After reading Purplexir's first impressions of Child Of Eden, I was reminded of a conversation I had with some friends recently about the nature of rhythm games. Yes, I have those kinds of friends. The best kind.
The results of our discussion were interesting but it boiled down to one question, and my answer: What is the best way to tackle making a rhythm game? What types are available to you and if any...which is the best? This is a video example heavy entry, so bring your headphones and crank it up.
Rhythm games cover a wide, wide amount of ground. It started back in 2001, when DDR was hitting American PS-One owners for the first time. It redefined what games could get kids to do, got'em off their duffs and soon there were even reports in local papers about this crazy game. It was a sensation, and soon after it blossomed we had clones, we had more Bemani (Konami's label, eponymous with the arcade rhythm game experience) games in arcades than ever before and soon we even had our own version of the Bemani titles. Hot on the heels of DDR in 2001 was a little company called Harmonix, and their game Frequency. The rest was history.
So here we stand just after the most recent and biggest boom in the history of the music game: Rock Band v. Guitar Hero. That climactic battle was bloody and awesome. At the end of it we have the Rock Band Network, we have full Pro Guitar Mode and in-game Song Creators, Vocals and Online Play, DLC and more. It's been nary ten years since it all started...but it feels so soon for our enthusiasm to wain. Was it the peripherals? The prices? A little of both. And so during this lull we have time to take stock and ask ourselves: How far have we come...and what did we learn?
To do this I'm going to define some broad groups, and then dive into each one.
Type #1: Soundtrack is completely independent from game play mechanics
-Dance Dance Revolution
-Every Extend Extra Extreme
At the beginning of our adventure we come across games with mechanics that have nothing to do with the soundtrack at all. Games you could play with the sound off, for example. Dance Dance Revolution, while a great way to get exercise, only involves the soundtrack in game play to inform the notes, and give the track a pace. The majority of the game play is largely visual: working your legs to stomp the right arrow when it eclipses the stencils. Beat Hazard is a game that can create stages from any song on your Xbox (or streaming from your computer, even), but once the songs are analyzed and read you have very little do with them (Adjusting the volume is all you can do via the game play mechanics, and even then you are compelled to do so to achieve a non-rhythm related goal: the beat hazard cannon). The worst they usually can do is to stop the song entirely and blame you for somehow not being X enough to continue.
Games like this are great ways to generate longevity from your rhythm game. DDR's insanely successful, open-source spin off Stepmania is proof positive that with some time and talent anyone can make tracks, from original music or otherwise. That means a theoretically infinite possibility of levels. What a deal! The downside: the music has GOT to be the main draw. If the music in a game like this isn't killer, or at least catchy enough to be played over and over, then your base game type (Beat Hazard: shooter, DDR: Timing Game, Audiosurf: Arcade racing) is all that's left. So it's a simple matter of making sure that without the music, or with the players music, the game play is interesting enough to keep up. I feel that's the main failing point for DDR rival Pump It Up! Pump It Up! has some unrecognizable/hard to get behind music choices (I don't know a lot of K-pop), and the base game play is just not as accessible as DDR's less-is-more model. Hence, I'll take my chances with the old up, down, left and right.
Type #2: The soundtrack is affected (but not generated) by game play mechanics
-PaRappa the Rapper
A game that lets the player walk along the back bone of the music, laying down the rest of the song through game play mechanics like shooting capsules to create sounds (Amplitude, Frequency, Rock Band), or tapping our a rhythm to match what's expected (PaRappa the Rapper, Gitaroo Man). These games carefully choose and coordinate their songs, choosing a specific order or progression for the player to follow through the game, usually from easier songs to harder ones. If the player cannot keep up with the game play, the songs will lack fullness. They'll be shadows of the "real" song you're trying to play, and in Amplitude that means sometimes going without a Vocals or Drum track while you lay down the Bass and Guitar. In PaRappa that means getting rained on, ridiculed or outright shut down mid performance if you fail to drop fat rhymes. The best thing about these games is the thrilling sense of accomplishment you feel when you've finished a song well. You feel like you "know" the song, like you had a direct hand in it's creation. It requires quick reflexes, an intimate knowledge of the song itself, and an iron clad game play mechanic to translate that kind of emotion to the player. But there's a game that exists just outside this particular venn diagram circle that I must mention: Rez.
Rez is not a rhythm game at all. It's an On-Rails Shooter. Rez's game play mechanics have nothing at all to do with making music, it's about highlighting enemies to kill them, and shooting down their missiles before they hit you. It's closer to Panzer Dragoon or Sin and Punishment: Star Successor than to other rhythm games. Rez has a base mechanic that doesn't consider rhythm, but the saving grace for Rez is that the engine is paying attention. After highlighting and marking enemies for death, the game will play your actions back to the beat of the song. Enemies explode on beat, your shots go out with specific sounds based on what level you are, even just pressing "A" to lock on gives you a simple closed hi-hat hit. Everything you do in Rez adds to the soundtrack, builds on it, shapes and forms it. Choosing which enemies to kill in what order, how many shots to use during a lock on...it all is taken into account and the truth is it's far less you, and far more the game. Rez is a rare example of a non-rhythm game that embraces the basic fundaments of all rhythm games: give the player the illusion of control over the sound. See what I mean?
So keep your eyes open for Child of Eden. If Rez's legacy is maintained, we'll have another genre dominating hit on our hands. And if you couldn't tell, this is my bid for best rhythm game type. I believe all good stories have single authors, and I believe all good rhythm games have hand picked soundtracks, put together in a specific order, by someone/s dedicated to making sure the experience is meaningful. You just can't get that from games that don't incorporate the rhythm into the game play mechanic, or a game that doesn't have a designed, defined soundtrack. See below.
Type #3: The game play mechanics are the soundtrack
-Guitar Hero World Tour
When you stand at the game...nothing happens. You wave your hands, you press start, nothing. No music plays until you pick up the controller...and make it happen. There are very few games that are truly like this, letting the player take complete control over the sound, and it's because we're not all Beethoven. A newborn could blow your mind after five minutes tapping randomly at Elektroplankton's screen. Games like this tend to be very relaxing, very ambient. If they required the player to have even a modicum of musical ability, they'd be different affairs all together. And they'd probably be impossible.
Now why include Guitar Hero: World Tour? Two words: Song Creator. From nothing, players can make something. Now, the majority of them may only go as far as to imitate what they know...but it still counts. One player made it, and gave it to another player to play, and the game had NO say in how the song was made, how it came out rhythmically, or it's tonality. Sure this means you need genuine talent (or at least a well trained ear) to make anything of worth but it counts. It's a truly player generated soundtrack.
Rhythm games have come quite a long way since the early 2000s. The sales of Guitar Hero and Rock Band have tapered off in the recent years and it looks to me like the rhythm game will probably get its next revival on the touch platforms. We've evolved from three buttons (Guitar Freaks) to full-fretted, real guitars (Rock Band 3) in under ten years, and I think we as gamers deserve a collective pat on the back. We proved that we can master new tricks. Maybe we're not the best at them, but we can do more than punch buttons and we're inching ever closer to that sweet, sweet resolution we want. Imagine...Rock Band Kinect, Guitar Hero Move....
For now we have hundreds of songs to download, and lots to look forwards to. I look forwards to whatever comes next (*cough*Kinect*cough*iPad*cough*). As always I end my thoughts with an open question: What is your favorite type of rhythm game?