I've recently become slightly obsessed with Crypt of the NecroDancer. One of the things I find fascinating about it is it gives me an unusually clear opportunity to observe myself getting better at something--specifically, the process of seeing theoretical knowledge gradually progress into a practiced performance, and then into instinct. Theoretically, this is what should be happening in the martial arts lessons I've been taking for a few years now, but we don't do a whole lot of sparring, so the progress I make is very slow compared to what happens in a few days of NecroDancer.
I'm familiar with turn-based roguelikes; I was playing the original Rogue about as soon as I could read its vocabulary. The patterns of monster movement in NecroDancer are not terribly difficult to learn if you can observe a monster on its own with plenty of time to spare. (Indeed, the game gives you a training area for exactly this purpose, which really helps bring down the potential for frustration.) What makes it tricky is the rhythm mechanic, in which your turns are tied to the beat of the soundtrack. If you skip a beat, the monsters get a free turn. This essentially means that while theoretical knowledge is sufficient to play most roguelikes--you can take forever to plan things, if you want--that won't work in NecroDancer. You don't have time to use your intellectual, figuring-out brain for everything; you have to engage the part that responds to cues instantly and knows instinctively when to step back or dig the wall to wait a turn before attacking.
While playing on one day, I notice myself smoothly reacting to a monster's pattern and remember how much of a problem the same situation was the previous day. On other occasions, I catch myself thinking that I should go one way, but a panic reaction has already triggered me to press the wrong key. That happens a lot, but I notice that it happens less and less often. I notice the monsters' tells on a less and less conscious level; it becomes easier to track them just by timing even when they make no visible changes before attacking. Certain enemies and I develop predictable dances, and then the challenge is not so much in dealing with one enemy, but in dealing with it when surrounded by companions, or in breaking out of a bad pattern when I do misstep.
When I first played Sonic 3 & Knuckles, the special stages seemed impossibly fast at first. As I got better at them, I did not so much experience it as my reflexes getting faster; from my perspective, the game seemed to get slower. Years later, I picked up the game after a long hiatus and was still able to beat every stage on the first try, because the patterns were entrenched in memory; it's like riding a bicycle.
I never got that good with DDR when I played it--that game is a bother to play well. It's expensive at an arcade, and the learning curve tends to come in jumps and starts. I felt a similar learning experience when I was able to play a lot during college, but investing in the game was too difficult to really keep up. NecroDancer's success comes partly from its ability to let the quirks of one genre balance out the difficulties in the other, and package the result in bite-size chunks that don't take too much investment and aren't so painful to lose. The reward for practice and persistence is so much more obvious in this game than in any other I remember playing...or any real skill I can remember practicing.
I wonder if I can learn to get better at watching.