A Year Two Years of Aikatsu!

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Bandai, you sly dog. I thought I was able to get away from Namco’s money pit forever, but it seems your people know my tastes too well to sucker me into buying other crap from your brand new IP while watching its weekly episodes you keep churning out.

No, I’m not talking about Love Live! or Wake Up Girls! Coincidentally enough, the title does end with an exclamation mark.

It’s called Aikatsu!

Eye Mass Appeal

Aikatsu! is essentially Bandai’s answer to this simple question:

What if THE iDOLM@STER was more family-friendly and targeted the pre-adolescent girl market?

This is not hyperbole, and it’s not quite obvious that Bandai’s even answering this question unless you’re paying really careful attention. So let’s first start off with their origins: at the arcade.

A big part of THE iDOLM@STER’s reputation comes from how impressive its graphics engine is capable of rendering the motion-captured animation and physics of a cel-shaded idol (or idols) in realtime at 60 frames per second.

No other video game developer is capable of matching its quality, not even Sega.[1] Or Aikatsu!

Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Before I go any further though, I’d like to point out that THE iDOLM@STER didn’t start off looking this good. It took half a decade before that happened. You want to know how THE iDOLM@STER looked like when it first started?

This is what Aikatsu’s arcade hardware was capable of churning out on its debut two years ago and it feels just as bad:

Now you might say, “That’s not fair! Aikatsu! was released in 2012 on more powerful arcade hardware while the first iteration of THE iDOLM@STER engine was running on Playstation 2-equivalent parts.” I’d argue that it’s more of a software optimization problem than a hardware one. And to explain why, here’s what the Xbox 360 port of the arcade game looked like, which took about a year to overhaul the original engine to take advantage of the console’s more powerful hardware:

The PSP port of the 360 port of the arcade game doesn’t look that bad, and much ink has been already spilled about how the PSP is comparable to the Playstation 2 in terms of graphical prowess:

The PSP is so close to the PS2 that it somehow inherits the problems the arcade version of THE iDOLM@STER had with the characters not properly lip synching to the music.[2]

So, how far did Aikatsu!’s engine progress in one year? Well…[3]

Here’s another one made for this year’s spring update which showcases a huge environment that the idols move around in, something that I’ve never seen done even with Namco’s current iteration of THE iDOLM@STER engine:[4]

Keep in mind that Bandai chose to stick with Namco’s System ES2 PLUS platform [5] as Aikatsu!’s flagship hardware for 2 years because it makes more economic sense for them to do so; besides, little girls don’t care too much if the characters look super-detailed or are well animated like an iDOLM@STER fan does. Apparently they also don’t pay much attention to who’s singing either because the game uses the same version of the song regardless of which character they chose for the stage performance.

This isn’t to say that Bandai doesn’t care as much about the quality of aikatsu!’s stage performances at the same level Namco does for THE iDOLM@STER. Oh, quite the contrary.

Do you want to know what it looks like when Bandai starts to get serious? Watch the anime as almost every episode includes a stage performance using art assets found in the arcade game but fixes just about every detail that an iDOLM@STER fan would complain about if they saw these stage performances executed with just the game engine alone. Of course like the arcade game, the anime CGI looks atrocious at first but starts getting better and better as the series goes on, cumulating with something that rivals Namco’s quality in both its visuals and presentation:

I’m pretty sure you’re not going to have the patience to wade through over 40 episodes just to get to this point in quality. But that’s part of Bandai’s strategy for this franchise- set the expectations so low that when they do decide to flex their muscles, you’ll be blown away every time it happens.

Interestingly enough, Aikatsu! tends to demonstrate this more through its music than from its visuals.

Eye Cuts the Track

The biggest giveaway of Aikatsu!’s iDOLM@STER heritage comes from studio MONACA providing the bulk of its music. Yup, this is the same production house responsible for most of THE iDOLM@STER’s soundtrack. If you pay careful attention to Aikatsu!’s vocal songs, you’ll even catch some of the studio’s distinctive tones that were also used in THE iDOLM@STER:

Bandai’s decision to have MONACA involved in the music production for Aikatsu! can’t be emphasized enough. By doing this, they’ve set the standard of quality so ridiculously high that every other competing franchise’s vocal songs feels amateurish at best and condescending at worse.

Here’s a few examples to drive my point home. The first one uses this song as the insert for 13 episodes straight:

Dear god, it sounds so grating

Precure’s been around for awhile, but it’s usually hit or miss with their vocal songs. Most of the time it’s the latter,[6] but here’s one of their recent best efforts:

MIKIKO-directed dance choreography makes it easier on the eyes too

Aikatsu!’s monstrous financial success [7] even forced Takara Tomy to retire their Pretty Rhythm franchise to create a brand new IP that copies what they think made Bandai’s franchise work, which they got wrong by imitating the musical styles MONACA used for THE iDOLM@STER or other idol anime shows they worked on:

You heard me right: MONACA did the music for both THE iDOLM@STER and Aikatsu, but the stylistic choices they made for Aikatsu! are quite distinctive from other titles they worked on in the past. Hidekazu Tanaka is one of MONACA’s composers and one of the songs he created for THE iDOLM@STER was used in the finale for the first major story arc of the anime series:

There was a lot of budget spent for animating this sequence too.

He’s also the most prolific composer for Aikatsu!’s vocal songs. He did the music for the first ending credits to the show:

Those classy visuals

He’s also responsible for composing the main theme songs for the series, the first one you already heard if you clicked on the video that showcased the anime’s CGI quality over time. You probably found that song pretty tame and boring, but he probably had direct orders from Bandai to make a song that was as family friendly as possible. Of course, he did create a rock remix of it that sounds just as awesome as the previous example:

This is episode 53 for those that are wondering.

He’s also made some groovy euro-sounding electropop for it:

And this is only a small sample of what he’s made for the franchise. If this was a standard anime idol series aimed at the stereotypical otaku demographic, he would’ve made something like this:

Sad fact: Hidekazu Tanaka did not compose this song by himself; it was in collaboration with other MONACA composers [8] and this is the kind of quality we got in the end. Compared side-by-side to what he does for Aikatsu! (by himself, I might add), the difference is night and day.

Reading Between the SHINING LINE*

I’m pretty sure you’re fed up with me pointing out the iDOLM@STER-isms in Aikatsu!, so let’s move onto something else that’s just as interesting. Hopefully I’ve made it clear enough that despite Aikatsu! being a merchandise-driven franchise that’s aimed at little girls, the level of craftsmanship put into its production is as ambitious as Namco’s own endeavors for their iDOLM@STER series.

But I don’t think I’ve made it clear enough as to why Bandai’s even putting in so much effort into this franchise in the first place. They could’ve easily stopped caring about Aikatsu! once it hit a certain level of popularity, but there seems to be an underlying motivation as to why they’re driven to make it a lot more than… well, a money pit for parents to spend on their daughters.

My hunch comes from the image I used at the very beginning of this blog post. If you read all of the stuff I’ve written up until this point, you’ll probably notice something about it that you might have not realized before:

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This is a photograph of a concert where the audience is watching the main characters from the Aikatsu! franchise rendered in the graphics style found in the arcade game and projected on stage as holograms. And yes, this concert did happen and was held over the course of a few days around two weeks before August 31st of this year.

If you’re a Vocaloid fan, you probably connected the dots already. For those that aren’t familiar with Vocaloid, suffice to say that live concerts are a big deal for the community because the setup is almost exactly what it looks like in that photograph, and the biggest Vocaloid festivities tend to occur on or around August 31st every year because it’s the anniversary of Hatsune Miku’s launch date.

In other words, it feels like Bandai was spending two years priming Aikatsu! to beat the Vocaloid community at its own game and in the process become the ubiquitous anime-looking idol franchise for both male and female audiences of all ages.

Sounds far-fetched? Not really. Here’s some food for thought:

Most Japanese idol groups are targeted specifically towards males. If you start with the idea of making female idols appealing to girls first so they aspire to imitate those idols’ lifestyles, it’s a lot easier to market it later on to cater to the opposite sex due to the inherent nature of the idol industry in Japan. And Bandai already has a good idea of what works and what doesn’t because they’ve seen it happen over THE iDOLM@STER’s lifespan, which they can do all over again by leveraging those same assets for Aikastu!

Right now the biggest perceived pain point of a being a Vocaloid fan is getting strange looks from the general public for being one in the United States. Part of the reason is that the music sounds too Japanese, and when they try to make more palatable to Western Audiences, nobody knows how to make Miku not sound like a muddled mess while her voice gets drowned out by the sea of instrumental tones.[9] Aikatsu!’s music sounds like it can easily fit in a well-respected western cartoon and even reaches award bait quality [10] at times. All they need to do is get a different group of pretty good English-speaking singers into MONACA’S recording studios and they’re ready to sweep this nation of their feet. Well, that, and also find a way to make it more palatable to the American Audience, as guys aren’t going to openly admit that they watched a show that’s like Hannah Montana unless they’re Bronies.

Fun fact: a lot of what made the Vocaloid community the way it is today comes from THE iDOLM@STER’s influence, and Namco’s calmly enraged at this in the same fashion that Blizzard Entertainment is calmly enraged over people using ideas taken from Warcraft III’s custom maps and made a MOBA thing out of it.[11] Sure, you can try to defend that Namco took this in stride by collaborating with Sega to have crossovers between each company’s respective games, but behind those closed doors, I can tell they’re angry. Very angry. Bandai and Namco know they can do a better job than Sega and Crypton Future Media because it was their ideas to begin with. They have more experience, better resources, and very effective marketing strategies. All they had to do was create a brand new IP that addressed their old franchise’s shortcomings as well as from their major competitors and improve upon that. I’ve addressed some of these shortcomings already, but there’s still a few I haven’t mentioned.

Of course, all of these are just my hunches. I might even be completely wrong in Bandai’s endgame strategy for Aikatsu!, but the unexpected level of quality coming from this franchise is telling me it’s a series that’s not to be taken lightly. Paradoxically, the mainstream anime press did so because they’ve categorized it as just another typical merchandise-driven show with no redeeming value to it whatsoever. And if they aren’t going to be talking about it as passionately as they do with the stuff they’re usually interested in, then it’s time for me to take up this cup and do so.

So welcome to Aikatsu!, my new money pit. This is just a taste of what’s yet to come from me about this franchise.

– Carl Dayagdag

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[1] Seriously, Miku does look better in THE iDOLM@STER 2 than in Project Diva.
[2] This probably also explains why Namco just used pre-rendered footage of the game for Shiny Festa. Well, that, and they probably weren’t going to even try seeing if the PSP could handle a really stripped down version of THE iDOLM@STER 2 engine.
[3] Here is someone playing the game using that same footage if you don’t believe me.
[4] But Namco beats out Bandai with having over 9 idols performing on stage at once.
[5] The specs for this hardware isn’t known to the public, but Mario Kart Arcade GP DX runs on System ES3, so it’s a lot weaker than an Xbox 360 or PS3.
[6] You’ll know bad Precure music when you hear it.
[7] In less than two years, Aikatsu! dethroned Precure and even Dragonball in the amount of money people threw at it.
[8] The other composer was Satoru Kousaki, famous in THE iDOLM@ASTER fandom for GO MY WAY!!
[9] It’s going to be hard to take Vocaloid seriously if you present something like this as the best the community can come up with on national public television.
[10] It’s scary to think there’s a movie coming out in two months and they chose to use this song for the ending to the previous season instead.
[11] The number of iDOLM@STER references in Vocaloid-related content made by fans shortly after Miku was released was so large that Crypton Future Media’s next Vocaloid library used a voice actress who was also one of the main characters in THE iDOLM@STER, which in turn also makes subtle references to Namco’s property in the form of her voice sounding like said iDOLM@STER character as well as sharing the same color theme.

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