There is a healthy subgenre of games that use music not as decoration, but as the central mechanic of play. These all imagine music in a different way, but there are some similarities - almost all games, in translating audio to video, portray music as color. In hybrid music-shooter Rez, it becomes a synaesthetic lightshow, filling the screen with nebulas of pulsing energy as you mow through enemies to a thudding trance soundtrack. In the Bit.Trip games, the retro beeps and bloops of chiptune music become a rain of bright, bouncy pixels that shimmer across the screen. And in Guitar Hero's time-tested formula, colored notes translate to colored buttons, giving a sense of analogous performance as you clack along. This full-spectrum thinking is so common, that there's a certain delight in finding a rhythm game like NanaOn-Sha's Vib-Ribbon. Standing outside this rainbow of rhythm titles, Vib-Ribbon is content to paint it black.
Vib-Ribbon was released in Japan and Europe on the PlayStation, but at first glance it would seem more at home on a beat up old Atari scavenged from your uncle's garage. The game consists of thin, white lines on a black field. It begins by showing a series of hollow squares that stretch and squash to form thin, horizontal lines - then, there is the sound of a swelling orchestral score, and the lines twang and vibrate in turn. The game is not so much turning on as tuning up. Quickly, these lines converge to form Vibri, a sprightly, rabbity figure, who skips along and sings a chip-tunish ditty. The style is Doo Wop, the only genre of music that speaks exactly as it sounds, and Vibri belts it out: A-ba-ba-dum-diddy-dum. A shoobie-doobie-doobie-doo-waa. This is a strong hint of where the game will take us - only ten seconds in, and already it's into the shoobie doobie doobies.
This graphical economy springs from a technical problem - Vib-Ribbon was designed to work with whatever musical CD you liked, a spot normally reserved for the game disc itself. The solution was to create a vector-graphics game small enough to load entirely into the system's memory, freeing up the system's disc slot for a CD of whatever tunes tickle your fancy. The gameplay follows Vibri as she leaps, loops, tumbles and stretches across a literal manifestation of the musical "track" - the "vib-ribbon" of the game's title. Besides setting the tempo, the music's ups and downs are translated into a set of obstacles - a deep, V shaped pit, a tall rectangular block, a set of zig-zagging spikes, and a loop-de-loop. It's amazing how these pitfalls comprise a videogame shorthand - this is all familiar terrain. The block stands tall and inviolate, not something you'd like to plow through. The spikes are as jagged and unfriendly as any that have robbed countless lives from countless avatars. And the loop-de-loop? Well, the loop-de-loop's my favorite. Isn't it everyone's?
But despite looking like a game from the Asteroids-era, this vector aesthetic never seems outdated or crude. Vib-Ribbon has good graphics, in the sense that they perfectly suit the game. Rather than seeming stiff, or unplayable, this simple animation has looseness and a lightness of form. Polygons snap and contract to the beat as if strummed by an invisible hand. In later levels, the track itself begins bouncing around, winding back on itself, forcing the player to trace that winding line to the musical tempo to prepare for upcoming obstacles. Through all this, there is the sense that Vibri and the track she skips along are make of the same stuff - collide headlong into any obstacle, and everything begins to jangle up like a sour note, losing its form and coherence. Fumble too much, and Vibri begins to break down, devolving from leporine humanoid into a monkey, then a frog, then a snake. It is not a lineage that would pass muster with Darwin, but here, it works. Vibri's effortless vim communicates something fundamental to many of NanaOn-Sha's games - that beyond everything, music is a pleasure in itself.