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Gamer's Paradise: Rhythm Gaming Beyond The Band Game Boom

In this recurring column, Leigh Alexander visits exciting new creative frontiers in the video game space, which is seeing a period of incredible growth and diversification, attracting new talent and demonstrating intriguing innovation. Here she’ll cover emerging artists, trends, and so much more.

Games can be intimidating to those who don’t regularly play. But music and rhythm games have a rich history of bringing in just about everyone—games like Dance Dance Revolution and Rock Band have been instrumental in bringing out the performer even in those who wouldn’t pick up a controller.

Of course, tech innovation has helped: Harmonix’s pioneering instrument-shaped controllers have enabled a brand new generation of gamers to feel like rock stars, while Microsoft’s motion-detecting Kinect accessory for Xbox 360 has blown the doors off of dance gaming that requires no button controllers at all.

The prevalence of touch controls in today’s tech environment creates brand new opportunities for music games, too, as tapping is a very intuitive input method for keeping rhythm. But the history of music games predates today’s interface invention, and looking back, we see it’s always been a space that’s attracted exciting creative collaborations from innovators.

One of the most beloved music games of all time is Masaya Matsuura’s 1997 PlayStation title PaRappa the Rapper, a simple call-and-response game featuring the eponymous cartoon dog overcoming a series of blatantly nutty circumstances through the power of rap music in the hopes of winning the heart of his love interest, Sunny Funny. The game won hearts through accessible controls that anyone could understand yet still be challenged by, combined with oddly-lyrical music and general quirky vibe.


PaRappa caught up close and personal.

Notably, the iconic art style of cartoonist Rodney Greenblat played a major role in making PaRappa memorable. Even over a decade ago, the music video game space was being established as one that could draw wider audiences and the talents of those who might not otherwise have been drawn to work in games.

One of my favorite rhythm games is the 2006 DS title Elite Beat Agents, an adaptation of the Japan-only Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, where players use the stylus and touch screen to keep time with popular songs. In doing so, they control an intense, business-suited cheerleading squad summoned to get odd people (and sometimes animals) through tough times in their day—from socialites stranded on a desert island to a peanut transport trucker fighting off a zombie invasion. Rhythm gameplay always has a way of raising the adrenaline, making the odd feel exciting.


Still from Elite Beat Agents.

Elite Beat Agents used imitations of pop songs it couldn’t afford to license—think sound-alikes of Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” or the Jackson 5’s “ABC.” But only a few years later, amid failing physical sales, the music industry quickly learned it could benefit from the living room band game boom, and game series like Guitar Hero and Rock Band soon became viable avenues for record labels to capture new fans for classic rock bands. At the genre’s peak, huge bands—Aerosmith, Green Day, and even the Beatles—were getting their own games made to be played with the instrument controllers.

The heyday of the band game has passed though, thanks to market saturation and a perfect storm of economic factors. Harmonix, which led the band game boom, now thrives on motion-controlled dance games. The happy side-effect of all this mainstreaming of music gaming is that now that tech offers so many interface options, we now have an environment where audiences and artists alike recognize how exciting the genre is and how much is left to explore within it.

The indie music game is now a rising star. In fact, independent games and independent music have so much in common they’re likely to make natural friends, and musicians with distinctive styles tend to form lasting partnerships with game designers they admire. For example, Danny Baranowsky is a musician who’s gained a major profile among gamers in recent years thanks to his work with prominent indies, contributing soundtracks to Semi Secret Software’s Gravity Hook, Canabalt and SteamBirds, and Team Meat’s Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac, among others.

Singer-songwriter Jim Guthrie has added games to his music portfolio with the soundtrack to Superbrothers’ Sword and Sworcery game, as well as his appearance on the soundtrack to Indie Game: The Movie. But the likes of Baranowsky and Guthrie aren’t viewed as just purveyors of background music—in many cases they’re high-level contributors to the game’s overall aesthetic, a co-credit that helps lend creative weight to a project. It’s not uncommon for indie game soundtracks to sell separately, sometimes nearly as well as the games themselves.

Now Guthrie, along with Toronto-based electronic artist Shaw-Han Liem (known as I Am Robot and Proud), is among the composers creating song levels for the highly-anticipated Sound Shapes, a music game for PlayStation Vita that launches today, August 7th in North America and August 15th in Europe. The game’s developer, Queasy Games, saw success with Everyday Shooter for PlayStation Network, and now studio head Jonathan Mak’s ambitious partnership with Liem is gathering loads of excitement—Beck and Deadmau5 are also contributing tracks to the game.

Music games have often been about using the universality of music to attract more people to gaming. That began to change in the band game genre, when the guitar controllers attracted many gamers to the idea that they could become musicians, even just in their imaginations. Liem and Mak hope Sound Shapes can take things a step further, using the familiar look and feel of a platform game to put actual music creation tools into players’ hands. People can play Sound Shapes like a platform game where every object in a given level has a unique sonic signature—or they can edit and create their own sound combinations. Each level is very visually distinct, as every element of the game is a result of a collage of stylistic influences and a number of talented contributors, like Pyramid Attack, credited with designing Beck’s levels.


Sound Shapes on Sony PlayStation Vita.

The unifying nature and spirit of rhythm games has never been more exciting as it is today, a fertile breeding ground where digital artists, independent musicians, and game designers can converge to create things never before seen or experienced in media.

@leighalexander

Previously: Mass Entertainment Doesn’t Need To Be Mindless

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