Saturday, midnight, Soho. Bob and I are in the arcade halfway down Wardour Street, eyeing up the various dancing games. Although we’ve tried most of them, we know there’s really only one we get along with: the king of bemani games, Dance Dance Revolution. Two women in their late-twenties are working through the beginner mode, and they’re doing pretty well. We’re wondering if we can edge in for the next game, but three guys place pound coins on the ridge above the controls – damn! Well, hopefully they won’t be long. But they look like they mean business…
When the two women finish, they ask the guys if they should be playing winner-stays-on – “Is that how you play around here?” – but eventually they settle on two of the guys taking over. And it’s just as well: they set the difficulty level on “HEAVY” and suddenly the screen is chock-full of arrows and “PERFECT!” and the machine is yelling “You’re doing GREAT!” and just trying to watch their feet is making me dizzy. It’s only during the break in between stages that I note that one of two guys is wearing a t-shirt with the four DDR arrows on the front and “DDR NORWAY” on the back. Ah-ha.
While he’s taking a break from the machine I discover that his name is Kim and that over the past two years he’s spent a total of two thousand pounds on DDR, just money pumped into the machine. “No, wait… five thousand by now. Whoah! That’s a lot of money. But now I don’t spend as much because I usually play for free at work, when I can.” His employer is the sole distributor of DDR machines in Norway.
I ask about the t-shirt. “We’re a group of DDR players in Norway.” Do they play other bemani games? “No, just DDR.” He points to the guy he was playing with, now off the machine and chatting to his girlfriend. “He’s from Sweden, he has a DDR group there too.” The machine is now in the control of the third chap, a large-ish bloke with shoulder-length hair. “He has a group in France, but they play all kinds of music games.” Do you guys play competitively? “Sometimes… like tomorrow. It’s why we’re all here – there’s a big contest at the Namco arcade in Westminster. There’ll be players from four different countries. It’s pretty big.”
The Frenchman’s name is Benoit and he’s president of M-Games, a non-profit collective of bemani gamers who’ve received occasional sponsorship from Konami, the producers of DDR. I ask him what particular games they play. “DDR, Beatmania, Pop’n Music, Guitar Freak… hang on…” He reaches for his jacket, pulls out a wad of paper, unfolds it and shows me a list of games spanning four A4 pages. Quite a lot of games, then. (Kim, meanwhile, has reclaimed the machine – he’s now playing across both player areas, with the arrows going invisible halfway up the screen. He’s still doing irritatingly well.) So how did he get involved? “I got dumped!” Oh no! “Yep – it was about a year ago, and I was so depressed I started playing DDR for five hours a day to keep myself distracted.” He moves his hands out a few inches from his belly. “That’s where I was a year ago.”
Kim, similarly, lost ten kilos as a result of DDR. I ask him about his general fitness while he’s leaning over the bar, panting. “It’s much better than it was before.” How long are his DDR sessions, on average? “Two to three hours. Longest has been eight or nine. But I got into London on Wednesday and I’ve been playing pretty much non-stop – I’m exhausted!” I ask about the contest again: will there be freestyling there? “The main contest is straight DDR for points, but there’ll be some exhibitions too. You should come along! It’s at Namco Station, on the opposite side of the Thames from Big Ben… near the Millennium Wheel. Starts at ten AM.”
Eventually the experts head off (Benoit gives me his card before he goes, asking me to put my sister in touch regarding the karaoke game she’s working on at SCEE) leaving Bob and I with the DDR machine. We start a game on the “LIGHT” setting. We feel rather silly.