Casual Encounters is a column by LB Hunktears, Fanbyte’s resident casual gamer, about what they’re playing — from mobile free-to-plays to console releases, always through a non-expert lens.
I don’t normally enjoy difficult games: especially not repetitive ones. I gave up on Dark Souls Remastered somewhere around the third or fourth bonfire. I can’t stand platformers. I hated Hades. But when the gameplay and the songs align just right, I can go wild for a rhythm game that pushes me past my limits.
It’s been a while, though. Having never found a replacement for Love Live: School Idol Festival (which I dropped when the series traded out the original lineup for younger girls, which I still think is an insane thing to do with anime girls who do not age), nothing could scratch the same itch. I needed to like the songs, the gameplay, and have an emotional connection to it all. I wasn’t patient enough to learn new anime characters; I had long since given up on the traditionally miserable official rhythm games for actual, human idols.
So after getting extremely into BTS during the 2020 world lockdown, the K-pop group’s mobile free-to-play rhythm game, Rhythm Hive (which launched in February and is actually super fun) was perfectly optimized to hook me.
Ask a fan “What is the most fun BTS song?” You’d probably get a pretty wide variety of answers. They’ve released a lot in the eight years since their debut. Still, an unlikely contender would be the mournful “Black Swan”: a serious, introspective look at burnout and creative anxiety. But in Rhythm Hive, it’s probably the most viscerally satisfying. The way the notes bend and stretch in the pre-verse sections, the way they scatter out during the chorus… It feels anxious and desperate in a way that’s lyrical — harmonious with the track itself. I play Rhythm Hive on the fastest speed available, so the notes fly down my screen with wonderful urgency. Each tap feels expressive and important, like I’m really playing the song.
Or at least like I’m dancing to it. The shapes and patterns the notes make are evocative of “Black Swan”’s choreography: the bending and stretching of arms, the sway of bodies. The way I tap a flurry of notes with one hand and hold a single note with another actually looks like a specific moment when Jimin dances down the line of the other members.
With songs from BTS and the group’s labelmates, TXT and ENHYPEN, Rhythm Hive is full of catchy, fun, cheerful pop. But from the teen angst of TXT’s wonderfully whiny “Can’t You See Me” to the dramatic harp of ENHYPEN’s vampire anthem “Given-Taken,” there’s something kind of moody about most of my favorite Rhythm Hive songs to play. Even my upbeat picks are frenzied and manic (“Dope,” “Fire”) rather than cheerful (“Boy With Luv,” “Blue Hour”).
While I will maintain that “Black Swan” has a singularly excellent level design, my preference for songs with a hint of desperation probably says more about me than Rhythm Hive. My goal from the moment I downloaded the game was to start racking up perfect combos on the hardest, fastest modes I could access. Songs that feel urgent and dramatic suit that playstyle best. If you play rhythm games, or even fighting games, you know how good it feels to grit your teeth, push through combos, and be rewarded with the knowledge that you didn’t make a single mistake. As much as I call myself a casual gamer, through and through, I can’t resist the siren song of a graphic simply calling my performance “Perfect.”
There are more challenges on my self-given quest to collect perfect combos than just my own ability. The reason being that Rhythm Hive is not a perfect game. It’s less buggy now than at launch, but it still crashes every so often. Usually right when I’ve gotten a great score. I’ve lost a few “Perfect Hits” badges that way.
There are other things that don’t quite work. This week’s update added the new BTS single “Butter,” including an option to play its music video in the background. Which would be perfect… if it was synced correctly. In practice, the video is seconds ahead of the song, which throws me off so much that it becomes unusable (something the devs will hopefully fix in next week’s update).
Still, I can’t begrudge Rhythm Hive for its imperfections. It seems almost wholly unconcerned with “perfection” as a concept, or even ambition and achievements. That’s… pretty weird for a game. You can download it right now and find every song unlocked in full on all three main difficulties. If you just want to tap along to your favorite tunes, you’re all set from the jump. That’s all the game even was for the first month of its existence.
In March, the creators launched Season One, which made Rhythm Hive feel a lot more traditionally “gamey,” introducing a series of increasingly difficult missions, an additional, higher speed, and a fourth difficulty to unlock on limited songs. May’s Season Two update added daily, weekly, and monthly quests. Now Rhythm Hive feels very properly like a game game.
… sort of. Maybe it’s because I’ve played since launch, but since every addition (Mission Mode, Quests, Super-Hard) is entirely optional, and you can still purely hang out and play whole songs you like more-or-less to your heart’s content, it’s blatantly obvious that I opt for a more difficult, frustrating experience for no reason other than my own enjoyment.
is this a joke… is this some kind of joke on me…… pic.twitter.com/EUfMM5MvOv
— LB Hunktears @ holy kingdom of fungus (@hunktears) May 28, 2021
It’s almost as though Rhythm Hive is saying “we made a fun, nice game for you, but some of you seem to be weird perverts who want to have a bad time, so we added to-do lists and challenges or whatever. So yeah, if you’re a freak, here, you have to play three songs on mirror mode super fast with no mistakes and you can’t see the notes. If you do enough of these, you can unlock a mode to have an even worse time. Is that what you wanted? No, I’m not judging. It’s not my thing, but hey, to each their own.”
My only real complaint about the updates is that Rhythm Hive, in spite of having gacha and paid content, never really drove players to spend money until Season Two. It still isn’t nearly as pushy as the average gacha game — let alone the average officially licensed K-pop rhythm game — but it’s a bummer when new features like voice packs are only available if you shell out $6.49 a month for the FAN Plus subscription.
That said, Rhythm Hive remains very playable for free. Gems, coins, and low-rarity gacha pulls are plentiful simply as rewards for playing songs, clearing quests, logging in, and special events. Rhythm Hive rewards players in other ways for just being engaged fans outside of the game — from linking your memberships elsewhere to the ease of remembering special event timing.
In almost every way, being a BTS fan gives me an edge when I play Rhythm Hive. I know the songs well and rarely mind hearing one over and over again as I try to clear a mission. But there is a point where my familiarity and knowledge work against me.
Lately I’ve been struggling to get perfect hits on “Paradise.” It’s a song with some pretty tough sections, but is still easier than others I’ve mastered. I really like the track, too! It’s this whole thing about how the idea of dreams has become overly sacred in service to capitalistic ideals of human progress. It’s one of the most direct BTS social commentary songs.
So when I set my jaw, letting my mind go blank, getting a feel for the beat, determined to get through the arduous rap segments. When RM lazily ends his verse by telling me “we deserve a life,” I know exactly what he’s talking about, and he’s absolutely right: we do deserve a life. I deserve a life.
Like, what am I doing? What’s wrong with my value system and self understanding? I should know better than to believe that whatever the next arbitrary marker of success or achievement I’ve set for myself, whether it’s reaching a certain number on my bank statement or getting perfect hits in “Paradise” on Rhythm Hive, will bring me any kind of lasting happiness.
…and then I flub my hits and fuck up the combo.
I’m not used to being reminded of my humanity when I’m playing a rhythm game. I’m certainly not used to being reminded of the folly of valuing achievement by the game in which I’m actively chasing achievements.
“Stop running for nothing, my friend,” the members sing to me over and over again as the song reaches its close.
I mean, I appreciate the sentiment! Thanks guys! You’re absolutely right! But in this one situation, the one I’m in right at that moment, running for nothing is kind of the point.
The song finishes and I still don’t have my “Perfect Hits” badge. The dissonance is too much for me to overcome. I don’t feel too bad about it, though. I can still play as much as I want. I haven’t missed out on unlocking anything. I won’t even get a reward for getting Perfect Hits — just a little image next to the song, like a check mark.
“Paradise” is not very well suited to rhythm games. After all, it was written for an album based on the work of Erich Fromm, not for Rhythm Hive! Still, I like that it’s here. There’s something funny about the dissonance. Not to mention my own reaction to the dissonance. I’m not musically tuned to the song the way I am so easily with “Black Swan,” but I feel philosophically aligned with it. The satisfaction isn’t as visceral or tasty. It’s not that good brain chemical video game success feeling of overcoming a challenge. Nor that frustrated, determined video game failure feeling of being defeated by a challenge. It’s a break from that cycle entirely.
Rhythm Hive doesn’t really care about my failure, either. It neither encourages me to try again nor chides me for messing up. Sometimes I keep playing, either the same song or a different one. Sometimes I close the app. Either way, it feels very much like my own choice, rather than something I’m urged through by some irresistible momentum.
I like being given the space to put the game down — not out of boredom or frustration or running out of lives, but because I’ve found a natural place to stop for the moment.
I worry a little that Rhythm Hive will keep getting more and more gamey in future seasons. I’m scared it will completely abandon the “Paradise” mindset. But until then, I’m pretty close to unlocking “Dope” on Super Hard, which looks deliciously, unreasonably impossible. So I’ll keep logging in for my jpegs and tapping along with the songs I like until it stops being fun.