The Rise and Fall of Rhythm Games

Simon, a four-coloured toy, made one of the first attempts to draw that line between sound and touch. In video games, this connection is something that’s been pushed, stretched, and twisted to a point of near disintegration. Today, we’re going to have a look at how the rhythm genre began, rose to near global domination, and then plummeted from its mountain of plastic peripherals.

Some of the first steps into the genre started with Nintendo. The Nintendo Entertainment System’s 1988 floor mat known as the Power Pad was a precursor to the dance offshoot from rhythm games. Dance Aerobics, a title released for the NES, could possibly claim the title for the first ever rhythm video game. However, the title and peripheral were far before their time. Many years later, it was a dog with a beanie hat who rapped the genre into the spotlight.

At least those kids enjoyed it.

PaRappa the Rapper is a name as synonymous with rhythm games as dogs are with sticks. Released in 1996, the PlayStation title had you pressing buttons in time to the rhythm of music and on-screen commands; do well and you’re rewarded with memorable lyrics such as “The toilet over there will bring you luck” (from the contemporary classic Bathroom Rap). The title was a critical hit both east and west, and went on to get a sequel. It showed that rhythm games could be skilfully constructed with the input of a controller.

In contrast, in 1997, Beatmania, a game developed by Konami, was released, and is one of the first titles to highlight the potency of a rhythm game peripheral: a five key workable turntable. It was a hit in the arcade, especially in Japan; however, it was Konami’s Dance Dance series that managed to step quickly into our hearts. The title succeeded in generating a lot of cash, and the aesthetically pleasing machines continue to have a place in many arcades. Nevertheless, we won’t spend too long on these titles, as they’re more of a side note in the rhythm genre, and could be said to have created their own genre known as dance.

Konami released some further titles that strongly mirror what was to occur later: Guitar Freaks (1998) with its plastic guitars, and Drum Mania (1999) with a drum set. Both had success in the arcades but faced hindrances in their home console ports. Their most significant legacy is how they influenced Rock Band, and how Konami later brought a lawsuit against Harmonix. However, in 1999, we were far removed from this and only just starting to get into the PS2/GameCube/Xbox (and Dreamcast) war.

Drum Mania and Guitar Freaks.

This also just so happens to be a time I’d refer to as the golden age of rhythm games. This isn’t to say that it was the peak. Well, I think it was, but many people would point out that it wasn’t the most profitable time for the genre. But who needs profits, anyway? We want to see the decent games; not ones ruled by what’s mainstream.

A continuation of PaRappa was seen in its PS2 sequel, but what’s arguably more important is its spiritual successor: Vib-Ribbon. The 1999 PS1 title was developed by the same company, and had the alluring aspect of allowing you to play the game along with any track on your console. The graphics were also a unique minimalistic style that concentrated on the use of vectors. You used a regular controller to play, and not some peripheral.

Vib-Ribbon had unique, wireframe visuals.

Some peripheral… like maracas! Of course, Samba de Amigo deserves a mention here. The title was released in the arcades back in 1999, but was also ported to the Dreamcast in 2000, and the Wii in 2008. The Dreamcast version was bundled with a pair of maracas, and shaking them to the beat proved a hit for the well-received game. Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to see the crazed monkey mascot again; he can take a seat beside Billy Hatcher.

My own personal high point for rhythm games came with the release of 2001’s Gitaroo Man. Like PaRappa and VibRibbon, Giraroo Man neglected the use of any peripheral. This is despite the fact that our hero wielded an impressive guitar-like instrument. The PS2 title (ported to the PSP in 2006) was fast-paced, difficult, and provided some amazing original tracks, from techno to jazz and acoustic. Not only that, but it also had a brief yet potent story that was told beautifully, and gave some more weight to the musical duels that made up the game. Beautiful enough that its love story made it into our video games romances piece.

Gitaroo Man featured a cast of brightly-hued characters for U-1 to meet.

2001 also saw one of the big boys, Harmonix, pop their heads up with the release of Frequency on the PS2, a game in which entering the correct input – on your regular controller— caused an aspect (vocals, drums, guitar) of a song to be played. This gameplay mechanic is important because it’s the same as what was used in the cult classic sequel to the title.

Amplitude, the successor, was released in 2003 on the PS2. It was an absolute joy to play, and managed to rack up a lot more popularity than Frequency. The title deviated from its predecessor in that it managed to grab more mainstream music (including David Bowie and Blink-182), and it also succeeded in having an online multiplayer. Most importantly, it gave Harmonix a foothold in the industry.

In Amplitude, getting a full song to play was its own reward.

Harmonix also had a part to play in the karaoke revolution that created its own subsection of the rhythm genre. In fact, their 2003 title was called Karaoke Revolution, and it had its own stiff competition in the form of Singstar. What makes these games worth a mention is that they used something other than touch to measure your rhythm. They used your voice, and they did this to great effect. Also, both sold by the bucketloads, and both received many sequels.

Personally, Singstar leaves some poignant memories, such as passionately singing Moterhead’s Ace of Spades, and (in my X-Factor Simon Cowell moment) being told by my mother to stop my awful howling.

And now, it’s time for an interjection from Donkey Kong. While I know it seems a strange time for the ape to show up, in 2003, Donkey Konga was released. It received a mixed reception, but also had a cool-looking set of bongo (or konga?) drums, and borrowed some of Nintendo’s stellar music for you to bop and clap to.

You crazy ape, where do your talents end?

Turning our focus back to Harmonix, ten years ago, in 2005, they took the spotlight with the development of Guitar Hero, where they were backed up by the game’s publishers Red Octane, a company who specialized in the manufacturing of unique game controllers. Thus entered the enigmatic plastic guitar. I remember grabbing my copy, rushing home, deftly placing some badass stickers on the plastic guitar, and then turning on the game for a nice, long session. I wasn’t disappointed.

While nowhere near an actual guitar, the peripheral worked extremely well, and at the time the concept seemed innovative. The controls were simple: the coloured buttons had to be held down along with ‘strumming’ the white plastic… thing. The wide range of available songs were modified originals, but all sounded authentic, and collectibles gave the title a large amount of replayability. It sold extremely well, and went on to have an unprecedented amount of sequels. The series also, for the most part, enjoyed much critical acclaim. Guitar Hero III (2007) is cited as the highest selling title of the series – but at this point the game had been passed onto developers Neversoft.

In 2007, Harmonix had moved on to help launch a new juggernaut into the genre, with the beginning of the franchise Rock Band. It had all the appearance of being a product from a group of publishers attempting to cash in on a fashionable genre. The pact between EA and MTV Games is what I’m talking about, and the fact that the game introduced a bunch of extra peripherals. The games did receive a positive reception, and, while it never equalled the profit racked up by Guitar Hero, it did receive several sequels. The comprehensive DLC also helped the game to advance even further.

Rock Band is still a great-looking title.

At their height, both titles had a substantial cultural impact, which is evident through their presence in mainstream media. South Park had a full episode mocking the fact that Guitar Hero required no real guitar skills. Rock Band was referenced in shows like The Big Bang Theory. The rock stars were soaring high, and it wouldn’t be a cocaine-ridden rage that would knock them off their feet. It would, however, be the demand by the games’ agents that would lead to their downfalls.

Between 2005 and 2010, Guitar Hero released five entries in its main series. Between 2008 and 2009 it received three titles based around bands: Aerosmith, Metallica, and Van Halen. Let’s get even more comprehensive: there were three expansion games, and DJ Hero was released in 2009. To go further, Guitar Hero was released on DS (with its own peripheral), and on mobiles.

Rock Band followed pretty much the same route. Between 2007 and 2010, three main titles were released. Titles based around bands were The Beatles and Green Day. They also decided to release Lego Rock Band in 2009, because Lego always sells well. Portable games were also available.

They look much happier than real rock bands.

This oversaturation soon led to the self-destruction of peripheral-based superstructure that had been built, which disappeared shortly after the release of Rock Band Blitz, a 2012 title quite reminiscent of Amplitude. Guitar Hero petered out around the same time, with DJ Hero unleashing some of the last ditch attempts. Time-wise, the globe was falling into recession, and people didn’t have the money to be throwing at extra peripherals.

However, despite what it seemed, the genre far from died here. Beneath the epic battle of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, there were still many smaller titles coming out that harked back to the genre’s origins. 2005 saw the release of Osu! Tatakae! Ouenda on the DS in Japan, which was created by one of the key designers behind Gitaroo Man: Keiichi Yano. A western-style version Elite Beat Agents (2006) was also released. There were and are also a sleuth of indie rhythm games, such as Crypt of the Necrodancer (currently in beta) being thrown out. The DS is also continuing to host top quality games such as Theatrhythm.

So, following the mention of these recent titles, I’ll state my belief that the rhythm genre never truly died. While it certainly fell from worldwide fame, there have still been people out there making innovative games for the genre. Not only that, but the mainstream tide may also be about to turn.

We’re soon set to see the revival of Amplitude, Rock Band, and Guitar Hero. But there’s still something stifling my excitement: a seeming lack of innovation.

It’ll be exciting to go back to the cult classic that was Amplitude.

Much like Fifa, some of these titles are tied down by realism. They want you to feel like you’re the best guitarist in the world, and they rely on your love of real music to keep playing. However, much like football, I’m not extremely passionate about music. Through this reliance, they lose the uniqueness others manage to create. Sure, they may still be fun; sure, they may still be outstanding – but they lack that special spark.

In a world where casuals have moved onto mobile gaming and serious gamers have moved onto more innovative prospects, is there any space in a modern household for a quasi-band? Will the crowd be gone when they return for their encore?

But what do you think? Do you completely disagree with the above? Are you looking forward to the return of Rock Band and Amplitude? Share your views in the comments below.

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