Playing video games, for the most part, tends to be a passive experience. It usually consists of an individual (or a group of individuals, if you’re socially inclined) sitting on a couch and holding a controller as a spectacle of lights and sounds overwhelm them with just a push of a few buttons. That’s part of gaming’s appeal after all: getting the maximum benefit while putting in minimal cost. This underlining philosophy can even be seen on a device such as the Nintendo Wii, where “movement” is an essential part of the system’s experience, but the most the system ever asks of the player is a few sweeping arm gestures. This is a conundrum Dance Central, and to a greater extent Microsoft’s new motion-gaming device, Kinect, must contend with: In a hobby that’s predominantly viewed as a leisure activity, will people get off the couch to play a game? Harmonix Music, the company behind Dance Central, believes that if the experience is worthwhile, people will.
Using the Kinect, the player has to mimic choreographed dance moves from their on-screen avatar, after which their performance is graded based on the level of accuracy. On the easy level, Dance Central asks the player to do very simple dance moves which usually require nothing more than a few hand gestures, maybe even a two-step here and there. Raising the difficulty level gets the player a bit more involved, but it’s never too much for anyone to handle. Akin to how the original Guitar Hero for the PlayStation 2 made one believe that they were a master guitarist, Dance Central makes you feel as if you’re in a choreographed dance squad.
While not as revolutionary as Guitar Hero, Dance Central does have a style all its own. Through its bright neon color scheme and song list, which includes such anthems as Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” and Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” the game wears its dance-club badge on its sleeve; the character models, which include a Lady Gaga lookalike and a caricature of “Smooth Criminal”-era Michael Jackson, fit well into its clubland universe. It pays homage to various hip-hop and dance-club influences, all the while remaining inviting to those who aren’t familiar with dance culture.
Still, you wonder if too much was left on the cutting room floor. Dance Central’s squandered potential can be seen in the game’s multiplayer mode, “Dance Battle,” in which two players take turns performing a selected song and the player with the highest score wins. It’s a perfectly acceptable multiplayer mode, but a player can’t interact with his or her partner in cooperative multiplayer and friends can’t dance simultaneously as a group—seemingly logical additions that are conspicuously missing. This could be for a myriad of reasons, from Harmonix wanting to get the game out in time for Kinect’s launch, to the company, like many others, still struggling to figure out how to best take advantage of Kinect’s potential.
Missed opportunities—small and large—abound, but Dance Central is still a very impressive game, and at the very least makes Kinect somewhat of an intriguing purchase in a market already crowded with motion-control devices. The music selection, art direction, and overall accessibility combine to form a brilliantly cohesive experience that many games will find hard to rival. Lose yourself long enough in its seamless gameplay and you’ll easily forgive Dance Central for not being what it could have been.