Do you know what a vocaloid is? No? Well, neither did we really, until a couple of years ago. Effectively a fake voice for a synthesising program, it's a digital "instrument" that lets you compose songs for a virtual singer to sing - and as is the way with everything, those crazy Japanese saw fit to give it a pseudo-human personality, and so Hatsune Miku was born. With literally hundreds upon thousands of songs to her name, she even holds concerts in her native Japan, performing as a hologram on stage to packed audiences. So, it comes as no surprise that she's been the star of many a video game over the years too, with Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX marking her first outing on Western 3DSes.
The Hatsune Miku/Project Diva series has kind of become a bit of a guilty pleasure for us, ever since we bought it on sale when we first got our PS Vita. A seriously addictive blend of two of our favourite things, namely, music and dressing up, it's one game that's stubbornly sat on our memory card ever since, perfect for dipping into in a spare ten minutes or so. The only problem is, it rarely ever stays at just ten minutes - it's kind of unreal the amount of fun we can have dressing characters up in increasingly silly costumes and watching them dance around to the robot pop tunes. Kitty Cape outfit? Check. Clown Nose? You bet. A pair of butterfly wings? Don't mind if I do. And let's not forget an oversized Puyo Pop hat! Or maybe I should pull out the mini top hat instead? Decisions, decisions! Maybe we need to get out more...
Anywho, Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX marks the virtual pop starlet's first foray onto the Nintendo 3DS - and with it comes a bit of a new visual style. Taking the previous game's kind of cutesy, girly aesthetic and kicking it up to eleven, Project Mirai's new bobble-headed cast, abundance of rainbows and a rather amazing rabbit hood hat-thing certainly leave a rather kawaii impression as you tap, press and swipe your way through the game's 48 tracks. A mix of old favourites from the previous PS Vita/Playstation 3 games and a good dollop of new songs, the game has a great mix of catchy, pop-y, occasionally rock-y ballads that you'll likely find yourself humming hours later. The new Payapaya cat song, techno dance tune AgeAge Again (which has to have the weirdest pronunciation of 'Again' we've ever heard) and the animal marching song, Doremifa Rondo were the main offenders, but we can't forget Project Diva F 2nd's toe-tapping Clover Club either.
Once you've picked the tune you want to play, you're transported to a flashy, brightly coloured music video of your idol bopping about in time to the music. Notes swirl around the screen, following a blue line - when they line up with the circle-shaped end of the line, that's when you strike, tapping, swiping or pressing in time with the music. The closer you are to the correct timing, the more points you get, and the higher your final score and rank will be for that song.
What's nice about Project Mirai though, besides it's jam-packed tracklist, is that it offers you two different ways to play each of the songs, with three difficulties a piece. 'Tap' is perhaps the most newcomer friendly, requiring you to tap the Touch Screen in time with the coloured prompts as they follow their path around the screen, occasionally swiping in a specific direction, or circling your stylus around for bonus points on held notes. As the difficulty climbs, it simply splits the Touch Screen into more coloured sections, giving you more differently coloured notes to contend with, to a maximum of three on the hardest difficulty.
'Button' meanwhile gives you a more traditional Hatsune Miku experience, making use of the A, B, X and Y buttons instead. As you increase the difficulty, more buttons come into play, with easy sticking purely to alternating between the A and B buttons, while hard introduces directions on the +Control Pad as well, properly tying your fingers up in knots. If you really must use a stylus though, the Touch Screen is also divided into four when you're playing in button mode, with one for each face button, although you may start to run into problems when you need to press two notes together, from medium onwards.
That being said, when you boot up the game for the first time, you may come away slightly confused - for what is primarily a rhythm game, the beginning seems awfully life sim like, akin to the likes of Animal Crossing or Tomodachi Life. You're asked to choose yourself a 'partner' to live with, of which the titular Miku is but one, given a selection of basic decors to choose from, and unceremoniously plonked in the room, with relatively little explanation. You can interact with your new-found friend, give them snacks and buy new furniture and outfits from the store too. The actual meat of the game - the rhythm portion - is hidden in a tiny corner of the menu, yet is the only way to earn the cash to spend on stuff at the stores. Fans of the previous Project Diva games from the Playstations will already be familiar with the light life sim element, but it's never been as front and centre as it is on Project Mirai - and for an audience that potentially haven't played the past entries, it may be a little confusing.
Speaking of the life sim element - which isn't really in depth enough to really be called one - you can hang out with your chosen partner for a while, playing a couple of rounds of Reversi or feeding them various snacks for… reasons? Spending time with them increases your friendship status, although with no way of really measuring it, it's mostly guesswork until the collectable 'stamp' for becoming friends unlocks. Still, collecting furniture and outfits and to deck out your apartment and vocaloid is pretty fun, although the customisation options do feel a lot more limited than previous games, which is a bit of a let down. Changing outfits is broken down into just two parts - the head and clothes, with nothing in the way of funky accessories like eye patches, teddy bear backpacks and chefs hats to speak of. But you can still carry this customisation over into the music game, doing up the singer in any of your unlocked outfits for each song you play.
Perhaps the best thing outside of the main game, though, is 'Puyo Puyo 39', a quick-fire game of Puyo Pop against the various vocaloids. A combination of match three and Tetris, the idea is to match up the falling coloured blobs into groups of four or more to make them disappear - stack them in just the right way and you can trigger combos of falling blocks, racking up major points and sending over wave upon wave of useless blobs to clog up your opponents screen. Whoever's screen reaches the top first is declared the loser, so it's in your interest to keep yours as low as possible and there's as full as you can. If you have a friend around that also has Project Mirai, you can take them on in a Puyo Pop battle to the death via Nintendo 3DS Local Play too.
As a cutesy, friendly pick-up-and-play music game, Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX does it's job fantastically - it's fun, addictive and full of catchy tunes. For fans of rhythm games, whether it's Nintendo's own Rhythm Heaven, Final Fantasy-themed Theatrhythm or something more 'mainstream' like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, it'll fill a music-shaped whole in your life, while existing Miku fans are likely to find another familiar vocaloid-infused title to play to death all over again.