A multiplayer game with the word "party" in its title should, at minimum, be able to liven up obligatory family gatherings or occupy a group of people too inebriated to hold a conversation but not ready to go home yet. Call this the Mario Party Mandate. Samba de Amigo: Party Central fails this crucial test so thoroughly that it’s hard to imagine what audience it was even made for.
If you didn’t know that Samba de Amigo: Party Central is the sequel to a well-loved rhythm game, you’re probably not alone. The original Samba de Amigo was released in arcades in 1999 and on the (beautiful and perfect but doomed) Dreamcast in 2000. Since then, the only entries in the series have been an updated version of the Dreamcast game and a 2008 Wii port that failed to live up to its predecessor’s charm.
One of the reasons the original Samba de Amigo stood out was due to its extremely silly maraca peripherals. Players used these special controllers to match onscreen notes in time with the music. The Wii port ditched the original’s maracas in favor of the Wiimotes, which Samba de Amigo: Party Central replaces with the Switch’s Joy-Cons.
That change made Samba de Amigo a lesser game on Wii, and the same is true of Samba de Amigo: Party Central. Put simply, it’s perhaps the least precise rhythm game I’ve ever played.
The Brown Note
In Party Central, as in the original Samba de Amigo, notes move out from the center of the screen toward six targets displayed in a circle. Players need to hold the left or right Joy-Con in a high, middle, or low position and shake it when a note hits the corresponding target. A few twists change things up, like poses that require you to hold still in certain positions and trailing arrows you need to follow along their path.
The problem is, Samba de Amigo: Party Central is terrible at tracking your position accurately. Sometimes I barely flicked my wrist and registered perfect hits; sometimes I would shake the Joy-Con wildly and not have it register at all. There’s no penalty for shaking your controller too early, so waving your arms as close as you can to the right position and hoping for the best is an entirely feasible strategy most of the time. You can also choose to play using button inputs instead of shaking your Joy-Cons, which is a bit more accurate, but saps all the potential fun out of the game.
Samba de Amigo’s terrible controls are such a big problem they would make the game nearly impossible to recommend. But plenty of other problems show up to seal the deal.
Even when the game reads your input correctly, your eyes might have trouble keeping up. I would describe Samba de Amigo: Party Central’s aesthetic as a malevolent version of Lisa Frank. Every inch of the screen is dripping with so much multicolored neon it’s hard to even process it all. Anthropomorphic animals in rave outfits and bondage gear dance on every surface, and the UI constantly pulses with still more color. There’s so much going on that it makes tracking sets of brightly colored notes on top of it the game’s biggest challenge, and a great way to give yourself a headache.
Another thing that set Samba de Amigo apart from its peers was its soundtrack. The original focused mainly on Latin music, rather than the typical pop and rock of other rhythm games. Party Central does away with that, filling its soundtrack mostly with a collection of pop songs several years past their prime, some truly perplexing classic rock tracks like J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold,” and a remix of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” that just made me angry it wasn’t the original.
To be fair, I’m far from the game’s target audience; I’m a jaded old lady whose musical taste has been described as “songs for sad lesbians.” I don’t even recognize most of the tracks in Samba de Amigo: Party Central, much less have any fondness for them. But the same was true of DDR and other music games I’ve enjoyed. The difference is that those games were actually fun to play.
If you happen to like the music on offer and like the sound of a rhythm game that’s more about striking silly poses than mastering technical performances, there’s at least a lot to do in Samba de Amigo. Aside from the standard rhythm mode, there’s Streamigo! — a streamer-themed campaign mode that challenges you to fulfill objectives like score streaks in each song to rank up. The scoring system is incredibly obtuse, ranked in thousands of imaginary “viewers,” but you can win some fun, silly outfits for your avatar by playing.
There’s quite a robust unlock system for cosmetics, which lets you buy accessories from hats and shirts to brand-new heads for Amigo, the cartoon monkey star of Samba de Amigo: Party Central. With dozens of options for multiple categories of accessory, one can only imagine how much work went into making sure none of the maraca options looked like sex toys.
You’ll probably get the most joy showing off your tricked-out avatar in multiplayer modes. A couch co-op mode pits you against another player or challenges you to sync up your beats in Love Checker mode, which was the closest I came to having a good time in Samba de Amigo: Party Central.
Despite there being a handful of multiplayer options available, they all feel functionally the same, other than a few mini-games like baseball, which do away with the rhythm conceit altogether. And no matter how many wacky themes or rules tweaks they add, none of them can overcome the core problem that you just can’t trust the game to read your movements.
By a wide margin, the star of the show is World Party mode. This online battle royale mode pits you against seven other players and 12 bots for three rounds, with the lowest scorers dropping out after each song until a victor is crowned. It still doesn’t feel that much different from any other mode, but it’s at least an interesting twist on the rest of the game. It’s also by far the most difficult way to play, and the only time that my genius strategy of wildly flailing my arms couldn’t reliably secure victory.
Maybe I’m missing the whole point here, but I just can’t see Samba de Amigo: Party Central fitting into my Switch rotation. If I want to master a rhythm game, Theatrhythm or Taiko no Tatsujin are far more satisfying. If I want a party game, there’s already Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. If I just want to jump around while waving Joy-Cons, I’d rather pick up Ring Fit Adventure. Samba de Amigo: Party Central might suffice to keep a children’s birthday party entertained, but even then I don’t think it would be my first pick.
Samba de Amigo: Party Central is available now on the Nintendo Switch.
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