I'm upset because this is iM@S but the Best Girl That Isn't Chihaya, Kaede Takagaki, isn't in here beyond a cameo. Harrumph.
So, there are three versions of this game, and our screenshots actually come from all three of them, because the aftermarket price has consistently stayed in that ~£20 sweet spot for the three different volumes. We spent most of our time in the first one we picked up, Groovy Tune, simply for time's sake, but screenshots from Honey Sound and Funky Note are also included for completeness. We'll go over differences and the like in the article, of course, but for review purposes they're basically all the same game. Oh, and due to the precedent set by the Famison article, we will be typing the name of this series either as iM@S for short, or THE iDOLM@STER, for that is how it is written. Additionally, most subtitles in the series are in all-caps too, which we've also adhered to. If nothing else, at least this is funny because it looks like my idiot writer is breathlessly shouting idol facts at you, accurately simulating the feeling of talking to this God-damn nerd. Finally, shoutouts to project-imas.com Wiki, Lazorgunn's guide, Yong Han Lee's guide and the @Wiki guide. In particular, the project-imas.com Wiki was the source of all the proper song titles in Romaji. Their services to idolkind are recognised.

This is the ever-ongoing story of how I became the worst Vocaloid fan in th- wait, no, hang on.

This is, instead, the story of how I surrendered myself to Namco's world of imaginary idols.

Sort-of, anyway. Long-time readers of the site may already know I own all of the Famison 8BIT☆iDOLM@STER albums and that series of releases- mostly due to the Dig Dug remix therein- is what kickstarted my interest in iM@S after resisting for so long. I'm just as confused as you are. I'd always written the series off in my head, truth be told- the idol management sim games at the very least, due to their unavailability in a convenient format or in English- until I started playing the Project DIVA games, which in a roundabout way lead me to Love Live! [Oh, good, the worst-kept secret in Western civilisation is finally out, that Gaming Hell are stalwart Love Livers. Christ, tell them we're huge Girls und Panzer fans next, why don't you. - Ed] and that lead me to finding that Dig Dug remix and thus reappraise Namco's all-conquering idol series. See, when I tell people Love Live! ruined my life, I mean it, it lead me here. Ahem. This article helped me to understand iM@S a lot better too, so it's all been a learning process an' that. The two series have different appeals, if you ask my uneducated ass- both are now multimedia franchises but iM@S started as a video game series and maintains it (thus thrusting the audience / player into the role of producer) while Love Live! was multimedia from the off and so doesn't need the audience to engage in it in the same way as a video game for a lot of it. As a result, while I will probably never play the True iM@S games (maybe someday, because Princess Maker but with idols? Sure, OK) I am more than happy to enjoy the music and characters and some of the ancillary stuff, like that one card of Ritsuko in space because of course she's been to space or Yayoi about to blow up the roof like she's Hans Gruber. That's fine, right?

So, what options are there for the lazy iM@S fan like me, who just wants an exciting dreamlike time but without having to produce anyone at all? Something like a rhythm game spin-off, perhaps? Beyond the iOS games CINDERELLA GIRLS: STARLIGHT STAGE and MILLION LIVE!: THEATER DAYS (which we'll avoid for now because we've already burnt our hand on the Gacha grill enough times for one life) your main option is 2012's THE iDOLM@STER: SHINY FESTA, a PSP release split into three different instalments starring different idols and having different setlists as a result- yes, exactly like Love Live! School idol paradise. Unlike School idol paradise though, after spending some time with the Groovy Tune version (which includes pro ojousama Takane, guts-powered Makoto, weirdly obsessive Miki and The Best iM@S Yukiho), the Gaming Hell Powers That Be elected to get the other two versions as well. They're surprisingly cheap on the after-market (just don't get them mixed up with the more simulation-like iDOLM@STER SP games, also split into three, also on PSP) and, you see, Honey Sound has Ritsuko and Mahou o Kakete! and Funky Note has Yayoi, Iori and Kyun! Vampire Girl (but sadly, not Ai LIKE Hamburger, we'll see that later). Our hands were clearly tied on this one.

And so, once more, welcome to Idol Hell!

Immediately upon booting the game for the first time, one thing is obvious- this game has a budget, as each version opens with an animated opening. A twenty-three minute opening, actually, animated by A-1 Pictures (who also did the iM@S anime, and later adaptations of Ace Attorney and Valkyria Chronicles). While some of that is footage you'll be seeing later, and other parts still are shared between volumes, that's still more for an intro than, well, any other portable rhythm game I can care to mention. Luckily this strong budget carries over to the game itself, with rock-solid presentation, cleanly-truncated songs used for the setlist and great-looking PVs, although they're a bit of a cheat admittedly, as they're pre-recorded videos, animated or CG, rather than real-time rendered character models. Sounds like a strange thing to start the review with, but it's important to establish because this 2012 PSP game manages to absolutely shame the Vita Love Live! game in terms of presentation and budget. Goes to show what having iM@S levels of money behind you can do for your game!

... That said, the nature of these lavish intros focusing on 4 or 5 of the idols does bring into focus the fact that the idols are split up with these different versions. If nothing else, you can at least surmise a technical reason for it- UMDs have a maximum capacity of 1.8 GB when dual-layered, and these volumes fill up about 1.2 GB individually. Going for pre-recorded music videos (two per song) instead of being rendered with an in-game engine and having a 23-minute OVA episode must've taken up a lot of space, and so putting all of these on the one volume would force Namco to cut a lot of songs out entirely. While it's possible the intent was for you to pick the volume with your favourite idols, and for there to be a coherent narrative with the intros and the cutscenes they'd have to split the idols up... My favourite idols are mostly split up, as are my favourite songs. I imagine the same's true for other iM@S fans. There's no real way to win here, of course, and to the game's credit the save file system does smooth things over (as we'll see later) but that's the cost of the presentation, I suppose!

Beyond the fancy presentation, this is a rhythm-based spin-off with some very minor nods to the management origins of the series, mostly in the form of gating your progression so you don't get too far ahead of yourself. Let's start with the rhythm game itself, as it's fairly simple but can get challenging in spite of that. Rather than a swirling maelstrom of notes like Project DIVA or a strict chart like Megpoid the Music, SHINY FESTA has a note track that constantly changes shape throughout the song, but always converges on a central point, with two tracks either side. Notes on the left (blue by default) must be hit with either the L trigger or the D-Pad, and notes on the right (red by default) must be hit with either the R trigger or the face buttons, and these come in single-note or hold-note varieties (fortunately, you don't need to let go of hold notes, as long as you hit it right the first time). There's not much in the way of bells and whistles beyond the Kirameki Meter, which fills up as you land notes and decreases- dramatically, mind- when you miss. Keep it maxed out for long enough and a star note appears that when hit changes the PV in the background (referred to as the Special MC- usually changing the character outfits, sometimes switching from character models to animation and vice-versa) and doubles your points earned. The catch is those benefits disappear if you let the meter drop too much (though there is no fail-state- the Kirameki Meter is not a healthbar).

This sounds overly-simple, and for the lower difficulties it is. A bit like the Project DIVA games once you're used to them, SHINY FESTA doesn't really get going until the Pro and Master difficulties, but I'd say the floor for entry is a little lower than DIVA given the fewer buttons you have to worry about, so anyone can pick it up fairly easily then work their way up. On Master, you do have to keep an eye on the order of incoming notes as they're so close to one another, but it does feel gratifying once you start to learn a song and really nail those patterns. Odd as it sounds, part of the appeal is the PSP hardware itself- if you play with the L and R buttons, the clacking noise they make is immensely satisfying to hear in a rhythm game. There's also the fact that the grading scale is closer to arcade games like Dance Dance Revolution, in that there's a greater range of possible grades compared to the likes of Project DIVA and Megpoid the Music♯, which encourages you to learn songs and play better, and you can even increase the general speed of notes if you want by x1.5 or x2.0 for a more turbo-charged challenge... But those raised on the harsh plains of beatmania won't be fazed by this game in the least, even with this option. For how simple things appear on the surface, this does a pretty good job of keeping things satisfying- in particular having to maintain the Special MC with your performance- but much like Project DIVA 2nd, it doesn't really do a great job of letting you know how you're doing in the song itself. The Kirameki Meter is better than the Tension Bar in Vita Love Live! in that you really have to work to recover when you drop notes and so it kinda helps tell you how you're faring, but I'd definitely prefer something more concrete. On the plus side, the songs themselves are fantastic, with a nice mix of solo songs, ensemble pieces and full idol extravaganzas for you to enjoy. Your tolerance for idol music will of course skew that last point somewhat, there's no polkas or ragtime to save you here!

Moving on to the structure, it does things a little differently than you might expect. While all songs in every version are unlocked from the go (at Debut and Regular difficulties, with unlockable Pro and Master difficulties requiring an A Rank or better in the previous difficulty), at the start you can only play in Stage mode, which is one song at a time, to earn money and fans. Playing a few songs get some short cutscenes with the idols from your particular volume, and reaching enough fans (which doesn't take long) increases your Producer Rank and unlocks the game's main mode, Star of Festa, which we'll get to in due time. Subsequent rank goals allow you to buy more items from the shop, which stocks cosmetic things like note icons and sounds, but also consumable items that can have effects like giving you a larger timing window for hitting notes or increasing fans gained from songs. Ranking up offers infinitely-usable versions of those consumables, alongside some very helpful items for Star of Festa. There is a weird reliance on these boosting items for that mode, which at first struck me as a bit odd- I'm thinking mostly of the one that boosts your Kirameki Meter increase rate, as while that seems like something to help players get a leg-up, it's also very much necessary to help you beat the higher Star of Festa difficulties so experts will have to use them too. However, a few things do lessen the impact there- the ranks awarded for performance are based entirely on the percentage of notes successfully hit rather than score, and it's only the rank that's actually viewable as part of your record afterwards (a high score is kept track of but only so the game can show 'NEW HIGH SCORE!' on the results screen). A little messy on the implementation, but it balances out with those caveats somewhat.

The big mode, then, is Star of Festa, a contest held on a remote island that the idols of your chosen volume have come to compete in. This is a short-but-sweet story mode, where you play through five days of idol competition, with three songs per day. Your objective is to reach 100000 Festa Points (different from the in-song score) before the five-day time limit is up in order to unlock the next difficulty along, starting at Standard, then Hard, then Expert. Additionally, for the third song on each day you'll get a selection of rival idols- taken from the then-recent CINDERELLA GIRLS spin-off, although later on idols from the versions of this game you're not playing show up- to battle against. Accepting their challenge has the rhythm game play out as standard, just with the rival's score and Kirameki Meter status in the corner- beat their score and you earn their card which gives you a Festa Points boost applied to every day you complete from then on. The fact that the rival score is updating as yours is means you get a rough idea of how far ahead you are, although I think I would've prepared having just a set score to aim for instead, like in Mach Breakers. In any case, make it to the end of the contest with the required score to progress to the next difficulty! It's a very simple mode but gives at least a little structure to proceedings, and the rival battles even offer that sense of how you're doing mid-song that's missing from Stage mode!

There's some really odd choices with Star of Festa mode that make it less compelling than it should be, though. Chief among them is the usage of Memory Appeals and the limits placed on them. These heart items are earned by playing songs in Stage mode, each idol in your version of the game has their own stock of them, and they're used in individual songs in Star of Festa mode, spawning up to 5 heart icons during a song as long as you maintain Special MC state after maxing out the Kirameki Meter. These give you an essential 500 Fest Points boost for each one you hit. This is an interesting mechanic as it ties in with performing well- you won't get all 5 unless you max out the Kirameki Meter as soon as possible and keep it that way. The downside is, early on each idol can only hold 5 Memory Appeals at once, so if you want to score well in Star of Festa, you have to do a single day then grind it out in Stage mode to restock before going back in. As your Producer Rank increases, you can get items that let you hold more Memory Appeals at once (first 10, then 20, eventually 99) but this takes a while. It's also an unnecessary system- the fact you have to earn the right for the heart notes to appear at all should be enough really, with no need to tack on resource management too. Additionally, you will have to grind this mode a little regardless, as those rival cards give you points boosts that add up and can really make a difference on higher difficulties... But the rival choice is randomised each time and near the end, you will keep getting dupes. Overall, it's an interesting little mode, and is where I spent most of my time with the game, but some of it's a little grindy for no real reason, it seems. Having some kind of challenge variety would've been nice too as you tend to end up playing the same few songs you've very good at.

So, this is a bit of an odd one to call, honestly, and I really had to debate with myself on how to conclude here! Ultimately, I decided that the best yardstick for the game would be comparing it to Project DIVA 2nd, seeing as they're roughly contemporaries, and while SHINY FESTA has less songs and a similar problem with gauging your progress, it's probably more accessible and friendly to newcomers with its simpler control scheme and yet satisfying feel to proceedings. Your performance dictates whether you see the Special MC, and I think that helps a lot, as does the clicky-clacky PSP shoulder buttons (no, really!). Also in its favour, the fact that this PSP release can utterly shame a Vita game like Love Live! in terms of presentation is an impressive feat in and of itself, and it plays a lot better than some of the portable rhythm guff I've played in my time. In my idol-addled state, the setlist is also full of absolute bangers, as the kids say (get on that SMOKY THRILL it's good stuff)... But having everything split across three volumes really stings for this release, and while I completely get why it is this way, it's still a shame. The Star of Festa mode also tries to drag things down a little too much with the Memory Appeal farming and Name Card grinding, and for rhythm game maniacs, this won't really be anything you won't beat in your sleep. Of course, for those already deep in the iM@S mire, this is an easy recommendation (I say that like I'm not one of those people, and yet I'm at the point where I knew who the CINDERELLA GIRLS cameos were and tried to get shots of my favourites, so I must be far down the rabbit hole), especially if you'd prefer something that's purely rhythm without gacha mechanics like the mobile games. For everyone else, I can say you can give any of the volumes a shot and at the very least not wind up disappointed, that's for sure. That's nothing to sniff at in these parts, so good for you, SHINY FESTA, you are officially, categorically better than Megpoid the Music♯ and Love Live! on the Vita. Hit the stage with a small amount of pride!

For being a rhythm game that really grew on me, THE iDOLM@STER: SHINY FESTA is awarded...

In a sentence, THE iDOLM@STER: SHINY FESTA...
Goes its own way, and vaults that borderline pretty well.

And now, it's that time, folks!

First order of business, differences and connectivity between the three volumes of the game.

(Boxart above yanked from GameFAQs, of course.)

While each volume has the same basic structure and setup (as well as 7 shared standard songs and 1 shared DLC song), they all have their own intro, colour scheme for the UI, idols and songs. There is a slight imbalance with Funky Note- because the Futami twins are a package deal, it has 5 idols instead of 4 which means there's one 765 rival missing from Star of Festa (idols from the volume you aren't playing appear as possible rival fights), a slot filled by Sae Kobayakawa who's exclusive to that version. So, a list of the exclusive idols and songs is below:

Honey Sound Funky Note Groovy Tune
Idols Haruka Amami
Chihaya Kisaragi
Asuza Mimura
Ritsuko Akizuki

Ami Futami
Mami Futami
Yayoi Takatsuki
Iori Minase
Hibiki Ganaha
Yukiho Hagiwara
Makoto Kikuchi
Miki Hoshii
Takane Shijou

Songs Otome yo Taishi o Idake!! (Haruka)
I Want Haruka)
Yakusoku (Chihaya)
Me ga Au Toki (Chihaya)
Tonari ni... (Asuza)
LO♥VE♥LY♥ (Asuza)
Mahou o Kakete! (Ritsuko)
Ippai Ippai (Ritsuko)
Shiny smile (Haruka & Chihaya)
Shalala (Asuza & Ritsuko)
GO MY WAY!! (Haruka & Chihaya & Ritsuko)
Kami SUMMER!! (Chihaya & Asuza & Ritsuko)
Vault That Borderline! (All 4)
Start→ Star→ (Ami & Mami)
Positive! (Ami & Mami)
Kiramekirari (Yayoi)
Ohayou!! Asagohan (Yayoi)
Futari no Kioku (Iori)
Naniro Button (Iori)
Next Life (Hibiki)
Brand New Day! (Hibiki)
Do-Dai (Ami & Mami & Hibiki)
Kyun! Vampire Girl (Yayoi & Iori)
Honey Heartbeat (All 5)
Visionary (All 5)
ALRIGHT* (Yukiho)
Kosmos, Cosmos (Yukiho)
Jitensha (Makoto)
Meisou Mind (Makoto)
Marionette no Kokoro (Miki)
Furufuru Future✩ (Miki)
Kazahana (Takane)
Overmaster (Takane)
Kimi wa Melody (Takane)
relations (Yukiho & Makoto & Miki)
Agent Yoru o Yuku (Yukiho & Makoto & Miki)
Little Match Girl (Yukiho & Miki & Takane)
EdeN (All 4)

What's very helpful, though, is that the save data is almost universal between all three volumes. While your Producer Rank and unlocked Star of Festa difficulty is locked to each specific volume, almost everything else is shared, including purchased items in the shop (even if you don't have the required Producer Rank, you're still free to use those items) and unlocked rival cards for Star of Festa, so while you still have to work your way through that mode, the journey is considerably breezier, and it makes swapping between volumes a little less of a pain. Especially if, as a hypothetical example, the save file on your main version corrupts itself a day before your review is due to go to print when you just wanted to double check a couple things. Not that I'm speaking from experience, mumble grumble.

Next up, the English iOS release of these games... What's left of them, anyway.

Oh, I bet you forgot this happened, didn't you? Gaming Hell didn't. Gaming Hell never forgets. THE iDOLM@STER: SHINY FESTA was completely translated into English and released in America (and France, South Korean and Hong Kong) in 2013! Just not on PSP of course (it was very dead in the West by that point) but on iPhones. I had to specify America for the English version because it never made it to the UK, like a surprising amount of iOS staples (Fate/Grand Order being one of the more recent examples), but unlike other iOS mainstays, Bandai Namco stuck to their guns and charged $55 for each of the three volumes (now renamed Harmonic Score, Rhythmic Record and Melodic Disc) which surprised a lot of people considering the iOS market at the time.

From what we can find, there's a few changes both for the iOS format and for the English localisation. Mostly, the control scheme is obviously touch-based now, although given the simple nature of the controls in the PSP game, that's not a huge change- the left side of the touch screen hits notes on the left side of the rhythm bar, the right side hits right-side notes, and hitting both sides is used for double notes. Also, not every song is included as standard, with several from the PSP game part of the DLC Store- this may be a space issue, as the game would frequently delete DLC songs and force you to redownload them. As for the English version, this is presented in English (including subtitles for the OVA episodes, yes they're still here) with a few amusing typos (every idol has their hoobies listed instead of hobbies), with one major content change- several videos have had the outfits changed to remove bikinis and swimwear. Other than that, this is a legit iM@S spinoff release in English! Or was, rather.

We say 'was' because Bandai Namco was in the habit of constantly clearing out their iOS catalogue every so often, delisting and shutting down a lot of games, and the iM@S games were among them in 2016, shutting down in May of that year. On the plus side, at least they had a sale on them, bringing each volume down to $4. As a result though, we have to work on second-hand information, but while we still have some questions- mostly if there were any DLC songs exclusive to the iOS version, though that doesn't seem to be likely- the game has been documented fairly well. For a start, TouchGameplay recorded an hour's worth of footage for each of the three versions- Harmonic Score, Rhythmic Record and Melodic Disc- and this fortunately includes the intros, so you can watch the official subtitles for these OVAs. There's also surprisingly comprehensive coverage of all three versions in the Japanator review (which has input from Elliot Gay for a second time in this article, follow his adventures on Twitter!). Short of finding the game via underhanded means, this is as good as our coverage can get, sorry!

Next, we have to cover iM@S CHANNEL on PS3 as much as we can, which contains a HD port of this game... Well, sort-of.

iM@S CHANNEL is a free PS3 app, available on the JP PS Store over here which serves as a sort-of hub for iM@S content on the console. You have a launcher for the download version of ONE FOR ALL (a PS3 instalment of the management / raising series), a new enhanced and download release of all nine GRAVURE FOR YOU! volumes (where you can just take pictures of the idols in various situations and costumes) and, relevant to us, SHINY TV, a semi-new game that uses the same game mechanics as SHINY FESTA but with a new structure and 95% of the content divided between DLC packs. Upon downloading iM@S CHANNEL for the first time, you get one song, We Have a Dream, for nothing. From there, each idol (with Ami & Mami being bundled together) gets a DLC pack to themselves for a total of 12 at 1543 Yen each, with 5 songs in each ranging from songs from SHINY FESTA to other iM@S songs that weren't in that game. Additionally, you get Machiuke Prince as a freebie with the first DLC pack you buy, plus Arcadia and Sora being free songs doled out when you buy 6 and 12 packs respectively, bringing the total to 64 songs over the 46 across all three volumes of SHINY FESTA. Phew! Beyond the songs, each pack also comes with a PS3 theme of that pack's character plus their TV programme in SHINY@TV mode.

In terms of modes, this cuts out Star of Festa mode and replaces it with SHINY@TV mode, where each character gets their own TV show that you play through. Split into 4 seasons containing 6 song challenges each, with the different challenges including beating a par score, having shorter lines so you have less time to react, playing with all the notes the same colour, and rival fights like the ones in Star of Festa but with the rivals being taken from the MILLION LIVE! social media game app that had launched in February the same year. Meeting certain requirements unlocks an EX Challenge, and beating that one gets you a special video of that show's main idol. It's certainly a cute way to present things (in particular I like that Haruka's show is apparently called 'Haruka's Noisy Cooking') and means you're still getting something out of this rerelease beyond the PSP game on a bigger screen if you already own one of the volumes. If anything, I kinda prefer SHINY@TV to Star of Festa! As for how it plays, this is pretty much the PSP game, but there's no Memory Appeal grinding or shop anymore so things are much simpler. The main concern is input lag which the game does its best to deal with through a small mini-game to adjust the timing, or with a slider.

Unfortunately, you'll probably notice we haven't covered much of this. The main issue is, well, the Gaming Hell Budget covers many things, up to and including both the PS3 and PS Vita versions of Spelunker Collection and about half of the DLC for Project DIVA F 2nd, but holy shit there is no way, no way at all, we could afford all of the content in SHINY TV. 18516 Yen? Are you having a laugh? That's not even counting the GRAVURE FOR YOU! volumes if you wanted those. In the end, much like Highlander, there could be only one. My editor was most upset we didn't get the Chihaya one [A slight against me- one of many- that I will take to the grave. - Ed] but we had to settle for the one that had Ai LIKE Hamburger, a love ballad to the all-American food, which means we got the Yayoi pack. Bonus: the PS3 theme has Yayoi excitedly chirp at pretty much any action you take on the system. I'm OK with that.

Finally... Look, this has nothing to do with SHINY FESTA, like, at all.

But there will not be another chance to talk about the greatest crossover in imaginary idol history, please humour us.

For you see, THE iDOLM@STER and Love Live! did, once, join forces on the battlefield of the live stage.

At Animelo Summer Live 2015 -The Gate-'s first day, 28/8/2015, the opening number was a medley of songs from both iM@S and Love Live! performed by 6 members of iM@S's 765Pro- Eriko Nakamura (Haruka Amami), Asami Imai (Chihaya Kisaragi), Asami Shimoda (Ami and Mami Futami), Manami Numakura (Hibiki Ganaha), Yumi Hara (Takane Shijou) and Azumi Asakura (Yukiho Hagiwara)- and 8 members of LL's μ's- Emi Nitta (Honoka Kosaka), Aya Uchida (Kotori Minami), Suzuko Mimori (Umi Sonoda), Riho Iida (Rin Hoshizora), Pile / Eriko Hori (Maki Nishikino), Aina Kusuda (Nozomi Tojo), Yurika Kubo (Hanayo Koizumi) and Sora Tokui (Nico Yazawa), the full roster except for Yoshino Nanjo (Eli Ayase) due to a knee injury. I dunno, there's just something nice about seeing the cast of Love Live! singing GO MY WAY!! and there's no way on Earth I'll have the excuse to talk about this again, just let me have this, this one time. Click the image above for the only footage we could find of the medley from Facebook (God, why).

Wiat a moment! One final piece of iM@S lore, because again, there may be no excuse later on.

A video as old as time itself, WHO PUT THE BOMP? is an iM@S animation worked on by someone called Riyo.

That same Riyo now works on officially-sanctioned comics for Fate/Grand Order that make fun of gacha rolls.

(Read those comics over here, and more about all that over here)

Yes, they're the Gudako artist!

Sometimes the world is small after all.

Is this THE iDOLM@STER's last stand on Gaming Hell? Only time will tell.

Listen, get Harada on the phone, I have a pitch for him- iM@S / Love Live! / Vocaloid fighting game. Easy money!