2015 has proved fantastic for fans of rhythm games. The powerhouse franchises are set to return later this year with Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live, and we’re ready to wrap our hands around those plastic instruments all over again.
But why wait to quell that music gaming itch? Guitar Hero and Rock Band first launched in 2005 and 2007 respectively, but they weren’t the only music-based games on the market. In fact, both took some of their biggest cues from other games—games that are worth revisiting.
So while we wait for Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live to make their debuts, let’s return to some classics to remind us just how awesome it is when rhythm and gaming combine.
Audiosurf served as an early indie success story in the PC gaming scene. The game allowed players to load their own music into a level and then “surf” along a colorful, futuristic racetrack. Although it wasn’t the first to the music-generated school of level design, Audiosurf managed to actually get it right. You didn’t need to wait minutes for a track to load, and each felt unique.
The sequel, Audiosurf 2, just launched after years of development and evolved the formula with even more modes, improved graphics, and Steam Workshop mods. But it still has the simple core gameplay hook that continues to draw players all these years later.
’DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION’
Historians might suggest that arcades died in the early 90s, but there was at least one game holding strong in the arcade circuit long after: Dance Dance Revolution. Who wasn’t lured in at least once by that massive metal cabinet with its strobing lights and bubbly soundtrack blasting over the surrounding cacophony?
Thanks to an immensely strong run in Japanese and U.S. arcades the series has since seen dozens of home releases, on platforms ranging from the first PlayStation console to the Game Boy Color. It was one of the first games to get tons of players to invite plastic and foam music game accessories into their homes, paving the way for games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band.
DJ Hero arrived on the scene when Activision was still riding high with the Guitar Hero franchise. Although on one hand it could be viewed as just another peripheral-based music game, it took inspiration from Beatmania and further expanded on the relatively niche turntable game genre. And as with actual DJing, players were given a degree of control over how songs were mixed.
Unfortunately, DJ Hero failed to grab interest in the same was that Guitar Hero did, and heck, Guitar Hero’s popularity was waning by this point anyway. The silver lining? That DJ Hero developer FreeStyleGames is now in control of Guitar Hero Live. Hopefully they’ll enhance the more popular series with some of the creative flourishes they perfected in DJ Hero.
’ELITE BEAT AGENTS’
Elite Beat Agents is a completely oddball Nintendo DS rhythm experience and spiritual successor to Japan’s Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan. Playing as FBI-esque agents, players resolved people’s problems with the power of dance. This was accomplished by tapping and holding on the system’s touch screen when button prompts appeared. Although simple in design, stages became surprisingly challenging toward the end.
The game inspired other rhythm titles, including DJ Max Technika in arcades and Theatrhythm Final Fantasy on handhelds and phones. These touch-based rhythm games just work, and we have Elite Beat Agents to thank for breaking in the control scheme.
Harmonix created Guitar Hero and went on to make Rock Band, but by the time these titles launched the team had already had years of rhythm gaming practice. The studio’s very first major release was the PlayStation 2 game Frequency, which helped lay the foundation for the genre they’d eventually perfect.
Gameplay consisted of driving forward through an octagonal tunnel, collecting notes all the while. The notes collected affected the track, allowing for some interactive sampling. Frequency was quickly followed up by Amplitude in 2003 before the series went dormant, but they’re not dead yet—Harmonix launched a Kickstarter for an Amplitude remake last year, and it’s currently in development.
Rhythm game fans owe Konami’s music game division, Bemani, a million thanks for directly influencing Guitar Hero’s existence. Guitar Freaks was a guitar-focused game born in arcades, and though nowhere near as good as Guitar Hero it was the better series’ immediate inspiration.
Guitar Freaks machines came with a three-button plastic guitar that worked much like future music games’. If there was one failing point for the series, though, it’s that the soundtrack wasn’t particularly cohesive. J-pop just doesn’t really seem to fit with wailing on a guitar.
But there was one other way Guitar Freaks was ahead of its time: in the right arcade, you could link it to DrumMania and Keyboardmania machines and rock out with a full band, long before Rock Band was a thing.
’PARAPPA THE RAPPER’
You gotta believe that PaRappa the Rapper inspired an entire era of rhythm gaming. Although it didn’t come packed with a peripheral, it evolved the concept of timed button presses to an art form. And each stage included a wondrously cartoony story segment with pup PaRappa busting out his best rap.
Although many similar games have come since, only spinoff UmJammer Lammy beats the original. How did PaRappa the Rapper manage to be the first modern rhythm title? You can thank PlayStation 1 for that, as its streaming CD-quality audio was imperative to the game’s success.
While Elite Beat Agents birthed a new type of rhythm game on DS, Rhythm Heaven turned the whole experience into a bundle of mini games. Much like WarioWare before it, Rhythm Heaven is all about burning through a mess of tiny gameplay segments one after another. In Rhythm Heaven’s case, though, everything is music-themed.
Rhythm Heaven really served as a return to the silly, pure enjoyment of music that many modern rhythm games have gotten away from. Instead of enforcing careful adherence to notes or steep penalties for failure you were free to screw up, laugh, and try again. Great music and wacky artwork help make the game enjoyable, although it remains to be seen if any more toe-tapping sequels are planned for Wii U or 3DS.
’SPACE CHANNEL 5’
You know, for as fantastic as the 1960s were for music, there’s not really a host of games clamoring to celebrate it. In fact, Space Channel 5 appears to be the only one to even come close (maybe besides the excellent Beatles-themed edition of Rock Band). But it did a great job.
Both the original and its sequel starred funky space reporter Ulala, who was always getting caught up in all sorts of intergalactic dance battles. Her go-go girl ensemble, fabulous music, and a wonderfully colorful world make this a standout game even today. Luckily, even modern gamers can play Part 2 thanks to a PSN, XBLA, and Steam HD release.
’TAIKO NO TATSUJIN’
This is one of those series that’s found a niche in Japan that simply doesn’t exist in the U.S. For one, it’s safe to say a huge chunk of westerners aren’t even sure what a taiko drum is. Secondly, while it can still routinely draw crowds in Japanese arcades, our arcade scene is definitely struggling to exist at this point.
In any case, the one English release of Taiko Drum Master gave us a taste of what we were missing and came complete with a plastic taiko drum. Games that are brave enough to explore different peripherals are hugely important in the music gaming world. Not only do they bring fun, unique gameplay mechanics to the table, but they also inspire further innovation within the genre.
And with such a vast music gaming catalog to choose from, the wait for Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4 doesn’t seem nearly as bad.
Marcus Estrada has been gaming the vast majority of his life and still hasn’t gotten tired of it. When not playing a new release, most of his time is spent writing about wonderful/weird indie titles and visual novels. Of course, Marcus has also been known to play outrageously popular games from time to time as well. His writing can be found on HardcoreGamer, G4@Syfygames, and Cliqist.