Review: Hello Kitty and Friends Happiness Parade
Sanrio is a company that, in many respects, requires no introduction. You would be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t at least have vague knowledge of the existence of Hello Kitty, the company’s most popular marketing mascot. This goes double if said person was around throughout the 1990s, when the character had a particular boom in popularity outside of her native Japan.
This popularity has provided ample opportunities for Hello Kitty tie-ins with every product under the sun, including video games, and the latest release to hit digital shelves is Hello Kitty and Friends Happiness Parade. Originally released in late 2022 for mobile devices and following a delay at the eleventh hour, the rhythm game is now headed to the Nintendo Switch for an October 26th, 2023 release courtesy of developer Dabadu Games and publisher Rogue Games.
It certainly sports the look of a fun rhythm game starring some of Sanrio’s most popular mascots, but is it able to bring the titular happiness once you actually get your hands on it?
The first and foremost thing to understand about the storyline of Happiness Parade is that there isn’t one. There’s a premise, of course: Hello Kitty (and friends) are conducting parades across the world to spread happiness to everyone who shows up to watch. Jealous of Hello Kitty’s popularity and fandom, fellow Sanrio character Kuromi decides to build an army of robots to lay down traps on the parade path to thwart them.
This information about the game’s story is almost exclusively available via supplementary materials, and the game itself doesn’t make an effort to tell you much of it. There are five unlockable “endings” depending on the paths you decide to take through the game’s stages, but they don’t amount to much more than ten seconds of the characters doing something cute before you’re booted back to the main menu.
Naturally, calling attention to the absence of a more traditional story in a game like this isn’t an indictment in and of itself. Rhythm games are typically very light on story if they have one at all, and Hello Kitty characters are typically known more for their aesthetics than their characterizations, so it doesn’t come as much of a shock that there isn’t much of that in Happiness Parade. Not to mention, as a long as a rhythm game is fun, the story doesn’t matter at all, right?
But that’s where the game runs into some trouble.
Dancing Down the Drive
On the gameplay front, Hello Kitty and Friends Happiness Parade is effectively a rhythm game and endless runner smushed into one. Each stage is comprised of a pathway with three vertical lanes the characters take steps down in conjunction of the beats-per-minute of the song. Pressing a face button in the direction of a lane will move your leading character into it, or you can avoid changing lanes by pressing the bottommost face button.
Your goal in every stage is to consistently tap the face buttons in time with each step to the BPM of the song, switching lanes at will in the interest of scooping up items and avoiding obstacles. Though multiple characters of your choosing will participate in the march, only the leading Sanrio mascot is under your control and at risk of being damaged.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take very long at all for a feeling of repetitiveness to rear its ugly head. In every single stage, the lion’s share of your time will be spent tapping a single button at the exact same speed until it ends. There are attempts to switch things up with avoidable obstacles and items to nab, but these situations are handled in the exact same way as regular movement: a single button press to change lanes. Swapping out your lead character? That’s a button press. Activating their special ability? Another button press as the analogue sticks look on with jealousy, and it gets old fast.
At the heart of every good rhythm game is a style of gameplay that allows the player to feel themselves incrementally improving and better understanding how to handle more difficult sections. Playing Happiness Parade takes some getting used to when dealing with certain obstacles, but once you quickly figure out how to avoid them all, it’s hard to not see a shallow system that doesn’t give the player anything to chew on from a mechanical standpoint. Even the character abilities, which all function differently, fail to impact the gameplay in a very meaningful way.
In a rather atypical approach for a rhythm game, each stage randomly pulls from a pool of your unlocked songs rather than having a song dedicated to the level itself. If you’re given a song you’re sick of hearing or sounds a bit too fast for the difficulty of stage you’re about to do, the game very kindly gives you the ability to shuffle to a new one. Although this is a nice enough feature, it highlights the level of detachment each stage has to have from the music in order to accommodate multiple songs, and further adds to the repetition of everything else.
Another oddity of Hello Kitty and Friends Happiness Parade is its structure, which can be likened to that of a roguelite. As you finish each stage, you can choose to proceed along an upper or lower path, which typically leads to more difficult or easier songs, respectively. When all of your characters reach zero HP or you reach an ending, you’re rewarded for your efforts up to that point and booted back to the main menu to start the process anew.
This form of progression wouldn’t be so bad if not for the incongruously punishing nature of the game in its earlier hours. When you first start playing, a collision with an obstacle will decimate your chosen character’s HP, sometimes removing them from the rest of the run after two simple mistakes. In order to have a chance at reaching an ending, you have to replay the first few stages in order to accrue enough resources to strengthen your characters for the later stages, and these level ups don’t come cheap. Very rarely will you be in a situation where you can upgrade multiple characters at once between each run, causing the whole experience to feel like its more interested in stretching the game thin rather than providing a satisfying progression system.
Nothing But the Pops
On the whole, much of the game’s presentation is on-brand. The Sanrio characters themselves are recreated and portrayed exactly the way you’d expect them to be, and the animation work does quite a bit of heavy lifting to keep their movements adorable. Additionally, the menus and interface are aesthetically pleasing with no shortage of the requisite pinks.
Outside of the characters themselves though, the 3D visuals are rather flat. The environments they dance through feel bland and fail to catch the eye, and most of the stages blend together despite meshing with the rest of the game.
The quality of the music itself is something that’s hard to take umbrage with, though. Nearly all tracks are licensed, lesser-known pop tunes with sweeping choruses, catchy chord progressions, and lyrics brimming with optimism and confidence. Most of them are as easy to listen to as tracks on the radio would be, and the songs do a good job of matching the tone of the game. The Switch version does add a sizable twenty new songs to the game’s repertoire from the mobile version, but when the songs affect the game in such a small way it’s difficult to feel the benefit of the extra content.
Hello Kitty and Friends Happiness Parade is one of those games that simply struggles to stand out. It’s an endless runner/rhythm game hybrid that has great potential in theory, but its monotonous gameplay, uninteresting art style, and grindy moment-to-moment loop make it a difficult recommendation.
If the game were to offer something more than exactly what justifies its existence, it could have been a great time, but instead, Hello Kitty and Friends Happiness Parade provides an unexciting rhythm game with Sanrio characters and absolutely nothing more.
Review code provided by Rogue Games for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Rogue Games.