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Happy feet
Computer geeks are getting physical with Dance Dance Revolution, a video game for the whole body.

By Harry Wessel | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted May 24, 2002

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Richie Lein knows he looks ridiculous when he plays his favorite video arcade game, but that's OK with him. The 18-year-old University of Central Florida freshman thinks everybody looks ridiculous when they play Dance Dance Revolution. "I'm self-conscious, but when I play a game I have to throw that [self-consciousness] away," says Lein, an information technology major. "When you're up there, you're forced to get into the music."

Lein's UCF classmate and friend Sean Bell agrees. "I'm having so much fun, I don't care how I look."

Ironically, both Lein and Bell say their favorite video game -- in which users try to match dance steps flashing on a computer screen -- has improved their looks, no matter how they may look while playing it. Lein says he's lost at least 10 pounds of fat, while Bell, lean to begin with, has added bulk, "especially my calf muscles."

While most video games require little more than a bit of wrist action and some hand-eye coordination, Dance Dance Revolution -- better known as DDR -- is definitely not for couch potatoes.

"DDR is the most physical game I've ever seen," says Adam Fortuna, a 19-year-old UCF sophomore. The business computing major is not only a skilled DDR player but spends up to 40 hours a week maintaining a Web site -- ddrei.com -- devoted to his obsession.

It may not look like fun to the casual observer. Players rarely smile when they're on the small metal dancing platform backed by a safety rail. They're too busy concentrating on the large computer screen in front of them, trying to step on electronic floor arrows in harmony with corresponding arrows that flash on the screen.

The screen offers instant feedback as it keeps a running score. Hit the correct arrow at exactly the right time and the screen flashes, "Perfect!!" Off by a millisecond? "Great!" flashes the machine. Its other comments, depending on how far from "Perfect!!" the step is, descend to "Good," "Boo," and, worst of all, "Miss."

Too many misses and you "fail" the song. Failure means your turn is over, even if you've paid for three songs and have danced only one. In some cases players are even failed in midsong, with the music -- typically Euro beat, R&B, disco, techno or a similar rhythm-heavy genre -- stopping abruptly.

DDR can be played at several levels of difficulty. Playing it at its highest levels is akin to running a flat-out sprint, Fortuna says. "That's why the songs are only 90 seconds long."

But even less-skilled DDR players can get a heck of a workout.

Matt Bentley, an 18-year-old UCF freshman from Miami, weighed 250 pounds when he started school last August. He discovered DDR shortly thereafter, and he's down to 200 now. He says it's all due to DDR.

He plays his $70 Playstation home version of the game -- complete with floor pads -- for at least half an hour every day. He prefers the arcade version when he can afford it, however. He visits Rocky's Replay, a video arcade center in Casselberry, a couple of times a month.

"I've never been able to keep up an exercise regimen -- I'd start at a gym and give up after a week," says Bentley, a self-described "computer geek" who jokes about his lack of athletic ability. "I can't dance, but I can follow the steps on the [DDR] screen. It's exercise, but you don't think about it. It's fun."

Players get to choose the difficulty of the song they dance to with the press of a button. A "basic" or "light" setting has a slower beat and fewer steps. The "trick" or "standard" level speeds things up, but experienced players often go straight to the "maniac," or "heavy" level, in which the screen arrows fly upward like a flock of startled geese and the platform arrows must be struck at machine-gun speed.

One already legendary DDR song, "Max 300," is 88 seconds long and, set on "maniac," requires 578 steps. That works out to an average of 6 steps per second. "You're moving so fast it's hard to see the steps," Fortuna says.

Master the maniac

The scoring concept is simple. The more steps you register, and the closer to "Perfect!!" those steps are, the higher your score. The more difficult songs require a lot more steps, which is what drives DDR players to master the maniac level.

Fortuna plays the maniac level often. He's one of the top "technical" or "tech" players in town, meaning he's particularly adept at racking up "perfects" and scoring lots of points on the machine.

Other DDR players, more interested in the dance aspects of the game, are called "freestylers." They usually play the game at the slower "trick" or "basic" levels so they can throw in their own dance moves. Freestyle specialists such as Paul Lee, a 21-year-old graphic arts design major at UCF, invariably draw a crowd whenever their turn comes up.

DDR is as much about spectating as it is playing. The game is so popular that on a typical weekend night there invariably will be a line waiting to play. Players signify their place in line by placing a coin in a holding slot below the machine's screen.

Players also watch to give themselves a breather between turns, which typically consist of three or four songs. At Rocky's Replay, which has two different DDR machines, three quarters buy four songs on the DDR 4th Mix Plus, and three songs on the more up-to-date DDR Max (6th Mix).

Spectating while you're waiting your turn has the further advantage of not costing anything. On a crowded weekend night, $5 or $10 will provide two or three hours of DDR entertainment. "About what you'd spend on a movie," Fortuna says, adding that he'll spend twice that much for two or three hours of DDR fun if he goes in the day when the arcade is uncrowded.

It's a dance fever

While DDR is seen as a bargain by players, it has been a bonanza for arcades. Rocky's Replay, open since 1995, brought in its first DDR machine a year and a half ago as a test. "It took off and never stopped. It has almost a cult following. It's been a phenomenon," says Rocky's Replay manager Martin Figel.

DDR, introduced in Japan in 1998 by video game maker Konami Co., reached California in 1999 and began spreading eastward in 2000. Local players report that the first Central Florida arcade to offer DDR was Gameworks, at Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure, in the fall of 2000. There are now at least 11 Central Florida arcades with DDR machines, and 44 throughout the state, according to the Web site ddrfreak.com.

While most players are in their teens or early 20s, older folk do occasionally venture forth. One of them who does so regularly is Mary Oberhelman, a 41-year-old sales manager for a medical software company. She is also a single mom whose 16-year-old daughter, Katrina, asked for and received a home version of DDR for Christmas.

Mom tried the home version, liked it, and was soon accompanying her daughter for weekend outings at Rocky's Replay. While she occasionally gets teased about her age, Oberhelman doesn't mind. "I'm not the type to be embarrassed. I'd be more embarrassed to sit on the side, do nothing and die of a heart attack."

Aside from the physical workout, Oberhelman lauds DDR for its non-violence and its ability to bring kids together. "I see a lot of teens who didn't know each other interacting in a positive way. They let their guard down and encourage each other. We need more of that."

It also gives players a chance to strut their stuff for each other. Alex Jebailey, a 19-year-old Valencia Community College student, counts himself among the showboats. He says his addiction to the game, which began when he first discovered it at Gameworks, has begun to wane. "Now I just go when I feel like showing off," he says.

Jebailey, who says he lost 40 pounds in a year of obsessive DDR play, may have reached the peak of his interest in January. That's when he danced on a DDR machine for 13 consecutive hours at the XS Entertainment Complex on International Drive, taking a one-minute break every 10 minutes.

He would have stayed on longer, he says, but the complex had to close. "I'm mad at them for that." He has sent in a video and documentation of his marathon effort to the Guinness Book of World Records and is awaiting notification.

Mary Oberhelman won't be going after Jebailey's record. A couple of hours on a DDR machine is enough of a workout for her, and if she forgets to wear knee braces, she pays for it the next day. But she's a DDR believer.

"They should start putting these things in health clubs."

Harry Wessel can be reached at hwessel@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5506.

Copyright 2002, Orlando Sentinel

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