It’s amazing how you can accidentally fall into a fandom. You follow a link, make a mental note of something mentioned on a podcast or actually read one of those ads your eyes typically bypass on a web page and, boom, you’re suddenly a 32-year-old dude who devotes too much of his free time to collecting virtual idols and molding them into the most legendary pop sensation the world has ever known.
In case the above description didn’t give it away, I’m talking about the mobile game Love Live! School Idol Project or, as it’s more commonly known here in the States, School Idol Festival. I've known about the game/anime for a while now but, for some reason, I never bothered to give it a proper shot.
I was aware of its rabid fanbase, so perhaps I was afraid that Love Live! was already too well established, too massive, for a casual Joe to just jump in willy-nilly. Or, coming at it from a slightly different angle, maybe I didn't want to bother with something so mainstream. I try to keep an open mind about things, but I think everyone occasionally falls victim to a mindset that argues “Everyone else likes it, so I'm going to ignore it.”
And then there's the fact that I'm an adult male who sometimes feels like he has to hide his interests for fear of ridicule. We're talking about teenie-bopper girls singing sugary-sweet pop ditties and, not being the most manly of mantastic things, it's easy (and unfortunate) that I'd expect to be frowned upon for enjoying it.
There's also the fact that the Love Live! game is a free-to-play mobile title (Android, iOS), which is usually a huge red flag in my book. I've tried to give these gratis games a fair shake time and time again and, time and time again, I've been disappointed.
So, yeah, I was well aware of the fact that Love Live! existed, I just couldn't be bothered to give it the time of day...Until recently.
I was listening to Episode 9 of the Crunchycast (Anime site Crunchyroll's weekly podcast) when co-host Evan Minto brought up a recent announcement coming from Love Live! developer KLab, stating that the mobile game had reached the impressive milestone of 9 million registered users in Japan. That figure was enough to perk up my ears, but I was even more impressed when Minto further explained that said figure equates to about a seventh of all mobile users in Japan.
I'll give you a moment to let that figure sink in. One in every seven Japanese mobile phone owners have played the game.
Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued. I'm fairly outspoken about my distaste for the mobile market, which is overflowing with shoddy cash-grabs and free-to-play clones piled upon free-to-play clones that typically boast tired match-three or monster-raising mechanics fueled by impenetrable currency systems that make it hard to tell what you're actually paying for.
But when I hear figures like the ones KLab are throwing around, my ability to flat-out ignore something runs dry. For a game to draw that much attention, I figure it has to be doing something right. I decided I owed it to myself to at least give the game, and Love Live! itself, a fighting chance, so I hit the download button and hoped I wasn't wasting my time and precious memory card space.
For those of you who haven't played the game yet, Love Live! offers a fairly straightforward set-up. Your job is to collect idols, nine of which you can equip to a team in order to send them to live performances. The game has a few things in common with your typical free-to-play fare, including a for-pay currency (Hearts), an energy bar that determines how many times you can play before it needs to recharge, and the ability to collect and upgrade lots and lots of characters.
What I found so refreshing this time around was how Love Live! takes those familiar systems and streamlines them, making for a more palatable concoction that doesn't get bogged down by redundancies and mindless busywork. You only have the two major currencies, for instance; Hearts are used to refill your energy bar or unlock characters more quickly and Coins are spent on upgrading characters. That's it.
And rather than offer dozens of upgrade and leveling items, Love Live! allows you to either spend any character to boost another character, or combine two of the same character to evolve them once. After pouring plenty of hours into games like Puzzle & Dragons and Deck Heroes, I can't tell you how inviting I found this simplicity.
But what really sets Love Live! apart from the pack is the fact that it boasts legitimate gameplay. Prompts fly across the screen to the rhythm of the obnoxiously catchy songs and your job is to tap them when they highlight one of your idols. Regular taps, double taps and held notes combine across multiple difficulty levels, making for a quality rhythm game experience I actually want to play. It brings me back regularly because it's a lot of fun, not because I just want to grab my daily rewards that, in the long run, amount to very little. If you enjoy games like Hatune Miku, Theatrhythm Final Fantasy or even Rock Band/Guitar Hero, you'll feel right at home here.
Before I knew it, I was hooked, spending as much time playing Love Live! as I would typically dedicate to a regular, full-priced rhythm game. More importantly, the game has finally opened me up to becoming a fan of Love Live!/School Idol Fesitval in general. I want to learn more about the central cast of characters and hear more of their song. I've found myself looking up fan polls, forums and articles. The anime is now on my to-watch list and I will likely mainline the entire thing in one sitting.
Something about Love Live! kept it just outside of my radar. Whatever the reason, it prevented me from discovering something that I currently can't get enough of. That's a sad place to be. Hopefully this experience will serve as a reminder the next time I'm hesitant to try out something new.