By Neil Merrett
Just Dance 2020, released on Nintendo Switch in 2019, Developed by Ubisoft
If music has a viable claim to being ‘food for the soul’, then the Just Dance series of games should best be viewed as a snack for the ego.
First released back in the era of the original Nintendo Wii console, the Just Dance series is ostensibly a rhythm game that asks you to perform a fully choreographed dance number to some long-lost euro pop tune or a modern hip hop banger.
This dance must either be performed vaguely in time to the music, synced to some obscure visual cues from the game itself, or the movements of a silhouetted onscreen dancer.
The player’s performance, tracked seemingly via the movement of motion controllers such as the Wiimote, a joy-con or even a mobile phone, uses a pleasingly opaque points system that provides an overall score stretching into the thousands to each player depending on how well they do. This score is then handily broken down into a star rating.
Theoretically, the game is no different to the motion-controlled bowling game that was famously packaged with the original Wii console more than a decade ago.
However, instead of swinging the controller back and forward to approximate the basic play style of ten pin bowling, Just Dance asks you to waggle your controller to some complex and not so complex dance moves. These can combine everything from Jazz hands, disco and break dancing, to popping and locking and the conga, amongst a host of other styles and improvised movement.
Whether the player opts to hone their moves to the several dozen songs included on a particular annual edition of the game, or punts out for a special daily or annual fee to access hundreds of online songs that brings together decades of dance disciplines, the premise of the game is maybe to surprise yourself at your own ability or pragmatic take on dancing.
A player may find that a basic lack of hip movement in their daily lives can be overcome by some fantastically expressive arm movements that are not normally required during a basic run though of Super Mario Maker, COD or FIFA.
Most brilliantly, unless the player records or streams themselves, you cannot actually see your own dancing or how it may fall short of the onscreen dancers onscreen.
The game’s main feedback during play is a series of mostly positive and often extremely generous reactions to how in sync with a particular song you are, ranging from ‘super’ or ‘perfect’, to ‘good’ or the suspiciously vague ‘ok’ rating.
The great leveller
The decision to break down the process of dance into a form of local or online competitive videogame has the unusual effect of making anyone a dancer.
It is perhaps the ultimate form of videogame sleight of hand; a series of games that urges the average player to discard what years of objective reality and family weddings have told them – and believe, through a simple scoring system, that there may be some kind of dancer lurking within their soul that is perhaps only visible to a humble game console.
That a player’s coordination is off or their moves may be a little unorthodox is secondary to the attempts they may make to contort their body into an approximation of the shapes and moves onscreen. It may not be pretty, but so long as you are battling to mimic the motions of he onscreen dancer to a broad beat, then anyone has a chance at the game.
It is a great leveller at parties, but Just Dance can also be a hard pill to swallow for a competent real-world dancer when finding their natural abilities scoring less than a spirited underdog with little to no natural rhythm in the left side of their body.
Suddenly the trope of a videogame scores takes on an almost esoteric kind of form, where the best dancer is decided on how in-time you can flail and spin to the on-screen motions, rather than the minute placement of fingertips and toes. A player who successfully chains a number of moves together is awarded with the occasional golden move that awards additional bonuses if performed correctly. This golden move evokes a similar sense of satisfaction and achievement as performing a special move in a fighting game.
For some players, ripping out a rival’s spine in a game like Mortal Kombat may seem a little underwhelming when compared to physically pirouetting into a perfectly timed golden flex pose or galloping dance to finish off a foe. This might not be an immediately apparent desire for the common gamer – but there is nothing like being surprised to discover a previous base desire to want to be with Britney Spears might also extend to longing to match her ability to perform a choreographed shimmy.
It can be in these strangely zen moments where a player suddenly pulls off a combo of semi-passable moves where the game mischievously starts to create the impression, they are truly pulling off a dance floor banger that was formerly the domain of perfectly synched heartthrobs.
Much as other genres of games can allow a mild mannered or anxious individual to believe they may be a preening rock-god, or a fearless super soldier punching their way through hell, the evolution of motion and dance games is another means to allow a player to playfully push at their own conceptions of who they are.
Can there be much greater an ambition for a developer’s game? The value of a transgressive videogame is not just about offering an existential views of who we are and why we make the decisions we do, it can also be something that asks you to break the habit of a lifetime and approximate some kind of Cossack dance in a livingroom alongside your nearest and dearest.
But gamer beware. The transformative impact on ones’ self-perceptions can work both ways; Just Dance can provide immense reward to a player when discovering they can outscore a more slender and rhythmic rival in performing Dua Lipa’s ‘New Rules’. Yet within minutes it can make that same individual face the prospect that, contrary to their deepest held beliefs, they might not be the finest living proponent of the Ghostbuster’s dance.
Every dancer must face that reckoning within themselves, but whether it is being used primarily as an occasional party game, a semi-regular exercise regime in an unprecedented age of quarantine, or a personal odyssey to learn the cha-cha slide, Just Dance is an effective platform to push a few boundaries without pulling anything.