A video fitness revolution

Dance Dance Revolution USA keeps teens in arcades and keeps them in shape, too

A teen shows his DDR skills at Circus Circus.

A teen shows his DDR skills at Circus Circus.

Photo by David Robert

For more information about Dance Dance Revolution USA, visit www.ddrfreak.com.

The days of pale, skinny nerds wasting their free time in arcades have gone the way of the Atari 1600. Today’s teens still play while away the hours in front of digital quarter-suckers, but before they drop their coins in the slot, they get prepared.

Sneakers, check. Bottled water, check. Warm-up and stretching, check.

Only after you’ve adjusted your gear and stretched your quads are you ready for Dance Dance Revolution USA, a groundbreaking game from Japanese video game company Konami. Instead of the much-touted hand-eye coordination that regular video games claim to boost, DDR (as longtime players call it) improves your foot-eye coordination.

Here’s how it works:

The first thing you’ll notice about DDR is the large dance pad in front of the main console. Four big blue and pink arrows mark up, down, left and right, and they flash when you step on them. When you plunk in a few quarters, you’ll get to scroll through a selection of beat-heavy songs, some faster than others. Then choose a difficulty level, and get ready to dance.

If you choose a beginning level, animated dancers will appear on screen standing on their own dance pads, and you can mimic their moves as you play. In harder levels, psychedelic graphics and bouncing animated dancers will fly around the screen in brain-twisting patterns.

When the game begins, you’ll get a few beats to get ready, and then neon flashing arrows will start floating up from the bottom of the screen. When the arrows reach the top of the screen, that’s your cue to stomp on the corresponding foot pad. The trick is to do it in time with the music, because if you don’t, you’ll get no points and the game will boo at you.

At the beginning levels, playing DDR is sort of like stomping on ants, but with rhythm. You’ve got plenty of time to anticipate the next arrow, and plenty of time to rest between stomps. At the difficult levels, the DDR screen is a completely awash in mind-boggling arrow combinations, and players’ feet are flying with amazing speed and coordination from start to finish.

That is, if they know what they’re doing. Unlike me.

Sweatin, like a newbie
Gabe and I hit the arcade at John Ascuaga’s Nugget at about 9:30 p.m. on a weekday. We figured chances were good that the place wouldn’t be crowded, and I wasn’t too keen on a bunch of teens laughing and pointing at my DDR debut.

We each plunked three tokens into the slot and selected a song that didn’t sound too fast. I pressed “beginner,” and we prepared to boogie.

When the neon flashing arrows began flying up the screen, it took a minute to find my footing. I hadn’t decided beforehand which foot was going to hit the up button, so as the up arrow glided across the screen my feet did a little shuffle-switch maneuver of indecision before deciding that “right foot equals up” and “left foot equals down.”

In my excitement, I was stomping on those flashing buttons like I wanted to kill a large poisonous insect, and my thighs paid the price of my zealousness. After half a song, with my quadriceps protesting this sudden burst of activity, I eased up on the dance pad and started hitting the buttons lightly with the balls of my feet.

Sweat dripping down their faces, these kids played DDR like a couple of pros.

Photo by David Robert

After the first song finished, I had royally trounced Gabe in my display of coordination and rhythm. I had racked up an impressive number of “perfect” moves, with only a few “boos” and “almosts.” But apparently, Gabe decided we needed a little more of a challenge, so for the next song he picked “standard” instead of “beginner.”

Big mistake.

Unless the song was playing at, like, four beats per minute, there was no way I was going to get these foot combinations in time. With all the flashing arrows crowding up the screen, my brain couldn’t even process where my feet were supposed to go, much less tell my feet to move there.

About 15 seconds into the song, Gabe realized the error of his hubris, and we both sort of stood there in amazement. Then we started bouncing around like crazy, hitting whatever buttons we could and feeling like total goofballs.

After the third song, I was sweating like a pig. My throat was so dry that my eyes started watering and I had to run to a nearby water fountain.

Gabe had had enough, and took his own sweaty body over to another video game. In the interests of journalism, I gave DDR another shot. I stuck with beginning levels for all three songs and did even better than the first time, but by the time I finished, my muscles felt tight from ankle to thigh and I thought I might be giving myself shin splints from all the stomping. I also wished I had worn more deodorant.

Doin, it freestyle
To see DDR players who actually knew what they were doing, we headed over to Circus Circus and met Toni Gomez, 16, and Eliazar Santos, 17. By the time we hit the Midway, Toni and Eliazar were already working up a sweat, taking frequent breaks for chugs off their water bottles.

Not only do the teens play at least four times a week, they’ve also got the PlayStation version of DDR at home, which comes with a soft dance pad you can plunk down on your living room floor. Toni estimated that he spends about $30 a month playing DDR in the arcades, where DDR players come to compete and show off their skills.

“It gets really addictive,” he said.

Eliazar clued me in on a DDR freestyle competition that takes place every other Wednesday at the Nugget.

Freestyle DDR? Leave it to teens to test their boundaries.

As if regular DDR wasn’t hard enough, many teens have incorporated complicated dance moves into their game play. I watched in awe as Toni and Eliazar dropped back onto one hand to hit the down button, all in perfect time with the music. They spun around in circles and flung their arms while they stomped, making my questions of “right foot equals up” and “left foot equals down” seem pretty stupid. And they’ve only been playing for two months.

Pearcy Miranda, 15, also showed some impressive DDR freestyle skills, though she admitted there’s another reason she plays at least twice a week. In the past three months, Pearcy’s lost 10 pounds.

“It’s just like exercising, but it’s fun,” she said. “That’s why I love playing.”

There you have it: a video game that helps you stay in shape. Now, when your teen takes off to spend hours in an arcade, you won’t have to nag them to get some exercise.