Written by: Cameron Allan
It pains me to recall upon some of the vivid memories I have of entering into almost any local arcade, at any given time of the day and witnessing lines that were exponential in length, comprised of people waiting anxiously and juggling bags chalked full of tokens in their callused, sweaty hands. At the very front of these single file lines laid an arcade cabinet emitting flurries of strobe lights and pounding, electronic music, coupled with the earth shattering, stomping sound of feet making rapid contact with metal.
It all just seemed so exciting, players eyes were adhered to the screen with intense looks of focus upon their faces, swarms of onlookers were magnetized in amazement and awe at the unfathomable speed in which people were able to register and react to what was being displayed. Game cards and tokens would pile up into mountainous size along the sides of screens to indicate their place in line, and all at the same time, arcade owners and developers were laughing straight to the bank.
The rhythm game genre and the titles that comprised its legacy went particularly unnoticed for almost a decade prior, but this accurate depiction describes it when it had reached its ultimate climax. Unfortunately, that organic excitement and economic opportunity have long been things of the past, and have gone sorely missed. It seems as though nobody really understands the relevancy of, or cares for, rhythm and music gaming anymore. As a result, you should consider yourself extremely lucky if you can manage to find a somewhat localized arcade within driving distance that owns a consistently updated game machine, let alone one with a large influx of dedicated and unique fans who play on it. It’s sad to say, but this specific game genre has been out of the spotlight for quite some time and poses a highly likely risk of being on the verge of complete discontinuation here in North America. I can admit it, independent developers of these underrated games will admit it, and the entire fan base as a whole will admit it too. Rhythm gaming is now likeable to a niche area of video games with a few small communities of active players who scour for cabinets that are in good condition and are mostly few and far between.
Is it dead you may ask? I wouldn’t necessarily go as far to say that, but it most definitely has been quite bare since its explosion of popularity in the late 90’s and its fall in and around 2010. Join me as I outline its history, its rise, its steep decline, its survival in foreign countries and my input on how to approach its revival.
History of Rhythm gaming in North America
Music has been played and enjoyed by humans for eons, it has added deeper substance to various cultures, and it acts as a unifying factor for the human race altogether, who can honestly say they do not enjoy some form of music? If we were to follow this trend, it was only a matter of time before music would grace us with its presence in the electronic era and subsequently, in video games. Yet it should come as no surprise that it did not happen overnight, instead, it took several decades, beginning in the late 70’s, to finally highlight the valuable role music would play in the realm of video gaming. From the novelty KISS pinball machine, to the Atari game focused solely on 80’s music legends Journey, titles similar in nature to these continued to set the stage for the eventual rhythm gaming phenomenon that would take the world by storm.
Undoubtedly, at the helm of this movement in North America was the PlayStation classic, Parappa the Rapper. Set in a two dimensional, flattened, paper thin setting, you play as main protagonist Parappa, a free styling, funk master who truly believes in his ability to win the heart of his long time crush. The game is unique in graphic design, features a quirky soundtrack and has quite possibly the most ludicrous plotline I’ve ever seen. All of these noteworthy inclusions, fall short of the games ability to introduce the mechanical functionality of almost every rhythm game to follow, timing notes shown on screen with corresponding buttons on a controller in time perfectly in order to receive the greatest possible amount of points, or credibility in this games case. Many titles in North America would be released from the same and different developers in the years following like: Bust a Groove, UmJammer Lammy, Vib Ribbon and Gitaroo man, but the aforementioned mechanic remained the defining point of the genre.
With that being said, one game particularly stood out from the crowd, the anomalous, brisk and highly popular dancing simulator game Dance Dance Revolution, or DDR as it is often abbreviated. It was showcased in arcades all across North America in 1999, a year after its original release in Japan, and was an instantaneous hit. It was created by renowned Japanese developer Konami and released within Bemani, a music video game division of their company. The game took everything people cherished about Rhythm gaming and modified it in a way that provided players with the gameplay they loved, partnered with a heart pumping, strenuous workout that was guaranteed to leave anyone short of breath.
Players used a metal platform that had 4 different directional arrows that were stepped on in correspondence with ones that were displayed on screen, which changed according to the song, its tempo and the difficulty you select. Although it didn’t do much in the way of actually teaching you how to dance effectively, it revolutionized, as indicated by the title, the way we experienced gaming.
In that same year, the Latin themed, maraca shaking, dancing frenzy known as Samba De Amigo hit arcades. The game was developed by Sonic Team, an affiliate of the Japanese multinational video game development and publishing studio, SEGA. The gameplay was quite interesting and original; players held a pair of large, red, magnetized maraca controllers and were guided by six different on screen prompts to either shake high, middle or low, as well as pose in certain positions while violently shaking on the maracas to receive additional points. It created an authentic Spanish oriented experience that paid homage to a rich culture. It can also be accredited with being one of the few rhythm gaming experiences at the time that centered on the use of a themed plastic controller, something that would be used frequently in future rhythm game titles, Guitar Hero anyone?
Rhythm gaming had reached a point where it became quite apparent that it was evolving very rapidly. New games were being released on a very frequent basis, each trying to outdo the last in innovation and uniqueness. However, unparalleled in this strive at the time was small time game developer Harmonix, who created a masterpiece that changed music gaming forever. In 2001, smack dab at the beginning of the climactic point of rhythm gaming history, came the critically acclaimed title Frequency, and two years later, its sequel Amplitude. One of the fore fathers of the genre and the foundation for the later massively popular Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises, these games placed the player in a 3D mind bending virtual rollercoaster where they were responsible for every aspect that created the successful delivery of an array of songs. Players had to seamlessly transition between each element of a tune on an octagonal, or in amplitudes case horizontal, viewing field, whether it be the drums, the sound FX, the bass or the synth, to create and build the best sounding remix or delivery of a certain song. The game is unforgiving in that it is highly challenging, your reaction time must be dead on, even the slightest miscalculation can make the track slip out of tempo and can easily throw you off of your groove.
There is a large variety of music for you to jam to and if that just will not do, they provide you with the opportunity to create your own musical works using their remix mode. If you are particularly proud of your creation and wish to publish your material, or you want to challenge an opponent from almost anywhere in the world, Frequency makes excellent use of the PlayStation network adapter to allow fierce competitors and up and coming producers to do just that. Even with all these amazing features, the game only developed a small cult following, but today they are revered as landmark titles in music gaming history, and for good reason. It’s hard to believe that this game was denied by Microsoft, who believed that a rhythm game would go unnoticed unless it involved the use of a custom controller, that advice would be worth its weight in gold soon enough.
In the next couple years, the rhythm gaming scene was looking good, yet the one thing that it could not claim to its name was a hugely successful blockbuster hit. Drawing upon their recent success, Harmonix, in partnership with Red Octane, would lay the groundwork for the single most successful rhythm gaming franchise to date, Guitar Hero. They were not innovators in regard to the use of plastic controller, as previously mentioned, Samba De Amigo and the Japanese arcade game Guitar Freaks, had long done that. Nonetheless, they were held in high regard for bringing that amazing arcade experience to the homes of gamers all across the world, with its fair share of new and exciting additions.
None of this would have been possible had it not been for the dynamic duo of Harmonix who would work on the software itself, and Red Octane who would craft the Guitar peripheral. The product that came out of this partnership was absolutely brilliant; it was well received by fans and became highly critically acclaimed. It fused together the strides Harmonix had made from previous games and gracefully integrated the new guitar peripheral to make you feel like a real rock star! The game leads you through the typical steps and progressions that actual rockers had to go through in order to achieve their incredible success, and each of these areas had a live crowd that reacted to your amazing or poor performance, both of which created a realistic, organic atmosphere for the player. When you strapped on that guitar and strummed those frets, you felt an immediate, intimate connection with the original artist of the music, creating a deeper appreciation for all things rock and roll and those who make this gritty style of music so great. Guitar Hero became the new overlord for the beginning of something very special in the world of rhythm gaming.
However Harmonix moved on to bigger and better things upon the fulfillment of their contractual obligations with the Guitar Hero franchise and in conjunction with Viacom’s MTV games, released Rock Band in 2007. Despite its anti-climactic title, it featured interesting gameplay that was familiar, but did so in a more tasteful way. A new more immersive experience was created for the player and instead of solely rocking out on the guitar, Rock Band could be played co-operatively with 3 other players who had the choice to play either bass, drums or sing vocals. Evidently, the most important portion of any rhythm game is the music they choose to include and Rock Bands soundtrack was absolutely incredible. Luckily enough, the music industry came to the realization that these games had the potential to rake in tons of profit, and as such, all the tracks in their entirety are identical to the original songs. Withdrawing the best of the best from every era of rock and roll and compacting it into one game, sounded like quite the feat, but to no one’s surprise, they were more than capable.
The game provided an experience like none other available at the time, and as a result it reached immediate critical acclaim. Regardless of its hefty price tag of a full 200 dollars, millions of units were sold, and the game became the go to activity at gatherings, where fans assembled to play some of rocks most legendary tunes.
Yet this massive amount of success was the harbinger of the foreseeable doom of the rhythm gaming genre, all at the expense of its fan base. These games and their developers, in effect killed the rhythm gaming genre through immense over-saturation, just at the time where it was gaining the recognition from fans that it rightfully deserved here in North America.
The massive amount of success they were able to accumulate, warped their minds into believing that they could get away with releasing countless games in a single year with next to no innovation, just blatant rehashes based entirely upon the musical styling’s of rocks most legendary bands like Aerosmith, Van Halen and Metallica. Over a span of 5 years, 16 Guitar Hero games were released and 9 Rock Band games were released, numbers I had to confirm with myself to be entirely sure, but sure enough, after counting each and every individual released title, I was disappointed to find out it was completely true. Why would anyone logically cease making games if consumers continuously purchased them, who can honestly say they don’t want more money in their pocket? The consumer for this reason is partially to blame for allowing themselves to be taken advantage of.
I will give credit where credit is due; an honest attempt at creating something more advanced was attempted by the developers of Guitar Hero. Essentially, in response to the massive amount of hype electronic music had been receiving, Activision released DJ Hero, a game that followed similar principles as previous games in the genre, yet added a turntable peripheral. It was actually pretty cool, even though it was attached with the same “Hero” brand. The gameplay seemed quite difficult and convoluted, a lot of twisting and spinning and shifting, so to a certain extent it felt like you were a true disc jockey. A sequel was released for the game a year after, after which things went quite silent. Sales went down dramatically, and it seemed as though people had become utterly sick at even the mention or thought of another plastic controller based rhythm game, and with the selling of Harmonix and Red Octane, everything seemed like it was over.
So why is it that to this day, Japan’s rhythmic gaming scene is still as robust as ever? Why is it no longer a prerogative for Japanese companies to release their games here in North America? The answers to both of these questions are quite simple. In Japan there is an incredibly vibrant arcade gaming scene, whereas in North America it is quite lackluster in comparison. Anyone can recall the days where attending an arcade was the cliché activity of pre-teens and even adults everywhere, and to a certain extent that is still true, but for the most part, arcades are simply not as popular as they used to be.
Which is something I personally never understood, arcades provide gamers with the opportunity to enjoy some of their favorite games without having to invest tons of money in pricey equipment. Arcades falter in comparison to having the identical if not better experience in the comfort of your own home. In addition, arcades are as much a social experience as they are a gaming one, but with the increasing emphasis of online multiplayer, communication, and the creation of new lasting friendships on home consoles, has never been easier. Another reason is that Japanese music provides a plethora of opportunities for its use in rhythm games because of how hypersonic it is. In contrast, Western music is far slower and doesn’t parlay with the fast paced nature of rhythm games. Japanese developers understand these shortcomings and made the justifiable decision to discontinue distributing their arcade games. They make profit off of consistent play, and if recent trends have anything to say about it, it would not have been economically feasible to export cabinets to North America. Which is entirely understandable from a business standpoint, from a gamer’s standpoint mind you, it is incredibly disappointing. There are loads of amusing games that will never see the light of day in the western world, and to add fuel to the fire, the majority of highly successful rhythm games in the past were exported directly from Japan.
What as a small community are we to do in order to get the ball rolling on revitalization? Well, unfortunately we cannot do much. We need to continually show our enthusiasm and dedication towards the genre and our willingness for change. If we show our strong desire for forward thinking and creative rhythm gaming content, companies will respond to that and give us what we want. All this has already been acknowledged by corporations, as exemplified by the coming release of Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4. However I remain relatively unenthused about these releases because if we do recall, these franchises were responsible for a dramatic decrease in the genre’s popularity, so forgive me for my apprehension. It is a terrific start, and hopefully with enough time loyal fans will gain the appreciation we rightfully deserve. But until then, dig out a timeless classic, blow the dust off your buried cd’s and jam your heart out!