged franchise.
While other Bemani games strive to be some type of music or dance simulation, Pop'n Music takes a more novel approach by simply being a music-making game. Players step up to an arcade machine and wail away at their choice of either five or nine colored buttons set in a zig-zag pattern with two yellow and green buttons on the top row and two white, two green and one red on the bottom. The actual game is quite similar to Beatmania, with notes called "pop-kun" falling downward from the top of the screen that must be hit when they meet the bar at the bottom.
For beginners, Pop'n Music is an incredibly easy game to pick up. It may not have the easy learning curve of Taiko no Tatsujin; however, it is on par with Konami's other Bemani titles where if you can learn to keep the beat of a song through repetition, then the more complex note combinations will come easily with a little practice.
What makes the game so addictive is the insanely large selection of music that can be found in each game. Songs are named by the genre in which they reside and be it pop, glam rock, techno, country, visual kai, Hawaiian, reggae or one of the hundreds of other categories of music out there, even the most eclectic of music enthusiasts will find their musical choices expanding by the play through.
Even with such a wide array of music, Pop'n Music is still an import-only title. It began its home console life on both the PlayStation and Dreamcast, but only began to come into its own with Pop'n Music 6. By the time Pop'n hit PlayStation 2, the sheer number of tracks available in a given Pop'n title dwarfs anything Dance Dance Revolution could ever hope to throw at gamers. Take Pop'n Music 8 --widely heralded as the best of all the Pop'n's-- for example; once completely unlocked, its song list reaches a staggering 104 tracks! On top of the large volume of songs available, players can also expect to hear many of their favorite transplant songs as well, such as "White Lovers", "Candy", "Mobo Moga", "Jet World" and "Daikenkai".
With the PlayStation 2 release of the Halloween-themed Pop'n Music 10 on November 18, Animefringe decided to look into exactly how players can hope to replicate the arcade experience at home. Sure, there is always the teeny tiny Pop'n controller and Konami's outrageously pricey (and not well terribly well built) official arcade style controller (or ASC). But in the era of modified DDR pads, we thought we'd check in with someone that knows a thing or two about making ASCs--Scott Trenda a.k.a. Random of Ransai Arcade Style Controllers (www.ransai.com).
Animefringe/Adam Arnold: For those readers out there who don't know about Ransai, can you tell us a little about what Ransai specializes in?
Scott Trenda/Random: Ransai currently makes and markets two styles of Pop'n Music Arcade Style Controllers: the Ransai, our deluxe indestructible Pop'n controller, and the Kagura, our economy controller.
AF: What made you decide to start making Pop'n controllers?
ST: Well, I'd have to say it started last summer, when I decided to build myself some DDR-and-Pump-in-one dance pads. It took a long time because it was my first Bemani project, but they turned out really well and I had a good time doing it. Last September, a group of us at the University, including Redsai and our friend, decided to get into Beatmania, and I'd heard about Pop'n Music during the summer. I got a Konami IIDX controller, but then thought, "Hey, how hard can nine buttons be?" and so I ordered some flat buttons from Happ. After a little experimenting, I had myself a working Pop'n Music controller, and we all fell in love with the game from there. Redsai, being the source of motivation that he is, mentioned that we could make a lot of these and get more people into the game (as it was pretty much unheard of at the University then), and Ransai was born.
AF: I understand that Ransai's can take a lot of abuse. What are some of the extremes you have gone to prove this fact?
ST: Heh. My father is a carpenter, and he pretty much guided us through what would make an indestructible wooden box, and so we had an idea that they could take pretty much any abuse we gave them. At Anime Central in May, we proved this by running it over with Redsai's car--a few buttons stuck but the box was perfectly intact. We've thrown them, stomped on them, hit them with hammers--pretty much whatever you can throw at them, they can take. (Don't try that with the Kagura though. ~_^)
AF: What sets Ransai apart from other Internet ASC competitors such as Desktop Arcade and Controllica?
ST: There have been some pretty harsh political battles in the community since last February or so, but we've pretty much made our peace with the other companies. What I would say sets us apart is our durability (see the above question), our customer service, our quality, and the fact that we've made so many of them - we know our stuff when it comes to our controllers, and we're going to continue that quality for as long as we're making them.
AF: What's the absolute best Ransai that one can get if a person had just oodles of money to spare?
ST: Hmm. Well, we have several different options that we've offered for a while now. You can customize your paintjob--some of our flashiest have been a Union Jack controller and a Kamikaze design (the Japanese naval flag), and from there, it's pretty much all in the customization of graphics and the buttons to rice out your controller all you'd like. We offer button art (inside the buttons), more sensitive microswitches, light kits, and custom graphics--you can contact one of our artists on our forums, and they can make you into a Pop'n character, if you so desire. Pretty much anything you want, we could do.
AF: Tell us about the Kagura. What exactly is it?
ST: The Kagura is an economy controller that we started making during the summer. Although it's cheaper than the Konami alternatives, $250 is still a lot to spend on a controller for one video game, so we started offering the Kagura, which is essentially an arcade-accurate controller as quick as we can make it, and at about the cost you could put one together yourself for.
AF: Besides Pop'n Music Arcade Style Controllers, what other controllers have you tried to make?
ST: Hm. Like everyone, we've worked on a Beatmania IIDX arcade-style controller. The turntable's a little tricky, but if you know your electronics, it isn't too bad. When we looked at the price this summer for exactly what we'd have needed to do, it turned out to be just far too much for the quantity we'd have the time to make at the quality we'd require, so it looks like Ransai won't be putting out a IIDX ASC. Aside from that, we've made an excellent controller for Frequency/ Amplitude, an arcade joystick that has swappable button-boxes for the different fighting games available, and we've worked on Guitar Freaks/ Drummania ASC's, but haven't finished anything yet. We're in school now, so time's a little scarce for us. It's really too bad--if Ransai was all we did and time/market wasn't an issue, we'd be working on new stuff all the time. Sadly, that isn't the case though.
AF: Do any of your controllers have any kind of warranty with them?
ST: Of course. We call it the "just don't attack it with a chainsaw" warranty--if anything goes wrong with the electronics or the buttons, we'll either help you fix it yourself or you can send it back to us and we'll send it out in perfect working condition. We officially offer it for six months, I believe, but I'm pretty much always willing to help solve an electronics problem, and it's pretty easy to fix if something goes wrong.
AF: I'm sure some of our readers may have see you around this summer, what conventions have you guys been to?
ST: Ransai has been to Anime Detour (Minneapolis), Anime Central (Chicago), Anime Expo (Anaheim), Otakon (Baltimore) and Anime Reactor (Chicago) in 2004. It's been a great time--people have been very supportive of us.
AF: As far as your website goes, what exactly is the Pop'n Navy?
ST: We love the Pop'n Navy! The PNN is actually not run by us, but rather by Remy, the creator of VJ Army (www.vjarmy.com). It's an online ranking site--you play the songs on your PS/PS2 at home, and then you can go online, input your scores on the songs you've played, and see how you rank against the other players on the board. More than anything, it's a personal record-keeping system, so you can see how you're improving--although we have our fun and talk our trash every now and them, Pop'n is not nearly as competitive as the other Bemani games, and we all play it for fun more than for competition.
AF: If someone wanted to get into Pop'n Music, but only had enough money for one game, which one would you recommend most?
ST: Oh wow. I have all the Pop'n's, and while I'd say that all of them are absolutely fantastic games once you have everything unlocked, I'd say that Pop'n 8 stands out the most so far. (We'll see how Pop'n 10 fares in November.) It's got a huge list of amazing songs available right away, its unlock system is fun and finishes quickly, and more than anything, the "filler" songs--the ones that don't jump out at you immediately--are far and away better than the fillers on the other Pop'n's, a problem I believe plagues Pop'n 9 the hardest. With that said, get Pop'n, get whatever mix you can, you won't be disappointed, but Pop'n 8 is by far the best beginner's mix, and the one that will keep you captivated long after the initial glitter wears away. I think I've put over 500 hours into my copy of Pop'n 8.
AF: What kind of tips can you give newcomers to help them get to Pop'n right out of the gate?
ST: Play. Play a lot, play whenever you can. It's all about training your mind to recognize patterns and learning to keep with the beat of a song even when you're creating the beat. Get the soundtracks if you can--one of the most amazing things about the game is that the music is fun, and when you're making the music to a song you love, it makes it so much more enjoyable. In addition, if you know how the song goes, a lot of the patterns will make more sense when you go to play the song. It's a fun game, but it takes just a little bit to get into it.
AF: One thing that frustrated me while coming into my own with Pop'n was that some of the song difficulties just don't match up. For instance, not all 14s are the same, but there might be some 18s that are downright easy. Did you ever experience that, and if so, how did you overcome it?
ST: Hmm. Pop'n 7 is pretty screwy about this ("CLASSIC6 EX" IS NOT A 26), but Pop'n 8 and Pop'n 9 are pretty well balanced. If you can't beat a certain song of a certain level, there are usually dozens of other songs around that level--go play some of the other ones and come back to it. Once your mind wraps around the complexity of songs at a certain level, pretty much everything below it will start to come easily to you. Personally, my first barrier was at the 28 level on Pop'n 8--it's quite intimidating when you first approach it. But if you practice and beat everything below 28, then start playing all the 28's on that mix, eventually you'll get to the point where you'll recognize some of the more complex patterns, and pulling them off will come more easily to you. Practice, practice, practice!
AF: What are your absolute favorite Pop'n songs and why?
ST: Oh my, you don't want to ask me this question. I have dozens upon dozens of favorite songs, but if you wanted to ask me for my favorite twenty or so, they'd be: "Soft Rock Long", "Visual3", "Toybox", "J-Garage Pop", "Horror", "Hamo Rock", "Blues", "Shogun", "Pure", "Girls Band 2", "Sympathy Long", "Hone Hone", "Des-Nawa", "Digi Techno", "Emotional", "Radio", "Raga Pop", "Special Cooking", "Swedish" and "Depa Funk". I'll stop there, otherwise I'll probably name off every Pop'n song in the end.
AF: Are there any songs that you absolutely hate or can't beat, no matter what you do?
ST: Well hate, probably not (except "Tropical", it's a horrible song), but I can't beat "Energy Rock EX" or "Enka Remix EX" for the life of me. They're 38's, and I can beat pretty much every 40, but I can't get the stupid white-yellow-green cycles for the life of me --my groove gauge dies right there every time I play it.
AF: How long did it take you unlock everything in Pop'n Music 8 and 9? Or have you unlocked everything?
ST: Hmm. Pop'n 9 has a code to unlock all the EX's in Arcade Mode, so it takes almost no time to do that. I gave up on Gambler Z because it's stupidly tedious. Pop'n 8 has Sugoroku de 8 to unlock it, so it takes somewhere in the range of 12 to 15 hours to unlock everything, which isn't too bad. I'd say the bigger challenge is unlocking everything on Pop'n 6 or 7, where you have to go through and unlock all the EX's one at a time. Personally, I have fully unlocked saves of Pop'n 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and Best Hits --I'm working on 4 as we speak, so I can get it added into the Pop'n Navy. The best way is to sit down with a songlist and find out what you have left to unlock, and then playing those songs once each in Arcade Mode, cause after the game's unlocked, all I play is Free Mode, where you can select any song you want with no constraints.
AF: I know this came up before on your message board, but what do you think is the rarest Pop'n game?
ST: Probably Pop'n Animelo or Pop'n Disney Tunes. I had to talk to someone in Japan to get Animelo, and Toys 'n Joys (www.toysnjoys.com) had a copy or two left of Disney Tunes. That's more of a collector's thing--honestly, the best ones (6, 7, 8, 9, Best Hits) are pretty much always available online somewhere.
AF: Which is the better way to go: mod chip, flip top or Japanese PlayStation 2?
ST: JPS2. Definitely JPS2. I used a swap disc for four months or so, and I'll say that the convenience of a JPS2 is by far worth the effort it takes to get one. And with the JPStwo so close, it's not really even that hard of a choice if you own the games.
AF: If you couldn't play Pop'n, Beatmania or even DDR, what other Bemani game would you play?
ST: Hmm. My pet favorite bemani is Keyboardmania, but you don't see too much of that in arcades around here. But you don't see much non-DDR in arcades around here either. I play a lot of Drummania, and I really like Guitar Freaks, so I'd probably play more of those. I'm learning the Para Para dances in the University's Para Para club, which makes Para Para Paradise a lot more enjoyable, so I'd probably play more of that too. Honestly, when you break them down into how you're "supposed" to play them, all of the Bemani games have a lot going for them, and they're fantastic games in general. So I'd be sad without Pop'n, but there'd be something fun to play regardless.
AF: So realistically, do you think we will ever see Pop'n Music officially brought over to the U.S.?
ST: [long pause] Honestly, I don't know. I'm a senior in Japanese this year, and it looks like I'll be writing my senior thesis about Pop'n Music. In it I'll be examining exactly what about the Japanese culture has made Pop'n such a huge hit over there, and if it's a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. But looking at the insanely dedicated community of Pop'n players in the US, not to mention the ever-growing popularity of DDR, I wouldn't put it too far away that something that has the same feel of Pop'n and similar gameplay could get popular here. But as far as the arcade machines as-is, I think it's too Japanese and would be viewed as too foreign to ever get any sort of market potential here... Oh well. It doesn't look like Konami will drop Pop'n any time soon, so it's still out there and still available--you just have to take a bit of time to look for it. ~_^
AF: Thanks for chatting with us, Random.
ST: Thanks for your interest! This was really fun.