Strategy and Advice for Getting Started

If you're reading this, hopefully you're either a) familiar already with DDR and don't need me to tell you what it is or b) read my introductory page to get some kind of an idea what all this is about. In this section, I'm going to talk briefly about my own experiences with this game and then parlay that into a discussion of how anyone can become quite skilled at this game with enough time and practice.

* * * * *

I had no kind of experiences with the Dance Dance Revolution! games at all prior to the spring of 2004, aside from a vague understanding that there existed some kind of weird Japanese dancing games out there in arcades. Now I've always loved video games (the earliest ones were born right around the same time I was) and also music (preferably classical and jazz), but aside from a handful of games with memorable soundtracks, the two did not mix very often. Appropriately enough, therefore, the first place I encountered a DDR machine was on a trip taken for (quasi-) musical purposes. I was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with the University of Maryland Pep Band for the 2004 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament (at LSU) when I ran into said DDR machine in a nearby bowling alley (one nice thing about traveling with the athletic teams: plenty of free time between games!) Several band members tried the machine and did passably well, but I was left with the impression of "I can do better than that!" After the trip was over, I recalled that the girl I was dating at the time already owned a PlayStation2 DDR game and some dancing pads. I asked to borrow them for a while, and the rest was history.

I first actually played the home version of DDR at my own graduation party from college at the end of May 2004. Since that time, I've been playing one of the various games at a pretty regular pace, every day or almost every day. After several years of playing, I think I can make the claim that I am at least close to mastering the home versions of DDR that I own. For example, on the most recent DDR console version (SuperNOVA), I've managed to get a perfect score "AAA" on more than 2/3 of the Heavy and Challenge steps. Now I don't list these numbers to sound my own trumpet, but to try and give an impression of the progress than anyone can make if he or she is willing to invest some time and effort into these games. Let me see if I can provide some advice for those seeking to get started.

Disclaimer: Unlike most video games, DDR games have a physical component to them as well as the usual "hit the right button at the right time" standard fare. For this reason, I think an appropriate analogy to learning how to play these games is to learning how to do a simple physical task; learning how to shoot a free throw in basketball comes to mind, for example. As in sports, the task requires both a mental part (proper technique) and a physical part (actually using your body). Also as in sports, learning how to play DDR is mostly something that has to be learned through repetition and practice. It's not like one of those video games where you can go online and look up where to find _____ item in order to get to the next dungeon. I can provide some good advice, but ultimately YOU have to get up there on the dance pad and move to the arrows. Oh, and be careful out there. Make sure to take breaks and rest if your body starts hurting. You can in fact injure yourself doing this (I've cut my feet many times and sliced open my palm once), and I wouldn't want that to happen to anyone (else).

Let's assume you're just starting out as a first-time DDR player. The first thing to realize is that everyone doesn't start out at the same level of ability. This holds true here just as much as it would with any kind of strenuous physical activity. The good news here is that DDR games can help players get into better physical shape, but at least in the immediate future, those who have larger frames or are no longer in their youth are going to have more difficulty on the faster songs (no one should be too discouraged though, because there are a number of both 300+ pound and 30+ age players who are quite good at DDR!) The other area in which I've noticed some people possessing a significant advantage before even starting deals with how much music they have in their background. Yes, this being a musical game and all, knowing how to read music and feel the pulse of a song does help out quite a bit. This knowledge is by no means necessary, of course, and some of the best DDR players in the world can't read music to save their lives. Again, anyone can be good at this game with practice.

The first thing that everyone needs to learn to do when starting out is to "find the arrows". What I mean by this is the ability to step on the pad without looking and hit the desired arrow that you want. This sounds easy in theory, but it's much harder to pull off in practice. In fact, the first time anyone plays, this really should be all that he or she tries to accomplish. In short, you can't do anything in this game unless you can consistently find the arrows. It's like trying to play a shooter without being able to find the fire button! So the first task is therefore to develop the motor memory in one's legs as to where the arrows are located; I'd suggest sticking to 1- and 2-footers for this very early stage (Beginner Mode in the newer mixes is a good difficulty). This also means not returning to the middle of the pad after each step; you need to learn to stay out on the arrows to do the faster/harder songs. Remember, the game does not penalize you for hitting extra arrows, only missing the arrows that appear on the screen, so get used to staying on the arrows at all times. Don't forget that you have to learn how to do double steps (Left + Right) too!

Now, once you can consistently hit the arrows that you want (meaning that you only get a handful of Boos/Misses on each song), it's time to move up to Light difficulty if you weren't already there. Expect to spend quite some time here; it's a good place to develop the basic skills that will be used over and over again on all difficulties. Most Light songs consist of "running quarter notes"; that is, 4 notes per measure (1 on each beat) with relatively few breaks between them. Almost all of the steps are directly on the beat, and the steps for every song are virtually identical, with only the tempo (speed) of each song being the difference. As a learning player, it's a very good idea to play these songs to get locked into the idea of stepping with the beat. It is absolutely critical to learn how to stay on the beat of the song to get high scores and grades in DDR, and Light difficulty is where I highly recommend each player learn to do it. Developing the ability to get Perfects instead of Greats is known as "Perfect Attack" in the DDR community, and it's very important because remember you only get a 1 Dance Point for each Great as opposed to 2 for a Perfect - all Greats would be a 50%, or a "C" grade! I will also say that those individuals who have taken part in a marching band at some point in time in their lives will have a big advantage at developing their Perfect Attack! I would recommend starting with the slower songs and then working up to the faster ones, sticking with 3- and 4-footers; whatever mix you might happen to own, there should be plenty of these on Light. If you can reach the point where you are getting roughly 5 times as many Perfects as Greats (such as 100 Perfect/20 Great, for example), I'd say that you're more than ready to move up to some Standard songs. Speaking for myself, I knew I could move up in difficulty after I got a "AA" on the fast song Rhythm and Police (Light).

Once you can do the quarter notes that Light throws at you (and this took me about six weeks to achieve to my satisfaction), it's time to try some songs on Standard. Now a number of people like to skip Standard and move directly to Heavy, but I would recommend spending at least a little time on Standard to get used to the big new thing it throws at you: eighth notes. If you don't know much about music theory, eighth notes are quarter notes divided in two; insead of ONE note per beat, there are now TWO notes evenly spaced across the beat. It takes quite a bit of time to get used to stepping these, so be prepared to spend some time practicing how to do these. Fortunately, while Standard throws a good number of eighth notes at you, they do not come in very long runs (thus being a good place to start learning). One thing that players tend to do is speed up eighth notes as they step them; I would recommend playing some songs in Training Mode with the handclap (Assist 4) turned on to make sure that you are keeping your pace even and not speeding up. This is something that musicians have trouble with all the time when playing, by the way. Just learning how to read songs with eighth notes in them can be difficult; keep in mind that eighth note arrows flash the reverse color from quarter notes. In time, the songs become easy to read and tell the notes apart, but at first it can be very difficult indeed. As always, practice, practice, practice.

If you can confidently handle eighth notes, you should be able to move up to Heavy and at least be able to cut your teeth on the easier songs (6- and 7-footers). The biggest initial difference between Standard and Heavy is simply that Heavy songs have many, many more notes than Standard ones. An average Standard song has 150-200 steps in it; virtually every Heavy song has 250+ steps, and the tough ones routinely go over 400 and even 500 steps. This can cause a significant stamina drain on some of the faster songs (more on that in a minute). Keep in mind that the Heavy songs are no longer than the Standard ones; they simply pack more notes into the same amount of space, so expect to see long runs of eighth notes frequently. If you can't do the simple eighth-eighth-quarter patterns that are common on Standard, you will quickly be trouble. Heavy songs will also start to mix in more chaotic step patterns; not only eighth notes, but sixteenth notes (FOUR per beat, 16 per 4-beat measure) will start to pop up all over the place. There are even musical notes called triplets, which space out three notes across two beats (you could call them "sixths", but musicians don't use that word), although fortunately they are rare. My best advice for these kind of songs is to open up Training Mode and listen to how the songs are supposed to sound with the handclap (Assist 4). With time, you can become good enough to sight-read these songs based on the colors of the notes, but at least at first I can't recommend using Training Mode enough. You can also break down difficult parts of songs measure by measure and slow down songs that are fast in Training Mode. It's a great tool, and it's there to help - when you're still learning, by all means, use it!

At some point, you'll run across patterns of notes that can be stepped more easily by turning your body than by continuing to face forward towards the screen at all times. A good example would be a pattern that goes DOWN - RIGHT - DOWN - UP - DOWN - LEFT - DOWN - RIGHT; the easiest way to step this song is to pivot your body 90 degrees to the left (or right - your preference) and keep one foot on the DOWN arrow while hitting the others with your other foot. These are known as "crossovers" in the DDR community, for obvious reasons. I'd say more here, but I am generally bad at crossovers and it is the weakest part of my skill set. Once you can pass most songs on Heavy, it would be a good idea to start learning how to do some crossovers, since it will make your life much easier on a lot of songs. Some expert players will even spin completely around in a circle following the steps on some songs, though I can't give any advice on this because every attempt I've made at spinning thus far has been a complete failure. Someday...

If you're just starting out, it will probably take several months to reach a point where you can consistently dominate songs on Heavy (it did for me). Eventually, however, if you stick with the game long enough, you'll reach a point where you can start thinking about taking on one of the feared 10-footers of the DDR universe. I'm no expert at those songs, but I have been able to pass several of them, and can at least provide some advice to tackling one of those dangerous beasts. First of all, it must be understood that 10-footers are not like any other songs (with one or two exceptions). All of the (real) 10-footers are an order of magnitude more difficult than even the hardest 9-footers, and the inexperienced player would be WELL advised to stay the heck away from them until he or she knows exactly what they are doing. To put it simply, 10s are fast. To put it another way, 10s are FAST. And just for good measure: 10-footers are FAST. With the exception of "bag", the super-slow 10, all of the 10s are at least 270 beats per minute (bpm) and most of them are 300bpm or faster. How fast is 300bpm? Count to 5 in one second, and that's how fast the beats are going. Therefore, if you can't keep up with the speed, you won't last long against one of these monsters.

Before even starting one of the 10-footers, I'd strongly recommend learning the song's step pattern by heart. That doesn't mean memorizing it, but it does mean knowing the rhythm so well that you can sing it along to the background music. Training Mode is your friend again here, and also in the next step. Once you know the music's pattern, you can start stepping it, but unless you've got track-star speed, don't start out up to tempo! Start out by slowing down the song in Training Mode; Speed 5 is the actual tempo of the song, so I recommend starting at Speed 2 or 3 and working up from there. You should also try to break down particularly troublesome spots measure by measure to get the steps right. Once you can do the song on a slowed-down speed, it's time to start increasing the speed and see if you can still do it. When I was learning Max300 (the first ever 10-footer), I started out on Speed 3 in Training Mode. Then, when I could pass that consistently, I moved up to Speed 4, and finally to Speed 5. I finally passed the song for the first time in November of 2004, a full six months after I had started playing DDR - but it was very satisfying when it happened. The biggest problem for me at the end was developing the stamina to play the song through to completion; I could do each part of the song individually, but trying the whole thing would leave me so exhausted that I could not finish the song. This issue of stamina plagues virtually everyone who tries 10-footers, but the good news is that it too can be overcome through training. In my case, I built up my legs by dropping Max300 back down to Speed 3 in Training Mode, but playing the WHOLE SONG through to the end without stopping. After doing this 5-10 times, I moved up to Speed 4, again playing through the entire song each time. Then it was up to Speed 5 (the actual tempo), and I forced myself to keep going to the end each time even after I failed out. The first go-through on Speed 5 was a complete wash-out, the second time I almost passed, the third time I did pass, and after five tries, I was confident enough to leave Training Mode and pass Max300 in the actual game mode (which I did on the first attempt). In short, don't be afraid to try the super-difficult songs, but be ready to work up both your speed and your stamina in Training Mode in order to make it happen. Nothing truly difficult and valued ever comes without hard work, after all.

For those who are curious as to how I would rank the 10-footers in terms of difficulty, I'm providing the following list. Keep in mind that this is the order for ME; if you can do crossovers better than me, you might find some songs easier than others.
1) Sakura (Easiest; there are many 9s harder than this)
2) Max300
3) Paranoia Survivor
4) Maxx Unlimited
5) Legend of Max
6) Paranoia Survivor Max
7) Paranoia Survivor Max Oni
(I'm not ranking bag because the song is so completely different from the other 10s, and any others not listed here I'm not familiar enough with to give a real verdict)

That's essentially all the advice I have to give at this point. You'll notice that there's nothing here on Doubles Mode, due to the fact that I am still a Doubles neophyte and am in no position to be giving out advice to anyone. The next page discusses my progress and experiences with the PS2 game DDRMax (USA), the first DDR game I owned and played.