Music is amazing. Not any other way to describe it really. A collaboration of sounds that come together to stir our souls and make us feel an endless variety of emotions. We humans put music to everything--It's playing while were driving, working, shopping, hanging out with friends, watching a movie, and gaming is no exception. Music has been in video games as early as the arcade days and the Atari 2600, Rally-X
being the first game to actually feature a full-blown looping music track. Since that terribly annoying tune, game music has evolved into something I'm sure most game composers of old never dreamed it would be. The general, non-gaming public is finally starting to warm up to the concept that video game music is no longer the grating chimes of the 2600s two-tone soundchip--It's real music. Much of it legendary. Whether it's the beautiful and haunting melodies of Kingdom Hearts by the great Ms. Yoko Shimomura, the legendary Koji Kondo and his ever-well-known scores for Mario and Zelda titles, or the songs from many RPGs that will forever echo through time composed by the great Yasunori Mitsuda, no honest man can deny they are truly great musical works. With the advent of wonderful events such as game music concerts, I have no doubt that were headed toward a future thats less ignorant pertaining these musical geniuses. Today I'd like to discuss something a bit different than just praising this music, however--While for a majority of games music is a background mechanic, there are many where music plays a greater, more influential role. So lets take a look at the evolution of the genre that brought music in games to the forefront--Rhythm games. Guinness World Records states the the first rhythm game ever made was a NES/Famicom title by Bandai called Family Trainer Aerobics Studio
. I can only assume the game earns this title because technically it does contain elements of the genre. You used the NES Power Pad to perform aerobic activities to the rhythm of the leotard-clad trainer's garbly synthetic voice. It's a shame, really, that the honor goes to such a title. I debate this claim, actually. Im sure many will contradict/correct me (please do in the comments), but I personally believe the first rhythm game is a very off-the-radar title for the Famicom developed by a fellow named Toshio Iwai called Otocky
. To be honest, its really no wonder nobody knows about this charming little title. Not only was it a Japan-only release, but it was for the Famicoms Disk System attachment--Launching its obscurity to new heights. The game is a side-scrolling shmup, in which your ships weapon, large red orbs, can be fired in eight directions ("Oct") depending on the button pressed. The interesting twist is that the shots can only be fired in time to the music, and each shot direction produces a different note. All the musical notes in the stage, which are dropped by enemies, must be collected to move on. Secondary weapons can be acquired, and even items that change the sound of the notes. And as if that wasnt enough for its time, the game even contains an editor system for users to create their own compositions. It's very possible that this neat little title might have received the accolade of being first of its kind had it been released two months earlier.
Gameplay of Otocky
As cool as Otocky is, it is Konami who has been credited by most for producing the first rhythm game that really set the stage for things to come--Parappa the Rapper
for the Playstation in 1996. The game, which is one of the most bizarre I have ever played in my life, focuses on a rapping dog who is trying to impress the love of his life--A talking flower. Gameplay consists of Parappa going through different tasks that he needs to accomplish to impress his lady love--And how much better to accomplish them then by rapping? Each stage would have another rapper accompany Parappa. The rapper would throw down a rhyme, which would be symbolized by string of PS1 buttons on the top of the screen. A marker would then begin to scroll along the button symbols in time to the beat, and the player then had to make Parappa repeat the line back by pressing the buttons in time with the song. This concept of using visual markers in time with music set the stage for the genre and still is the core of many rhythm games even today. Parappa came out in 1997, and not but two years later did Konami unleash its new musical branch called, Benami. It was this branch that in the year of 1999 created what is possibly the most legendary rhythm game ever created--Dance Dance Revolution
The PSP Remake of Parappa the Rapper
I saw a TV show the other day where there was a spoof of DDR--A character yelled out something to the effect of, "Look! There's Dance Party Mania! The game that tricks people into working out!" It's actually a very accurate description. In DDR, players stand on a pad that has four buttons. The buttons are arrows pointing up, down, right, and left. Players chose one of the many songs which consisted of mostly techno and pop styles, and then watched the screen as arrows scrolled from bottom to top to the songs rhythm. When an arrow reached the top of the screen, players had to step on the corresponding button. When strung together it was almost as if the player was dancing--Especially on higher difficulties. DDR spawned countless sequels and home releases--Even Mario got in on the fun with DDR: Mario Mix
on GameCube--And although the dance sensation has lost much of its popularity it had during the early 2000s it is still widely known as a "revolution" to the rhythm genre. Around a decade later, America would get swept up in games like Just Dance
and Dance Central
which would entail the player dancing for real.
After DDR, marker-based rhythm games took off like a shot. Much like DDR emulated dancing, other rhythm games soon rose up that emulated instruments. Incidentally, the same year Benami released DDR, arcades were graced the unique and quirky Samba De Amigo
, developed by Sega's own Sonic Team. The game featured a cast of colorful, Latin-style animals featuring a monkey named Amigo, who represented the player as they held a pair of magnetic sensor-toting maracas. On-screen a large ring of six circles appeared--Two high, two middle, and two low. As the characters danced and partied in the background to the up-beat, Latin soundtrack, dots would appear in the center of the ring and gravitate toward the circles in rhythm. Players had to shake the maracas in time with the dots, holding the maracas high up, mid-range, or down low depending on to which circles the dots traveled--Also taking into account whether to shake the left or right maraca. Since the maracas had real shakers, the result was an authentic, fun-filled experience that made players feel like they were the center of attention at a grand celebration. One year later, the game was ported to the late-great Sega Dreamcast to be enjoyed in the living room, and eight years after that a sequel appeared on Wii--It wasn't very well received, however. Ironically, the Wii Remote wasnt exactly designed to be able to perform the tasks the decade-year-old maraca peripherals were designed to do. Although poor Amigo and Co. never rocketed to mass-popularity, they will still live on as a wonderful example of a great, innovative title in rhythm gaming.
Just seeing it makes you feel like you're having fun.
Later on, other instruments began to take the spotlight. Drum-based titles made their appearance in the early 2000s with the Japanese-only Taiko no Tatsujin
, which used markers to help users play a large taiko drum, and, in 2003, Nintendo tried their hand at the genre with their Donkey Konga for GCN
, starring the loveable ape and a pair of bongo drums.
Then there was Harmonix's legendary Guitar Hero
, which rocked the world in 2005 using a guitar peripheral that used buttons to emulate frets, and a center switch for strings. As the markers came down, players held down the correct buttons and strummed, making them feel like full-blown rock stars as they played an enormous collection hits. The series spawned a plethora of sequels and has sold 25 million copies worldwide. Harmonix generated another 13 million sales with their Rock Band
series, which used the same gameplay mechanics as Guitar Hero
, except this time players were able to use a bass guitar, drums, a keyboard, and a microphone--This brought a powerful co-op experience to the rhythm genre--Something it had been lacking until then. The Guitar Hero
and Rock Band
games continued to be immensely popular until sometime in the area of 2009-2010 at which sales and interest started to taper off. As of 2011, these series are both on hiatus.
Not all rhythm games were out to emulate instruments, however. Some very new and experimental titles arose from the genre. The cult classic, Rez
, an abstract on-rails shooter in which weapons and environments changed with the music, appeared on PS2 in 2001. The same year, Gitaroo Man
was released on the same system--Coming four years before Guitar Hero
, it focused on a boy with a powerful guitar that could be used to fight his enemies, and used an interesting control scheme that feautured correctly titling the analog stick to play the instrument.
In the mid 2000s, Nintendo systems were home to some innovative titles in the genre. The DS gave birth to acouple of rather interesting and experimental games for the genre. Electroplankton
(2005) was just such a title. Infact, some are hard-pressed to call the title a game due to its very experimental nature. The player observes the Electroplankton--Cute, microscopic creatures that, when reacting with each other and their environment, create sound. The player could use the stylus to manipulate these factors and therefore create different sounds and music. It's a very charming title that was received quite well for what it was. And guess who made it? Toshio Iwai--The same gentleman who created Otocky
eighteen years prior. Also worth mentioning are Meteos
which came out later that year--A mildly successful puzzle title in which music would escalate and change when the player was matching tiles, and Jam Sessions
(2007), the game that turned the user's DS into a guitar.
The sounds you can make with the Electroplankton can be very beautiful. Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan
, another 2005 title, is a Japanese rhythm game on DS that used marker-based gameplay, but a different kind than mainstream rhythm games were employing. The game focuses on a Japanese cheer squad (the Quendan) who cheer people on through undesirable tasks and situations. Numbered circles appear on-screen and thin rings begin to appear and close in around them. As the rings meet exactly with the edges of the circles, they must be tapped. Throw in a few other special markers and an upbeat soundtrack and you've got a furious tap-fest blast of a rhythm game. A title called Elite Beat Agents
was released in America with pretty much the same plot concept and identical gameplay mechanics. The game didnt take off, however, which is disappointing, because many enthusiasts of the genre consider it a gem.
The DS also housed Rhythm Heaven
. The game was released in 2008, and in America, it was made to appear as if it was a new IP. In reality, Japan got the first game in 2006--Rhythm Tengoku
for the GBA. Both games follow the same premise, however--The player is put into many random situations and given equally random tasks to accomplish--To the rhythm. A samurai slashes ghosts into shreds to a traditional oriental tune, love-potions are made by "love scientists" to a groovy funk tune, and Karate Joe trains to be the strongest warrior alive by punching flowerpots in midair to a power ballad. Both games feature quite a large library of these strange tasks--They're unique and charming titles that are outrageously fun and break the traditional mold of the genre. After receiving much praise, Nintendo released an outstanding sequel for Wii in 2012--They were very wise, and opted to use button controls vs. motion, to maintain the preciseness of the rhythm detection. Of course, no one's stopping you from pretending you're swinging that katana. Not that anyone would engage in anything stupid like that.
Also released in the same year was Patapon
for Sony's PSP. Besides producing a sequel to Gitaroo Man
in 2006, the PSP served the purpose of hosting one of the most influential rhythm games ever. Patapon
is an extremely fun and innovative title in which you play as a god named Kami who rules over a tribe of cute, little eyeball-creatures called Patapon. As Kami, you have control over four holy drums that each make one unique sound. Pata
, and Don
. During gameplay, the Patapon head into battle against the enemy--A constant drumbeat plays in the background, and you must play *your* drums in time to that beat to command the Patapon. For example, playing Pata Pata Pata Pon
is the command for "advance", and Pon Pon Pata Pon
tells your troops to attack. With RPG style elements like gaining new gear and leveling up your troops, Patapon
is known as one of the best titles available for PSP--Along with its two sequels.
Spank them bottoms!
The year 2008 then continued on to be a great year for rhythm gaming with the release of Audiosurf
. The game was one of the first titles that made a splash in the concept of being able to choose your own songs to insert into the game for play. Players chose a ship, and flew along a pre-set course. The speed of the ship, as well as the generation of bad and good tiles the player had to dodge and collect respectively, were controlled by the user's music choice. The games Space Invaders: Infinity Gene
(2009) and Beat Hazard
(2010) are shmups who followed suit later on, as the games' enviroments and circumstances were molded by the users musical choices.
In 2009, we got Bit.Trip. Bit.Trip
was a series of five games--Beat. Core. Void. Runner. Fate. Flux.
All six games took cues from the age of the 2600, and the visuals were a mix of that style and modern graphics. Not only did the 2600 influence the visuals, but gameplay as well. While Core
are more original, shooter-type games, and Void
a different sort of game of its own, Beat
, and Flux
are heavily influenced by Pitfall!
. It's not just the quirky throwback style that makes the series so great, but also the fact that the unique, chiptune soundtrack is a huge part of the game. In Beat
, it's almost as if you're playing a musical game of Pong
, as pellets come from the opposite side of the screen in time with the music. Runner
is like a musical side-scroller, and it's the same sort of pattern with all the other games in the series. If all this wasnt good enough, the games tell a very cryptic, and almost haunting story about the main character--Commander Video. Gaijin Games was the mastermind studio behind these great games, and is actually currently developing Runner 2
, a sequel to the most successful game of the six.
I could mention quite a bit more on the past of the genre at hand, but what's in the future for rhythm games? After 2009, most new content for the genre consisted of sequels of games I just mentioned--Infact, the market suffered from too-much rhythm-game-syndrome. As I noted earlier, this was around the time where the big rhythm franchises like Guitar Hero
and Rock Band
started to nose over--DDR unfortunately suffered the same fate as well. But I believe the genre will pick back up in good time. Developers are always finding smart new ways to employ seemingly overdone concepts in great new ways. The indie community is a great example of this. There are some unreleased titles, even, that we are already aware of. The 3DS, in addition to the recently released Theatrhythm Final Fantasy
is getting Rhythm Thief and Emperor's Treasure
later this year. Also on the horizon is Xseed's new Vita title, Orgarhythm
--A more realistic Patapon
-style game, as well as Empty Clip's PC title Symphony
--A new music library shmup. So to wrap it up, I hope you enjoyed reliving the history of rhythm games as much as I did, and I hope you'll join me in keeping an eye for more quality titles in this great genre which takes music in games to new level. Thanks for reading!