Occupying the middle ground between a videogame and a stringent exercise regime, Konami's Dancing Stage games have always been a strange beast. Much like Sony's Singstar, they're the kind of games which inspire rapt fascination and abject horror in roughly equal measure. Whether or not you like Dancing Stage depends largely on whether you enjoy making a fool of yourself for the entertainment of others, and whether or not you're concerned by the prospect of small children pointing at you in the street and laughing. If you like Dancing Stage, you're probably the first person on the dance floor at parties. You also probably can't dance, but, crucially, you don't care.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying: you're either going to buy Dancing Stage Fusion or you're not, and there's very little this review can say which will change your mind in either direction. If you've shied away from the series thus far, there's nothing here that will make you change your mind. It's more of the same, with knobs on. If, however, you're an arm-swingin', leg-flingin', dancemat-totin' disco diva, then the prospect of a whole disc full of new songs is going to be pretty much irresistible. In fact, you've probably bought it already.
In many respects, then, Konami don't need to try too hard. And some might say that they haven't. Dancing Stage Fusion contains largely the same features that have graced both the previous PS2 Dancing Stage games and their PS1 predecessors. In other words, you've got a wide selection of songs, featuring a mixture of well-known pop hits and special Konami compositions created especially for the series. In the case of Dancing Stage Fusion, the songs include recent hits from the likes of Electric Six, Jamelia and Junior Senior, as well as older numbers from Kim Wilde, Tony Basil and the Pet Shop Boys. In fact, the balance of songs can sometimes make this feel like Dancing Stage: Dodgy 1980s Edition, and there surely can't be that many fans of the series old enough to remember some of these songs from first time around (this reviewer, sadly, being an exception), but there's more variety here than in previous instalments and, with 21 pop hits and 33 Konami compositions, more songs overall as well.
There's been a real attempt to broaden the appeal of the game this time around. Casual players will probably stick with the main Game Mode, which remains largely unchanged from previous titles: one or two players compete for points over a selection of three songs. Each player can choose a different difficulty if they wish - ensuring that even unfit lardbuckets needn't feel entirely outclassed by their nimbler friends - and there are a substantial number of tweaks and settings that can be applied to make the game more or less difficult as required. Exercise fanatics will find a much-improved Workout mode as well as the ever-popular Endless Mode which allows you to dance till you drop. And, significantly, for the first time there's been a significant attempt to increase the amount of gameplay available to the solo player. The main game features a selection of Nonstop and Challenge tasks, and there's a large Mission Mode included which helps to mix things up.
For the solo player, then, the structure of Dancing Stage Fusion is significantly closer to a "traditional" game than any of the previous instalments have been. There are levels to be beaten, challenges to be tackled, a goal to be achieved and items to be unlocked. In fact, rather a lot of the game is locked initially, including several songs and a couple of the more significant game modes (inlcuding, oddly, Mission Mode, which for many people may well have been the reason for purchase in the first place). This does provide some longevity, but as you play it's never clear precisely why items have been unlocked or what you need to be aiming for, and the system can come across as unnecessarily miserly, denying you access to modes you really want to play for no real discernable reason. With a little more thought and a clearer reward system, this could have been an asset to the game, but as it stands it's more of an irritation.
Entirely new to the series are a selection of mini-games, including the EyeToy support that lends the title its Fusion moniker. Waving your hands around at the same time as moving your feet is surprisingly tricky and can lead to much hilarity, as well as a few pratfalls. It's a shame that EyeToy support hasn't been integrated throughout, but it's a welcome feature and something that will surely be expanded in the future. Other mini-games include a basic (and exhausting) Track and Field title, a simple reaction test that involves stepping on the correct arrow as food appears, and a suspiciously-familiar looking game involving window washing. In truth, these work remarkably well and it's surprising that in this mini-game-obsessed age that it's taken so long for someone to make the obvious connection with dance mats. Given the number of mats in circulation, it's surely only a matter of time before Konami dispense with the music altogether and try an entirely dance mat-based mini-game compilation title along the lines of EyeToy: Play. But remember, you saw it here first.
In short, Dancing Stage Fusion attempts to offer something for everyone, and very nearly succeeds. It already was a great party game, but the new mini-games enhance this even further. The single-player game contains many more challenges than before and is now something that can be "beaten" as well as enjoyed for its own sake. And it's still one of the most enjoyable ways of getting a good workout, if that's one of your priorities.
It's the best Dancing Stage game so far. If you're looking to get into this most peculiar of gaming genres, then this is the best place to start. Conversely, however, it's also largely the same as all the other entries in the series. Everything from the presentation to the voice samples to the game's strange Kylie fixation remains the same as in previous instalments, and the new features are consigned very much to the periphery. There are tantalising hints here of how the series could develop, but for the most part Konami have been content to make tiny, tentative advances rather than the quantum leap that is now, after seven largely identical games, probably required. The music mix, for instance, still seems wilfully random; it's hard to imagine who could possibly like the Darkness, Kim Wilde AND Geri Halliwell, let alone want to dance to them, and they're just the ones you've heard of. Veterans will no doubt move straight onto the Konami mixes and leave the pop fodder to the kids, but it's the chart hits that sell this package and it's a shame that so little effort seems to have been made with the selection. The same goes for the EyeToy integration, which is a great idea but in truth little more than an afterthought which doesn't affect the main game mode at all.
Still, as we said, you're either going to buy this or you're not. If you're a fan of the series, then you'll know exactly what you're letting yourself in for. The new features are fun and the music mix is no worse than before. If you've already decided that Dancing Stage is not your idea of fun, then this isn't going to change your mind. Konami's next challenge will be to broaden the appeal of the series, to sell it to people who've already decided that dance mats aren't for them, and whether they do this through genre-specific musical updates, EyeToy-style craziness or something else entirely remains to be seen. For now, Dancing Stage Fusion is a stopgap - a fun and enjoyable stopgap, and an improvement on what's gone before it, but a stopgap nonetheless.