In 1996, Masaya Matsuura created PaRappa The Rapper, a pioneering game widely considered the first to mine fun from musical beats. Matsuura's latest is a surprise, not so much in the way it innovates, but where it forges new ground. Until now, most of the iPod's video-game offerings have been rehashes of popular casual games. Matsuura's musika responds to Bejeweled and Zuma by looking at the iPod as the context, not simply a platform, for games.
Part visualizer, part sonic quiz, musika taps into your song library, then grills you on the titles. One at a time, letters swirl onscreen, materializing from the abstract blur of the light show. If the letter is one of the characters used to spell the song's title players click and score points, earning bonuses depending on how fast they respond. Wrong answers earn demerits, and long strings of errorless play score bonus multipliers. That's all there is to the game, but musika's outward simplicity is deceptive. Played on the hardest difficulty, the game puts even the sharpest reflexes to the test. Played on "easy," the game is a pushover, but remarkably suited to on-the-go play in places where subway stops, crosswalks, and other distractions divide your attention. Still, the game feels a dash away from brilliance. One more big idea or layer of complication could have transformed this enriching, but essentially fat-free, time-killer into something truly revolutionary.
Beyond the game: musika isn't entirely groundbreaking. The generically titled iPod game Music Quiz plays short snippets, asking listeners to select the song title from a list of four. Matsuura's own Vib Ribbon (never released stateside) let players swap the PlayStation disc out for one of their own music CDs and play using their own soundtrack.
Worth playing for: In an age where voracious media consumers download music by the gigabyte, musika refocuses our attention on the moment, encouraging us to re-engage our entertainment and take the time to learn, and hopefully remember, the names of all those songs crammed onto our iPods.
Frustration sets in when: The game's trance-like zone shatters when a Patton Oswalt track pops up during shuffle. For the obsessively compulsive, musika can be another niggling reminder that your mp3 tags need to be cleaned up.
Final judgment: In spite of its pedigree, musika doesn't reach the hallucinatory heights of Rez or recapture the anarchic optimism of PaRappa the Rapper.