The goddess of groove. The baroness of beats. The, er, well, you get the picture — I’m quite fond of music and rhythm games. Considering PaRappa the Rapper was my first taste of hot, steamy next-gen graphics (way back when), it’s only natural that my insatiable lust for all things musical began back then. And before the PS1, there was Tempo for the Genesis that incorporated musical motifs. It seems I was born to appreciate the more melodious notes of gaming. While I do enjoy every type of game out there, there’s a special place in my heart for those that get me flailing around on a dance mat or belting out tunes in front of friends and family. That’s why it gives me great pleasure to bring you my top ten music and rhythm games of all time. But everyone and their brother either owns or has played Guitar Hero or Rock Band, so don’t expect to find them on here. With that said, enjoy!
Space Channel 5
Hey there, space cats! Do you remember the Dreamcast’s swingin’ report show featuring interstellar reporter Ulala and a host of colorful characters? I do, and the PS2 special edition remains firmly cemented on my shelf as one of the games I get out almost every week and play a few rounds of. True, the graphics are extremely dated, but they’re vibrant and fun. The quirky characters, the songs with nonsensical lyrics that were seemingly written under the influence of acid, and Ulala’s endearing personality make Space Channel 5 one of the most charming and enjoyable rhythm games out there. Repeating "Up! Right! Left! Down! Chu! Hey!" will forever be ingrained into my mind. Failing that, if that isn’t cool enough for you, two words: SPACE MICHAEL. The jokes to be had at the cartoony Michael Jackson’s expense are worth the purchase price alone. You can usually find the special edition of Space Channel 5 for under $15, and you get both games as a bonus. If you’re good with repetition and you love the zany, colorful world of Sega’s Ulala, then this is a definite buy. It’s got the charm and the attitude to remain a staple in any music gamer’s collection.
Perhaps one of the more cult classic entries into this list, Gitaroo Man put you in the shoes of U-1, a young boy who gained a voice through playing a magical gitaroo, or as us normal folk would call it, a guitar. There is a different genre of song for every type of player, from cutesy J-pop, to orchestral songs littered with hardcore guitar riffs, to some Day of the Dead-like tunes. It’s a cavalcade of different songs where anyone can find something enjoyable. Using the PlayStation’s circle button and an analog stick to guide and match U-1’s guitar riffs comprises the game’s main mode of play, and while it may seem deceptively simple, some levels are genuinely nightmarish in difficulty. A rare find on the PlayStation 2, it has since been reprinted for the PSP and is an affordable $20.
Dance Dance Revolution
If you’re a gamer, chances are you’ve either heard of or have tried out DDR. It’s one of the most popular and wildly successful music titles to have ever been released. With an astronomical amount of different entries into the series, there’s a variety of tracks in each iteration for everyone. My personal favorite US release is DDR SuperNova, with the inclusion of Stellar Master Mode, where a good majority of what’s available is trance, J-pop, and techno, but the gameplay matches the songs quite well. Players must step on arrows on a dance mat as the arrows reach their outlines at the top of the screen. Jumps and holds are required, and the customization you can implement into each dance session is nearly limitless. Just when you think you’ve mastered Heavy and Extreme/Oni modes, you haven’t seen a thing until you take a look at some DDR pros who will put you and your fresh-out-of-Standard moves to shame. Plus, you can even lose weight with DDR! It’s pretty much a saintly video game. One of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon, Dance Dance Revolution and all its imitators (Pump It Up, In The Groove) is the premiere dancing experience for your console (or arcade if you’re lucky enough to have one!).
Quite possibly one of the most difficult rhythm games I own, Beatmania asks you to become a DJ. Its peripheral is a miniature turntable with a record to spin and 7 keys. Borrowing heavily from DDR’s song collection, it’s really the same premise as DDR, except you must press the buttons on the peripheral in time to falling indicators on the screen, while scratching the record when appropriate. It’s difficult in that the keys must be played much like a piano, and even though you may think you’re ready for the next difficulty, you’ll quickly be proven wrong. There is a wide variety of releases for Beatmania, much like DDR. It has a fairly high learning curve, but you get to pretend you’re a DJ. That’s kind of awesome. Who hasn’t air-DJed to a particular song before? No one? Okay, maybe just me, but still, check it out if you’re even remotely interested in DJing.
To many, this is one of the strangest music games that has ever been created, and for good reason. With its overabundance of vector graphics and trippy music, it’s definitely an acquired taste. It’s my taste, definitely, because it’s another creation from Masaya Matsuura (Parappa and Lammy!). I’ll never forget the time I spent with this game, though it was short. You control an adorable little rabbit named Vibri whose main objective is to cross stages created by whatever track you’ve selected to listen to. Yes, you read that right. The track that you choose changes the level. Your level is a thin white line (the ribbon) riddled with obstacles for Vibri to navigate. If you do well, Vibri will transform at the end of the stage into something more glamorous. Doing badly, however, is much less rewarding. Instead of controlling a rabbit, you’ll have a worm or a frog for the next round. It’s a fairly simple game to pick up and play if you haven’t been spoiled by pretty graphics. The monochrome feel really adds to its enigmatic interface, though. You’re not limited to the songs that come with the game. Oh, no. You can use any CD to create stages for Vibri. Go ahead, use that Britney Spears disc. No one will laugh. If you enjoy the gameplay, you could have a different stage of your choosing every day! We simply must have more games that use this feature, because I know I spent hours on Monster Rancher back in the day trying to get different monsters from my dad’s CD collection. Unfortunately, Vib Ribbon was never released here in the United States so you’ll have to be crafty about obtaining it and playing it. I recommend that you try it at least once, because it’s an experience no music/rhythm game fan should ever be deprived of.
Bust A Groove (Bust A Move)
Following in the vein of PaRappa the Rapper, Bust A Groove was a mix of tracks varying from trance to disco. You input a string of arrows on the PlayStation’s d-pad that would quickly be followed by one of the four face buttons. All this in time with the music, of course. It starred a varied cast of characters like the gorgeous Kitty-N, the laughable zombie Bi-O, and even capoeira-dancing aliens named (you guessed it) Capoeira. Each style of dance was represented through all of these characters, so no matter who you picked, you’d be busting some "stone-cold grooves" (hey, that’s what the announcer always told me!). If you could manage to pull off "Perfects" for three or more turns, you’d get a Freeze. Dance perfectly, or reach a score higher than recommended for that stage? You’d get what’s called a "fever time", which showcased your character’s amazing dance moves off in a solo show. To this day, I have not found catchier English localizations of songs, aside from PaRappa’s fantasic display of kiddie-styled rap.
Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! / Elite Beat Agents
Nothing is more appealing than a group of grown men acting as cheerleaders or members of an elite dance troupe setting out to make things right.That’s what you get in Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! and Elite Beat Agents for the DS. These are in no way the same game. It’s true they share the same mechanics and art style, but Elite Beat Agents was created specifically for an American audience. In Ouendan, you will aid a male cheer squad on their journeys to address different circumstances and solve problems faced by all types of people. In Elite Beat Agents, the squad is more of a Secret Service-type group, akin to the Blues Brothers. The Japanese release, of course, includes popular Japanese hits (a few of my favorites as well, especially from Kimura Kaela). Elite Beat Agents received some awesome covers of hits such as "Let’s Dance", "September", and "Sk8er Boi". So what do you actually do? Numbered circles will appear according to the beat and tempo of the music. It’s your job to touch them as an outer circle nears the edge of the numbered one. Doing so will keep your life bar afloat. Phrase markers are also present, in which you will start at one numbered circle and trace a curved, often serpentine line to the end. Some songs require you to trace back and forth. As the difficulty level ramps up, you’ll find yourself struggling with finding what circle goes first, even though they’re numbered. Portable, fast, frantic, and fun. Need I say more?
PaRappa the Rapper/Um Jammer Lammy
PaRappa the Rapper was one of the very first titles I had the pleasure to play on my PlayStation when it was first released. Ever since then, it’s become one of my all-time rhythm game favorites. Requiring players to press the PS1’s face and shoulder buttons along to a cartoon dog rapping to some sick beats, it’s got the quirk and charm to last you a lifetime. Its spiritual successor (created by the same team), Um Jammer Lammy, went on my Christmas list the instant I discovered its existence. Lammy used the same premise as PaRappa, but you wailed on a guitar rather than relying on your rapping chops to get past stages. Rodney Alan Greenblat lent his magical touch to the games, giving them a "paper-thin" look. Who could forget lines like "In the rain or in the snow / I got the funky flow / But now, I really gotta go", or, "Now do you like munchies? / I wonder where lunch is?" Though PaRappa received a sequel and the creator is hard at work on Major Minor’s Majestic March, nothing will ever compare to PaRappa or Lammy’s first endeavors. We need more of both!
What was once a cult Dreamcast/PS2 classic is now available on Xbox Live Arcade for a mere 800 points to download and enjoy. While not your traditional music game, it employed the mechanics of music in quite an innovative way: It’s a rail shooter complete with enchanting vector graphics. Attempting to inject a little synesthesia into its gameplay, the pulsating techno beats combined with shooting down enemies made for an entertaining and involving shooter. What’s more, every move you made fit right in with the stage’s music. Although it was an extremely short game, it is long on wonder and bemusement. A sequel or a game inspired by Rez would be much appreciated, but it seems like that’s out of the realm of possibility for now.
Before there were the over-hyped, over-played Guitar Hero and Rock Band, we had Amplitude and FreQuency for the PlayStation 2. Featuring the main premise of Guitar Hero, you had to "capture" notes by pressing corresponding buttons on the controller. However, unlike Guitar Hero, the goal was to conquer separate music tracks such as the vocals, the drums, the guitar, and several other aspects of each song. Capturing tracks perfectly and using multipliers combined to net you some astronomical scores. It didn’t require any peripherals and it chose a few songs that weren’t exactly mainstream, but were good songs, nonetheless. When you passed certain tracks you could even remix them to your liking. A visceral, colorful experience, this is where I would have liked to see Harmonix stay. However, it’s unlikely we’ll see any more of this kind since it doesn’t exactly cater to the "casual" gamer. These are rare gems. Snap them up if you can find them.