Jammin’ with Cool Cool Toon (and Cool Cool Jam)

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SNK aren’t quite the one-trick fighting game pony they’re sometimes made out to be, having published or developed a variety of shmup, puzzle, sports, mahjong titles and even RPGs (although I’d recommend looking at, rather than playing, Bushido Retsuden) over the course of their eventful history. Even so, the Cool Cool double whammy of interconnected “rhythm comic” titles in a style unlike anything they’ve done before or since still stands out a mile over fifteen years later, so I’m going to use this blog post to take a look at SNK’s first dabble with music-based gaming.

Let’s take a look at Toon first seeing as that’s considered the main game, even though both titles came out on the same day.

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Toon plays out in a broadly similar manner to Playstation classic Bust A Groove, with the player guiding either Amp or Spica through a series of one-on-one dance battles against a variety of outlandish opponents. There’s far more story in Cool Cool Toon though, and you can even revisit old areas to chat to residents or pop to the clothes shop to purchase a new outfit. This story mode is divided into six distinct chapters and as you progress you automatically unlock new characters, songs, and outfits for use in the “Single Fritz” and “Double Fritz” modes (basically 1P/2P “Play any song whenever you like” mode).

Most of the time you’ll be using the “Flitz” system to play the game – this places a ring in the centre of the screen and a button prompt either in the middle or at one of eight points around the edge that you have to move the cursor to and then hit in time to the music. A white ring around a button means this is the button/direction you need to press next, and red rings are upcoming beats, with the ring size indicating the time left until that beat. Sometimes a ghost marker will appear around the edge – the task here is to hold down the A button and then trace an arc in the direction shown. It’s one of those things that’s a lot easier to do than it is to describe, so hopefully the video at the bottom will go some way to making sense of this paragraph.

Cool Cool Toon may look cute and achingly stylish but punishment for slipping up is swift and fierce – miss a beat and the game docks the next one along too, and if you fall too far below the clear point mark the music’s replaced entirely by clown car honks and other noises that make it clear to everyone in the room you’re a rhythm-free buffoon. The good news is that the game’s as quick to praise as it is to punish, and performing even in just a half-decent way on the next section will be enough to rescue your session and carry on with the game.

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The other style of gameplay is the “Notty” system, reserved for far stranger tasks such as disarming a groovy bomb or dodging lasers fired by a mad security robot. This displays a bar along the bottom of the screen with a beat that you must memorise and then copy using the appropriate button. You’ll know which button beforehand as you’ll either be told “Dash = X” or shown “Red bullet = A”. These sequences feel far more strict than the regular Flitz battles, and reminded me a little of Space Channel 5’s “Now faster, and harder, and with the controls reversed” section towards the end. Thankfully they’re not encountered too often and you can retry them for as long as you’ve got the patience to do so.

Bar my own issues with the “notty” sequences and the analogue control during the Flitz dances sometimes feeling a bit woolly Cool Cool Jam is otherwise an essential Dreamcast purchase that still manages to stand out on a system that  already has far more than it’s fair share of great rhythm games. There’s a lot to do and unlock, and being able to rope a friend in is just the icing on an already delicious cake.

I think that’s Toon pretty much covered, so let’s move on to it’s smaller relative Cool Cool Jam. While they both share the same style (as much as is possible with the NGPC’s limitations, anyway) and certain characters they are otherwise nothing alike. Toon was about boogying to the music, whereas Jam is about forming a band and playing the instruments yourself.

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The main story mode here again offers you a choice of boy or girl lead, only your task is to form a band by recruiting members from the largely uncooperative residents of Music Town. The more band members recruited the better the ending you’ll get (one of three) when you complete the story.

Each area of town is themed around a different genre of music – funk, bossa nova, house, rock, and so on – and in each of them you’ll find many NPCs to chat and jam with as well as elusive potential band members to woo. Things soon take a turn for the odd though when you realise that the many tall buildings dotted around act as 2D barriers – although the town has been designed to look like a normal place everything is actually “flat”, meaning the roof of a nearby building will prevent Midi or Wave walking by on the pavement down below. The NGPC may not be a handheld powerhouse but it’s just bizarre to see this show up in a game made in 2000, regardless of the system.

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Things don’t improve when you start jamming either – Cool Cool Jam may be best known as the game the requires you to hold your NGPC in a variety of positions to play but in practise you wish they’d thought of another gimmick to inflict on players instead. You get barely a second to reorient your NGPC to play and the instrument instructions flash before your eyes with no time to take them in. This turns what could have been a fun pick up and play jam session is instead an exercise in frustration and failure as you try to make sense of the controls and fail before you’ve even begun, and even when you do start to learn how they work you never feel like you’re playing an instrument or even as if they make any sense.

There is one nice thing I can say about Jam though – it has a rather nice “Round robin” style multiplayer mode that has you quickly passing a single NGPC back and forth between you and up to seven other friends, and can be played cooperatively or competitively. Enjoy it while it lasts, because not a single one of these people will want to speak to you when this confusing and un-fun party trick’s done.

Cool Cool Jam fails at the most basic level, by being a “Play an instrument!” game that makes playing any sort of tune difficult and nonsensical. Attaching an RPG-lite mode was a clever idea – one which is unfortunately killed dead by the music sessions. Passing an NGPC around to play a tune was another brilliant thought – which is also unfortunately… ah, you know. Use the money you would have spent on this on something else, like a copy of Cool Cool Toon for a friend, there’s little joy to be found here.

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Still, bless SNK for not only venturing into uncharted waters but doing so with a multiplatform simultaneous release with two very different games! Toon is a visual feast backed up by a fun game once you learn its quirks, whereas Jam feels like an ideas-in-a-blender indie game jam entry.  Even so the NGPC game is to be praised for adding some more variety on SNK’s “Yes we really did put Iori in a dress” handheld, and then politely avoided because it’s a bit rubbish.

COOL COOL TOON BONUS ROUND:

If you were wondering how to use the Dreamcast maracas with this game, here’s a quick translation of the important bits of on-disc readme file for you -

Basic menus:

Move left maraca: Analogue stick

Shake left maraca: B button

Shake right maraca: A button

Right maraca button: Start button

Fritz mode:

Move left maraca: Move cursor

Shake right maraca: Button press (The button itself doesn’t matter when using maracas)

Right maraca button: Start button

Notty mode:

Left maraca movement: Button select (Move down for A, right for B, left for X and up for Y)

Right maraca shake: Press button

Right maraca button: Start button