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August 16, 2000 [The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition]

In the Latest Arcade Craze, Players
Demonstrate Their Fancy Footwork

By KHANH T.L. TRAN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

SAN FRANCISCO -- Cesar Aldea Jr. calls himself a dancing fool. And maybe he is right. After all, he likes to dance with machines.

At an arcade on a recent weeknight at this city's teen mecca, the Metreon mall, Mr. Aldea prepares to pair off with his toughest partner: Konami Co.'s "Dance Dance Revolution" game. Looking at the 8-foot-tall machine adorned with flashing pink and yellow lights, the 28-year-old office temp worker scrunches his shoulders up and down to relax himself before paying $4 for a five-dance sprint.

Mr. Aldea is one of the growing number of young people captivated by DDR, the latest arcade phenomenon that some in the industry dub "karaoke for feet." To win, players need to correctly execute at least 70% of the dance steps they see on the computer screen. Colored arrows on the screen indicate the steps: Two blue arrows pointing to the left, for example, mean players have to tap their left foot twice on the blue arrow on the platform they are standing on.

fool art
In Step: Dance Dance Revolution fan Cesar Aldea Jr. shows how the arcade game is played

As the techno tune "Paranoia" kicks in at 180 beats a minute, Mr. Aldea tries to match the screen with his fast-moving feet. His blond-streaked bangs fly as he stomps his feet and twists his hips, the former breakdancer in him emerging. A male voice from the machine eggs him on with comments like "Wow! How could you make up a dance like this?" and, when Mr. Aldea misses a step, "Stay cool."

Despite his dexterity, the word "FAILED" flashes in his face at the end of the one-minute routine. Mr. Aldea missed half of the 275 possible dance steps proffered by his immobile partner. Unfazed, he basks in applause from onlookers who have gathered to watch his energetic routine. "It's the ultimate showoff game," he shrugs.

The DDR craze is catching on in the U.S. nearly two years after Konami introduced the game in Japan. There, it enthralled the teen set and inspired arcades to fill entire floors exclusively with dance machines.

In the U.S., arcades ranging from Seattle's GameWorks to the Southern Hills Golfland in Stanton, Calif., have sponsored tournaments in which players face down the dance machine for a chance to take home cash, color televisions, portable compact disk players and other prizes. Fan clubs are popping up, such as North Cal DDR, a coterie of some 40 die-hard players who meet at the Metreon and other Bay Area arcades each week to play the game. Members wear matching T-shirts when they travel together to competitions and the group runs a Web site called "DDR Freak." The site brims with details on members' favorite game songs and arcades that feature DDR. ("Plenty of room around it for crowds," reads a comment on one arcade. "There's a fan on the ceiling to cool you down while you dance," another adds).

To date, Konami has sold a "triple-digit" number of DDR machines in the U.S. and Canada, a company spokeswoman says. Their $15,500 price tag makes them one of the most expensive arcade games on the market. Still, the company has machines on back order and is awaiting a third shipment from Japan, where the machines are assembled. A new version of the game -- called Dance Dance Revolution U.S.A Mix that can be installed on existing machines with a $2,500 software upgrade kit -- is scheduled to hit the U.S. in September.

DDR has been a boon to arcades, which have faced steep competition from the Internet. The number of arcades nationwide has shrunk to an estimated 4,000 this year from about 5,000 in 1995 amid an industry consolidation. The game has helped double the number of customers at Southern Hills Golfland, for example, which installed DDR last year.

"This one took a life of its own," says John Bailon, assistant manager at the arcade. He was skeptical that DDR would take off in the U.S. when he first saw it at a 1998 trade show. But since the arcade bowed to player demand and installed DDR in May 1999, the machine has collected $40,000 worth of tokens. Southern Hills has already ordered the new version of the game.

Mr. Bailon notes that DDR is "politically correct for this day and age," as Americans become increasingly opposed to violent video games in the aftermath of several school shootings, and cities like Indianapolis pass laws prohibiting minors from playing violent arcade games unless accompanied by an adult.

Konami makes several other music-theme arcade games that allow players to boogie, spin turntables or play a guitar -- part of an effort to combat the increasing sophistication of home video and online games with machines so unusual that people can't recreate the experience at home.

"We try to keep the market going so people don't forget coin-op games and stay at home all the time playing their PlayStation," says Mary Hermanson, marketing manager at Konami's U.S. arcade-game subsidiary in Buffalo Grove, Ill.

While DDR does have a home version -- played on a mat lined with sensors that hooks up to either a Sega Dreamcast or Sony PlayStation game console -- it doesn't quite capture the arcade experience, Mr. Aldea attests. It is there that he can get crowd feedback on different moves, he says.

It took some time for Mr. Aldea to warm up to the dance machine. He first spotted one in February at an arcade on the campus of San Francisco State University, where he took classes in graphic arts. Though intrigued, he kept his distance because he preferred playing fighting games and, being a hip-hop fan, he didn't like the game's soundtrack, which featured mostly house dance tracks. A couple of weeks later, he found himself standing in a crowd three-deep watching a raver kid adroitly hop from one arrow to another on a DDR machine at a Japanese animation convention in San Jose, Calif. "I thought: Whoa! You can really look good on the game," Mr. Aldea recalls.

He rushed out to a nearby video-game store and plunked down $130 for the Japanese-imported version of the home game. For an entire week, he practiced seven hours a day to master the different combinations of dance steps on 60 songs, often slowing down the tempo of the songs through his control panel. Now, he spends as many as six hours a week practicing dance steps at home, then devotes some 20 hours -- and more than a tenth of his weekly net salary of $360 -- showing off at the arcade.

In June, Mr. Aldea entered a tournament run by the Golfland chain's arcade in Milpitas, Calif. For all his hours of practice, he won only $20 in tokens in the freestyle performance category. Yet, the adrenaline rush is priceless. "It's really the ooohs and aahhs of the crowd and the big applause at the end that make me feel good and that my performance wasn't in vain," he says. "In some little way, I might feel like a star."

Write to Khanh T.L. Tran at khanh.tran@wsj.com



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