What follows is a set of tips that I posted to the TVGA forums on how to improve at Dance Dance Revolution. (Yes, I know that makes me look like a dork.)
I started typing this up a while back but haven’t posted it. It’s still a work in progress. I started it mainly because I realized there are certain reasons I stuck with DDR and (more importantly) got better.
To that end, it’s not intended to be a way to quick improvement so much as it is a strategy for getting better. (Admittedly, my writing style’s kind of structured and technical, so the strategy seems more formal than it really needs to be. It’s really just guidelines to keep in mind, not something you have to write out.) Mainly, these tips are for people just getting started and who don’t think they can play. It assumes at least some familiarity with the basic mechanics–skill levels, foot ratings, etc.
It’s fairly easy to get started if you don’t already have the game. You’re probably not looking at any more than a $40-$50 investment–a decent pad is $20 and you can pick up old versions of the game (like Ultramix 1 for Xbox) for around the same price. Obviously, though, it’s like buying a workout machine–you only get a benefit out of it if you’re committed to using it, not because you sank a large sum of money into it.
There are really three skills you need to play DDR:
- Agility – You have to be able to move quickly and accurately to hit all of the notes.
- Endurance – You have to be able to play for an extended period of time.
- Reading / Pattern Recognition – You have to be able to read the notes well and then translate them into foot movements.
All of these can be developed through practice. Identifying them as separate components makes it even easier, because it makes it easier to determine where you’re lacking, and what you have to focus on to get better.
Know your starting point
Before you start practicing, you have to have a good idea of where you’re starting. This means a lot of things–what techniques come naturally to you (and which ones don’t), what rating of song you can play, and what difficulty level you play at.
The important thing here is to judge your own ability accurately. If you have to start on Beginner, start on Beginner. (That’s what it’s there for.) If you have to restrict yourself to one- and two- foot songs, do so. Like any game, the advanced levels are built upon the fundamentals you learn early in the game, and so it’s imperative that you master the basics.
I think most people start in Light, but if you can’t, don’t worry–with some work you’ll be able to play at that level too. It doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to get the hang of it, because the game is more about technique than it is about talent.
Be realistic about advancement
Even if you do start on Light, don’t assume that you’ll be able to pound out Heavy songs like the guys at the mall in no time. Endurance, speed, and accuracy increase gradually. It’s likely that by the time you are doing higher-level Standard songs, it won’t seem out of the ordinary, because you’ve progressed so slowly and gradually that it doesn’t feel like anything has changed.
Don’t expect linear advancement on skill levels
DDR is not a game that should be played in a particular sequence. It’s certainly not a game that you can complete one difficulty level at a time.
By the time you’re ready to start lower-level Standard songs, you probably won’t have completed some of the higher-level Light songs. Difficulty levels overlap at the high and low ends, and foot ratings aren’t necessarily a gauge of exactly how difficult a song is in relation to another song. A lot depends on your strengths and weaknesses versus the style of play that’s prevalent in a certain song.
If you’re the only one playing a console version of the game, the saved ratings are a good gauge of your performance. You should gradually see ratings fill up if you’re tackling new songs that are right around your skill level.
It’s not (all) about musical ability
Don’t assume you’ll never advance because you don’t have musical ability. You may not be able to keep accurate time on your own, but fortunately, you don’t have to. That’s what the arrows and the background music is for. All you have to do is recognize the patterns and translate them into a series of moves.
The reason that skill levels are so inexact is the game is not simply about speed, it’s about technique.
After playing a song a few times, you should be able to figure out what parts of the song are causing you difficulty. Usually there’s one of two things you can do to improve–you can get used to reading the pattern so that you can process it more quickly, and you can take a different approach at actually completing the pattern.
When I first started, jumps on opposite double arrows (up-down or left-right) came naturally, because it was easy to conceive of what the foot placement was, and there were only two options. But jumps on adjacent double arrows (up-left or down-right, for example) were harder, because the arrow pattern I was reading didn’t immediately register with me. It doesn’t seem like it should be this way–no extra speed or agility is necessary for one or the other–but it requires that you know how to process it. Once I figured out read to do these, they started coming naturally, and eventually I got to the point where I could chain them together.
On the same token, one of the big dividing lines between Light and Standard seems to be the number of eighth notes in the song. (These are the notes that come between the normal beats of the song. The only reason I know the term is because I saw it in another DDR FAQ. :)) It’s usually pretty easy to recognize these, as they’re colored differently from the regular notes. But of course, you have to process exactly what they’re telling you to do, and until you start learning to group them together, they’ll utterly confuse you. Plus, you’ll never execute them correctly if you don’t approach them the right way–you have to lead off with the correct foot and come out on the correct foot, or you’ll never be able to combo them. (Nevermind the fact that it takes a bit of agility to actually pull them off.)
However, once I identified eighth notes as a problem, I went to the training room and repetitively played a particular chunk of a higher-level Light song that had a lot of these notes. Once I was done, I knew how to do them in that song, and with a little practice the common patterns of these became somewhat natural.
The moral of the story is: when you play songs you can’t beat, figure out why you can’t beat them, practice up on the combinations that are hurting you (especially if you can find them in other songs!), and you’ll eventually prevail.
DDR skill deteriorates surprisingly quickly. If you aren’t playing at least a couple of times a week, you’re probably getting worse. (Nevermind the fact that it’s not much of an exercise plan if you’re not doing it regularly.)
Don’t play at your maximum ability; focus on endurance
After playing for a while, you’ll probably be able to determine the highest-rating song you can effectively pull off. However, you don’t want to play at that level the entire time–it will burn you out quickly, and you won’t build endurance. To get better, play just below your peak so that you’re able to handle 30- to 60-minute sessions.
Random is your friend
If you play for any length of time, you’ll probably start hitting favorite songs over and over. This is fine occasionally, but to get better, you’ll want to start using Random as soon as you feel comfortable with it.
While it’s true that familiarizing yourself with songs is a huge part of being good at DDR, if you don’t play anything new you won’t build the ability to read new songs, nor will you pick up on any new patterns.
Once you’re able to do higher-level Light songs, you should start using Random occasionally to cement your ability to handle any Light song.
Play with someone better than you
This isn’t vital, but it will help you on certain songs. I know there are some songs that I’ve learned only because of this technique.
A lot of steps don’t really fit their accompanying songs the way you would think they do. But, if you’ve got someone slightly better (preferably playing on the same skill level you are), you can listen to their steps and pick up on the patterns.
Get multiple versions
I’m not suggesting you do this because you’ve become some sort of DDR freak who cannot help but throw more money at Konami. I’m suggesting this because at some point, you will get bored. Getting bored means you stop playing, and that means less exercise.
If you can afford it, it’s not a bad idea to have two or three different games that you can switch out periodically. This keeps you from getting fixated on a couple of songs, and it keeps the game entertaining.
As a side note, In The Groove (PS2, published by RedOctane) is a really good option here. It’s especially good when you start doing lower-level Standard songs, as its color coding on off-beat notes (eighth, twelfth, sixteenth, etc.) is better than DDR’s.
If you don’t have a console or you don’t want to pay for games, there’s a free game called Stepmania for the PC. The barriers to entry are a bit higher, as you’ll either have to find a pad that has a USB connector (good luck on that) or you’ll have to order a PS2- or XBox-to-USB converter (be careful, as there are a lot that won’t work right). You can find more on both of these options on the Stepmania website.
Incidentally, if you have modded your XBox, there’s a version of Stepmania that will run on it. But you’ll have to dig for that one.
While the game’s “free”, that doesn’t mean it’s playable out of the box. The game doesn’t actually come with any songs. You have to find and download them yourself (or make them, which is frustrating if you have no musical talent). As should be expected of downloading music online, this gets into some questionable legal territory.
Buy an inexpensive pad
Most pads tend to wear out quickly (at least they do for me, because most of them aren’t made to handle a fat guy doing Standard and Heavy songs for 30 minutes), and it’s easier to drop $20 every few months than sink upwards of $75 on a fancy one. Eventually your pad will wear out; it’s just a question of when.
I only say this because I’ve had bad experiences with Ignition pads; your mileage may vary. Good pads do help your game, but only as long as they hold up. And when they go out, you’ve just lost a major investment.