Thank You For The Music

“Kick! Punch!  It’s all in the mind!”

From the very first moment that Chop Chop Master Onion instructed Parappa the Rapper to join him in his karate-rap fusion I was hooked.  Here was a title that brought gaming right down to its bare bones.  Just press the buttons when I tell you to.  Sure, it was wrapped up in the surreal tale of dog meets flower, dog gets flower by learning martial arts from a vegetable, but at its core it was as simple as it gets.  You could play it with one hand.  Heck, you could play it with one finger if you wanted.  Just press the buttons when I tell you to.

From these unusual beginnings, the rhythm action genre gradually expanded until it became one of the most lucrative in the industry.   First we made characters perform and then we performed ourselves.  The beat matching broke free from the screen and spilled into the living room.  The sound of strum bars clicking, drums clackerty-clacking and vocalists murdering the high bit in “Creep” filled lounges the world over.   The video game charts resembled the album charts.  Paul McCartney was at E3.   There was a 102 button guitar controller.  “This will never end” the suits cried. “It prints money!”

Then, the day the music died.  The whole enterprise collapsed under its own weight. Sales nosedived, the DLC stopped and plastic instruments were in the loft next to the Christmas decorations.  When the new generation of consoles arrived, vast libraries of songs were ripped from beneath the T.V and consigned to the graveyard of dead formats.   Unloved, forgotten and inaccessible.

But maybe not for much longer.  Harmonix and Activision are both investing heavily in revitalising our interest in annoying our neighbours by releasing Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live within weeks of each other, in what a lesser person might dub “Rocktober”.  A sequel to Amplitude was successfully funded on Kickstarter and is expected later this year.   Can they really convince us that it’s worth coming back when these games are in essence broadly similar to the rapping 2D dog we took control of nearly twenty years ago?

They had me convinced from the very first note.  Rhythm action games may all seem mechanically identical to one another but they offer experiences of creativity and accomplishment rarely matched in other genres.    They can elevate the simplistic and routine into unforgettable victories.  In Space Channel 5, Sega produced one of the most rousing, epic, air-punching finales in the history of gaming.  That it takes barely two hours to reach this point doesn’t matter.  That during those two hours you are more-or-less performing the same actions to the same theme tune is a footnote.   The toe-tapping, hip-swinging, finger-clicking journey it takes you on is so involving, so charming and so damn groovy that all its shortcomings fizzle away like one of the games out-funked aliens.

Similarly, the strength of the core concept of these games can even save them when that core concept plain doesn’t work.  Gitaroo Man contained button matching sequences that fell far short of the beauty of its analogue stick approximation of twiddling on a guitar.  And yet, the game was a rip-roaring success; taking you on a loveable coming of age story told through a multitude of musical genres including pop, reggae, hip-hop and samba and a distinctive comic book atheistic. But it was the aptly named “Legendary Song” that saw the game at its very best.  Serenading a girl under a tree at sunset with a gentle acoustic number completely changed the pace of this usually frantic game and brought many a lump to a player’s throat.

INIS, the studio behind Gitaroo Man pulled a similar trick with the DS game and cult classic Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan.  For me, this game represents the absolute peak of the character driven, story based rhythm action games that were forged by Parappa.  Taking control of an all-male cheerleading troop with a supernatural ability to burst through the door when you’re at your lowest ebb, these heroes help the needy through life’s difficult situations with the sheer power of dance and encouragement.  Be you an office worker trying to catch the attention of a dreamy superior or a concert violinist with a bit of tummy trouble on the train, these guys are there to give you a good shake, a slap on the back and the self-belief to see you through.  Told through smart comic book visuals and a fantastic J-Pop soundtrack these short stories were often genuinely life affirming but never were they more beautifully delivered than in the tale of loss explored in the infamous “Over the Distance”.  Here, much like during “Legendary Song”, INIS played with your expectations, scaled back the bombast and noise, and told the heart breaking story of a deceased man trying to communicate with the partner he left behind.  Often cited as one of the most tear jerking moments in gaming it was in the playing that this level reached its classic status.  Ouendan was truly magnificent to play.  The bottom screen was littered with numbered circles that you either tapped or dragged in sequence.  At the highest difficulties this transformed play into an epic dance as your stylus skipped and spun across the touch pad at fantastic speeds.  “Over the Distance” still required high levels of concentration but the pace changed, the moves were gentler.  If the rest of the game was high octane breakdancing, this was ballet. It was elegant and considered and tackled emotions that are sadly rarely explored in video games.

Of course, rhythm action hasn’t just made us move with our fingers but move with our bodies too.  I still remember the first time I saw a high level player draw an audience at an arcade with his lightning feet on Dance Dance Revolution.  It looked so damn cool!  Soon after, dance mats found their way into homes up and down the nation and the gaming audience began to expand into the untapped audiences that Nintendo would later woo with the Wii. This was a party game that anyone could pick up in a matter of seconds but mastering would take time and dedication.  Most of us would never look particularly accomplished (I got fairly good at it but always resembled a drunken dad stumbling round the dance floor at a wedding) but it’s always the first machine I seek out whenever I enter an arcade.

The logical conclusion to dance games was arguably the saving grace of Microsoft’s Kinect, Dance Central. One of the ill-fated peripherals biggest issues was that it was terrible at understanding what you wanted it to do.  When this was flipped and it was dictating to the player it could turn you into Fred Astaire.  Packed with chart toppers and dance moves that asked you to mime putting on a tiara, it asked the player to give themselves over to the camp fabulousness that pop music is so famous for.  Those that did found a game that not only served as a vigorous workout but as a reminder at how much fun it is to get your groove on, even if it’s space requirements did make it an oddly solitary experience.

The same of which can’t be said for Sony’s Singstar; arguably the only series that can truthfully wear the “party game” moniker.  Singstar has often been criticised for being more restrictive than traditional karaoke but for me this is completely missing the point.  The scoring system is integral to what makes these games so special.   It gives you something to aim for rather than just shouting drunkenly at the top of your lungs (although this particular style of play is obviously more than welcome when the situation demands). The score cap of 10 000 points always seems tantalisingly close, playing with your perception of how good you actually are and allowing you to believe that you might actually be a measly hundred points away from Minnie Ripton.  The clean and some might say clinical graphic style meant that play was instinctive and it is telling that this system was lifted almost wholesale when Activision and Harmonix introduced vocalists to their instrument franchises.   But truly it was the inclusive atmosphere that made the series such a success.  Playing in co-op and totally smashing a harmony generates the kind of camaraderie that hundreds of team shooters can only dream of.  Cleanly and successfully holding a long note and then posing for the camera was a moment of high-fiving excellence.  Singstar is perhaps the simplest expression of the rhythm action mechanic.  You don’t even need to press a button anymore.  Just do what you do anyway and sing along.

Nintendo’s alternative take on rhythm action went in the opposite direction and made us do things we would never have dreamed of to music.  The Gameboy Advance game Rhythm Tengoku, which has spawned sequels on the DS and Wii, married a surreal sense of humour to some truly magnificent tunes and was one of the finest original titles on the system.  Often playing like a game of Simon Says, it combined beat matching to situations as varied as Japanese calligraphy, teaching a monkey to dance and plucking hairs from an onion.  Each stage had a memorable, distinctive track which then culminated in the ingenious remix levels.  These grouped together five stages and then blended the actions and music in a frenzied but brilliantly designed finish.  Rhythm Tengoku shares a development team with Warioware and it frequently shows; in the simplistic cartoon visuals, unusual choice of challenges and quick-fire, relentless nature of its play.  In fact, it can be argued that Warioware often displays rhythm action mechanics itself.  With its ever increasing tempo, catchy musical intros and simple inputs you often find yourself matching beats, albeit in a more detached fashion.

And Warioware isn’t the only title to have trends similar to that found in rhythm action without strictly falling within that genre.    The PSP launch puzzler Lumines never actually required you to clear the stacks of blocks in time to the music.  But to do so would rob the game of a good deal of its appeal and playing with the sound turned down is simply unimaginable.  The same can be said of the celebrated and astonishing shooter Rez, which weaved its soundtrack deep within the gameplay until separating the two became impossible.   Both games allowed you to play alongside the featured artists and join them in the composition of the tracks without ever actually punishing you for doing your own thing.  In many ways they are actually more expressive and creative than traditional rhythm action games.  In other ways they encourage you to actually make the music worse, sticking in out of time drum fills and guitar twangs in order to chase a high score or save your bacon.  Regardless, both titles are essential for anyone that enjoys games which integrate music into their play.

Lumines and Rez were also highly praised for their visuals and there are elements of their neon, techno art style in what I consider to be one of the finest games ever made.  Frequency became an obsession for me and playing it now gives me an instant rush of endorphins as I take hold of the pad and my muscle memory kicks in.  Frequency is what happens when you try and turn a Dualshock into an instrument; cramming an entire bands worth of drums, guitars, synths and vocals into three measly buttons.  Then, by introducing a scoring mechanic and power ups, it forces you to not only play the track well, but to play the game well too.  Routes through the ever twisting tunnel are meticulously planned, gaps and silences are carefully exploited and split second decisions are the difference between glorious victory and crushing defeat.  Frequency also boasts a brilliantly plotted difficulty curve.  Tracks that once seemed impossible to finish quickly become your bread and butter as you return to try and eek another few hundred points from their notes.  There comes a point for all players when they feel a disconnect between what they see on screen and what they’re consciously interpreting.   Zone gaming at its absolute finest; the inputs going direct from the screen and into your fingers, bypassing your brain entirely.  You’ll ask yourself “how the hell did I do that” as you dance from instrument to instrument like a techno Roy Castle.  Frequency’s intensity and purity was diluted somewhat by its sequel Amplitude, which is sadly the basis for the forthcoming game successfully funded on Kickstarter.  But when the core mechanics and gameplay are so ridiculously moreish it’s impossible to not be excited at another chance to take a ride along those undulating lanes.

Which bring us back neatly to the plastic instruments that are attempting a comeback later this year.  Rock Band 4 appears near identical to the earlier games in the series, preferring to allow cross generation compatibility and access to its already vast library of songs to reinventing the wheel.  Guitar Hero Live sees Activision go in the opposite direction, creating a whole new guitar and button layout and first person, live action visuals.  Which will prove the more successful remains to be seen, but in their earlier incarnations these games provided some of the greatest wish fulfilment in the entire medium.  Whenever I play a shooter or RPG, I’m still a guy sat on a sofa with a pad in my hands.  But sometimes, just briefly, when I’m playing Rock Band, I feel I’m genuinely playing sold out arenas with my best friends at my side.  The trick it plays is infatuating, turning the talentless into talented.  The sense of teamwork is wonderfully integrated, encouraging you to forgo your moment in the high scoring spotlight to bring one of your band mates back from the brink.  But crucially, it’s just so much damn fun to play. The differing levels of difficulty allow you to choose between stern tests for your dexterous digits or you can elect to stick it on medium and prance around your living room like a lunatic.  The breadth of options is vast, particularly in Rock Band 3 where you can even learn to play the songs for real if you’ve got the kit and the motivation.  The introduction of keyboards was like a whole other game and added to the already embarrassment of riches that the drums, guitars, microphones and two and a half thousand compatible tracks offered.

Regardless of how well the new games do, I for one will be dusting off the drums for another smashing up until my hips go.  Whether I’ll be doing this on a PS3 or a PS10 is up to the public at large but I urge them to give it another try.  There’s nothing else in gaming quite like the flair and thrill offered by some plastic tat, a fridge full of booze and a group of close friends.

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