When granted a surplus of free time, I tend to make decisions contrary to the best interests of myself and those around me. A few past examples include a Thunderdome constructed from empty soda boxes, apartment redecorations involving an instantaneous “party switch,” and starting a weekly column named after an image storage format. Luckily, when spared twenty minutes last week, my restlessness found an innocuous outlet through an online survey. One question requested my favorite genres, and listed with such mainstays as “action” and “adventure” was a particularly fresh entrant – “rhythm / music.” At this point I chuckled to myself in the same manner as people probably did in 1980 when Ronald Reagan – an actor for chrissakes – was elected president.
I spent many days in arcades in the late nineties / early oughts wondering if music games would ever become mainstream. An unassuming listing in a survey seemed to punctuate the hours I spent with Rez, Frequency, and Mario Paint – rhythm games are no longer relegated to bizarre indie games and whatever Japanese hits developers deigned to release stateside – breakout success that can be attributed entirely to Guitar Hero and Rock Band. While it’s great to be here, the journey to this point was a deliberate progression of game design and innovation. Hindsight being what it is, the sequential development of the genre is absolutely fascinating, so let’s take a look at what games laid the foundation for Guitar Hero and Rock Band.
Miracle Piano Teaching System (1990)
While not successful, Miracle Piano Teaching System was the first game to package both an instrument controller (in the form of a full keyboard) and software cartridge together for home consoles (NES / SNES / Genesis). One minigame in particular featured a person jumping out of a plane, with the player needing to play the appropriate note in order to open his parachute. This game shows all the signs of a traditional music game – matching an input to a prompt in a given time window – a full six years before the release of what’s considered the first music game. Even still, the game lacked a vital element that was provided by the world’s first.
PaRappa the Rapper (1996)
While Miracle Piano Teaching System featured timing windows and input matching, PaRappa the Rapper was the first game to require such inputs to be synchronous – which is to say in time with a background track. Combining these elements makes PaRappa the first music / rhythm game, and laid the foundation for music games to follow. Players match a visual patter in time to music, with their accuracy to pre-planned notes influencing the sound of the music.
Additionally, PaRappa brought something new and equally invaluable – charm. The game’s unique presentation, music, and characters took root with gamers in ways that an empirical or strictly educational music games could not. If you want proof, just ask the next gamer you see wearing an orange beanie if he has to believe. While PaRappa’s background track changed based on the player’s performance, the notes the player hit only laid vocals over an instrumental track. The next game allowed players to truly create an entire song.
Frequently overshadowed by Dance Dance Revolution, Beatmania both launched Konami’s music game series (dubbed Bemani) and pioneered guided music creation. In Beatmania, a player must match a series of notes with a five-button controller and scratch table. Each note corresponds to a musical sample from the song, so by playing the notes correctly, the player constructs the song as originally written. Without player input, there is no (or very little) music at all – as opposed to a changing background track. This gives the player more ownership and involvement in the music during play, and is of course a key component of modern music games Guitar Hero and Rock Band.
MTV Drumscape (1997)
While several gamers credit Konami games Guitarfreaks and Drummania with innovating fake plastic instruments, the title belongs with MTV Drumscape. The arcade game featured a full electronic drum set on which players could wail at their discretion. Drumscape lacked any sort of evaluation system, so the game’s learning curve was abnormally high – on par with actually playing drums. Aside from allowing players to go Animal on a set of drums, Drumscape could also be loaded with songs like a jukebox. This allowed players to play drums along with songs from The Beatles, Metallica, and equally as important, Semisonic. The use of popular, identifiable music was the most vital element to Guitar Hero’s success, even though the idea was present eight years before its release. Despite having popular music, the game’s inapproachability sabotaged its success. The next game provided the answer to that problem.
Dance Dance Revolution (1998)
Games must be enticing and welcoming. A prospective player must, at first sight, both want to play a game, and feel that they won’t make a horrid fool of themselves in the process. Dance Dance Revolution struck the best balance of these two in any video game to date. To a newcomer, DDR both looks like great fun and appears simple enough to pick up quickly – provided they don’t first see an Asian kid doing backflips or That Guy going berserk (you know, the one that brings a towel and doesn’t make eye contact with anyone).
After all, it’s only four arrows – how hard could it be? Without the lessons learned from DDR, Guitar Hero might’ve come with thirty neck buttons, tuning pegs, a string-muting pad, and a variable-strength strum bar that must be hit at variable speeds. The game’s combination of spectacle and simplicity earned it an exponentially growing audience.
Guitarfreaks / Drummania (2000)
The final element to music games as we play them today started in 2000 with Guitarfreaks 3rd Mix and Drummania 2nd Mix. While these games did popularize simplified plastic instruments, their true contribution came in the form of session play. When two cabinets with complimenting versions were connected (Drummania is one version behind), songs could be played collaboratively across both cabinets. This means that players could play drums, guitar, and bass for the same track at the same time – which is naturally one mic short of Rock Band, nearly seven years before the game’s release.
Watching music / rhythm games mature from a quirky sub-genre to a real entry on an internet survey has granted me a good deal of satisfaction. What’s more exciting; the evolution is by no means complete. With the breakout hits of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, developers are innovating like mad, integrating music and rhythm into games in ways never before imagined. Whether you’re a Guitar Hero convert, a semi-interested out-hanger who is commanded to play bass when your friends throw down Rock Band, or a genre vet who grinned like an idiot when first told Kick! Punch! It’s all in the mind, I’m glad you’re here to enjoy these games with me.