Columbus Circle has been responsible for both brand new and revivals of unreleased and out of print software titles on the Famicom and Super Famicom for a little while now. The Rhythm Land series of games marks their entry into the world of brand new Mega Drive releases, which is something that the console has not seen in a very long time (if you’re not counting home-brew stuff). Rhythm Land are retro rhythm games released in two distinct versions: 8 Bit Rhythm Land and 16 Bit Rhythm Land. The first for the Famicom, the second for the Mega Drive.
Both of these titles have four different mini games, each of which feature five selectable songs: Three are available from the start, with the other two having to be unlocked. The additional songs can be unlocked by getting the second best rank on on two songs (on any difficulty). But since the games have no batteries, your scoring and unlocks aren’t persistent. That’s why a code is provided in the manual for both versions that just lets you unlock all of the songs from the start. Each song also has Easy and Hard modes to play on, with only the Mega Drive version featuring a third Hell difficulty (you have to get a perfect score on a song to unlock Hell difficulty for it).
8 Bit Rhythm Land opens with a surprisingly rockin’ track for a Famicom rhythm game: Side Step by Tsukasa Masuko. It’s the most different from what you might expect modern Famicom music to be (at least in the scope of this game), so it was the best choice for an opener. From here you can go right into the mini rhythm games, or if you’re just here for the music go right into the Music Room and just listen to the tracks (both versions of the game also came with soundtrack CDs as well).
Running Girl features a young girl rhythmically jumping over snow balls and kicking bees (?) as they come toward her. On easy difficulty all of these songs were maybe a little bit too easy, so I’d recommend bumping it up to hard for anyone who is even just okay at rhythm games. The screen jumping that occurs with the increased speed of the objects on-screen in hard mode could be bothersome for some though.
Music Baseball is exactly what it sounds like: You’re swinging your bat to the timing of the ball/song. It’s always taken me a little bit to get used to the timing of the swings in any baseball game at first, so I found this to be the most difficult of the mini games offered here. This is also the only one I couldn’t really keep up with on hard mode at all! And if you want an 8 bit version of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, oh boy are you covered!
Hades Rhythm is easily my favorite of the four mini games here, featuring a ninja jumping to hit bricks and skulls Mario style, and use his sword to slash away arrows coming at him. The background graphics are particularly inspired here, and the whole thing gives off a tiny bit of a Ninja Gaiden vibe (in some of the songs as well). This one is also fairly easy, so you may want to consider turning up the difficulty to hard.
Cosmolien is maybe the most unique of the mini games here. It’s a shooter of sorts, that visually calls back to an era even before the Famicom. You’re rhythmically shooting lines of Cosmoliens (I guess?), making sure to not hit the music blocks instead. Occasionally you’ll also see a UFO go across the top of the screen that you can hit for bonus points, and in hard mode you’ll need to use your shield to block fire from incoming ships that you can’t actually shoot down. This easily feels the most like an actual rhythm game.
Many tracks on both 8 Bit and 16 Bit Rhythm Land are by Norio Nakagata and Kazuhiko Sugiyama, who were involved as Producer and Programmer respectively. Nakagata composed music for quite a few Famicom games, as well as a smattering of Game Boy and arcade titles as well. His most notable scores in the west might be for RBI Baseball and Zombie Nation, though he also did the Famicom versions of Macross songs that appeared in the original Famicom Macross game as well. Sugiyama seems to have credits as a programmer as opposed to a composer, but he seems to have worked on titles across a handful of different platforms.
Other contributors include Hally (who was featured on some of Columbus Circle’s other music-based Famicom titles, namely the 8 Bit Music Power series), Junko Ozawa (a former Namco employee who composed mostly for arcade and Famicom), Tsukasa Masuko (who has composed for a ton of platforms, from arcade, to Famicom, to PlayStation Vita), Hironori Shoji (who seems to have done an arrangement for the Columbus Circle released NEO Heiankyo Alien), and Nobuyuki Shioda (composed mostly across the Famicom, Game Boy, and Super Famicom platforms).
Much like how it was always fun to see a game series evolve moving from the 8 bit generation to 16 bit, that same feeling is reflected in going from 8 Bit Rhythm Land to 16 Bit Rhythm Land. In fact the first two mini games here return from 8 Bit Rhythm Land in their new 16 bit forms: Running Girl and Music Baseball.
Running Girl seems to have moved fully into the 90s, with her long blue hair and an outfit meant for spelunking? Anyway, it’s the same sort of thing as Running Girl was on 8 Bit Rhythm Land, but it seems like the difficulty is a bit higher this time. A couple of these songs were pretty tough for me to manage on hard mode.
There isn’t a whole lot else to say about Music Baseball, other than the graphics have been updated and the pitcher/batter names are now in romaji now!
Apart from having the best name of all of the mini games, Melodian Shield is my favorite. It has a couple of choice songs in it (Battle of glory by Norio Nakagata and Silver Lining by TECHNOuchi), and the concept itself is rather unique: You have to hit the incoming shots in time with when they reach each of the three parts of your base. Your initial style of play is probably going to be just using your thumb to move between the buttons. But when you run into shots that hit all three parts of the base at same time, you quickly realize that won’t work. You’re meant to put the controller in your lap, with a finger over each button.
Earth Crisis is really just the updated version of Cosmolien from 8 Bit Rhythm Land, but it got quite the visual update compared to the others! There isn’t much else to say about the game play here as it’s exactly the same, but the songs for this one should make any old school shooter fans very happy!
Norio Nakagata and Kazuhiko Sugiyama are back from 8 Bit Rhythm Land, since they worked as staff on the game (as mentioned above). All of the other contributors from 16 Bit Rhythm Land are completely different though, and the soundtrack in general is a little bit more up my alley. It features shooter music legend Manabu Namiki (various DoDonPachi games, Mushihimesama, Mushihimesama Futari, Battle Garegga, Deathsmiles I & II, etc.), Keishi Yonao (Asuka 120% Excellent: Burning Fest, arrangements for Azure Striker Gunvolt 2, etc.), Yuzo Koshiro (He needs no introduction to anyone who knows anything about game music, but he’s worked on a ton), WING*GHOST (I’m unfamiliar with this artist and couldn’t really find credits, but judging from their soundcloud account it seems like they like to remix Yuzo Koshiro stuff), Nobuyuki Ohnogi (A former Namco employee that worked on music across just about every platform through the Super Famicom era), TAMAYO (Tamayo Kawamoto, was one of Capcom’s original in-house composers. She worked on many of their early arcade and Famicom titles, before going over to Taito to join Zuntata), COSIO (Hirokazu Koshio, a member of Taito’s Zuntata who did a lot of the composition for Dariusburst: Chronicle Saviours), and TECHNOuchi (Yuji Takenouchi, former Konami employee who later went freelance. He did sound design on Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls 2). This is an especially all-star cast, and I think it really shows in the songs.
The Rhythm Land titles definitely offer more for the retro game enthusiast than they do the hardcore rhythm game player, since the mini games aren’t particularly deep. And in my opinion, the main reason to pick these up is for appreciation of 8 and 16 bit game music. They present a rare opportunity to see composers who haven’t worked in these particular mediums of game music give them a shot, and also to see long established composers coming back to them after quite some time away.