tippity-tappiting to the beated it!!
There's a little bit of premise, and a tiny bit of story, but we're talking about a rhythm game here. I care about, in descending order:
playing fun/playing challenge
Let's move through these in an unappealing, haphazard order.
The graphics are...exceptionally...meh. You control either Beat, a boy (blue, looks a lot like Mega Man on roller blades) or a girl (pink, I wish she looked like Roxy but no). There are no portraits--nor animations--of them the GBA couldn't handle with detail to spare. Nor of anybody else. Nor any backgrounds of interest. Keyword here would be "bland".
But playing the game is simply tits. It's the first Atlus game I've played where the default difficulty level actually falls into my sweet spot: you have to pay attention, and you have to try, but if this happens, you'll beat the game without that much trouble. At its hardest, the Normal difficulty level is comparable to the hardest Easy levels of Osu! Tatake! Ouendan!. (The inevitable comparison, as a Japanese rhythm game easily accessible in these United States.)
Ontamarama plays like so: atop the bottom screen, notes scroll across a bar, and into a circle. Once the note reaches the circle, you have to hit the D-pad in the direction the note requires. The better the note is centered when you hit its direction, the bigger the score. And the better the song'll sound. Easy-peasy.
Except the notes show up on the bar..."empty". You gotta fill'm. You fill'm by using the stylus to tap lil' critters floating 'round on the bottom screen. These critters? Ontama. Different colors of Ontama correspond to different directions the notes'll require. So sometimes it'll get all hectic and you'll need to plan what Ontama you'll clear. While tapping to the beat with your other hand.
More complexities exist, but those'd be the basics: two hands doing two completely different tasks to the beat. Hard mode gets preposterous, requiring yr stylus hand to abandon the screen to go dick around on the face buttons. And then return to the screen to clear yet more Ontama. I won't be progressing terribly far in this mode.
The songs are all pretty palatable. I mean, I like j-pop, at least the versions of it I get from Ouendan, Jet Grind Radio, and to a lesser extent, Space Channel 5. And Ontamarama's tunes are pretty much along those lines. There's some rocky stuff (with guitars, yo) that I find enjoyable on its own terms, but there's also good pairing of slow melodies with fast beats, and a song or two with truly nifty off-beats.
The presentation is generous: plenty of extras to unlock, stuff you can buy to make the game easier, and all the songs you've cleared can be played at any time. Doing this gets in-game currency that allows unlocking later. (If you want to get good at Hard mode, play through the Normal campaign WITHOUT "easy start" and "guard". Fucking trust me.) Later on you get some sets of songs to play through, which is strangely compelling as well. All of these options are, upon reflection, stolen from Meteos. Good lift, fellows!
The reviews have suggested that Ontamarama is a good starter game, a good introduction to the genre. I'll buy that...on Normal. On Hard? This is a savage challenge and I don't care how good you got at Ouendan or SC5. Even on Normal, score-chasing options abound. Those of us who like pure play experiences with real opportunities for playing with personal style are bound to have a dynamite time.
I am such a player; I indeed had one TNT-based week with the cart, and it's still in my travel roster. I give it one Fat scowling at his DS at the coffee shop out of ten. (But if you want a real--and really long-winded--review, peep Pete Sellers.)