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All Rocked Out: The Evolution, Rise, and Fall of the Music Game


Remember that brief moment in time when playing video games with friends inevitably meant breaking out plastic instruments and grooving to an eclectic assortment of rockin’ music? Or, if you were less inclined to rock, you could bust dance moves on a floor pad at home or double up with a friend at your local deserted arcade. Either way, at some point in time it seemed like everybody was a slave to the rhythm game. What happened?

Growing up, there was this hand-held game called Simon. And what Simon said went. It was made up of colored buttons, which would light up in order to play a melody. Your job was to repeat the sequences to replay the melodies, which would get more complex the longer you played. This was the humble birth of the rhythm game.


It didn’t get really good until well into the video game craze, when the original PlayStation found a way to make hip-hop playable with Parappa the Rapper in 1997. I remember going to a friend’s house and he had a disc of demos, one of which was for that game. That one song demo was more memorable than the vast majority of full releases I’ve played since. Finally, my dreams of being a hype man were virtually realized in a barrage of kicks, punches, and blocks. Heads were bobbed.

For the record, this player is weaksauce. No improvisation = no fun.

Parappa was massive in Japan, and led to a huge influx of rhythm-based games in arcades, including the ubiquitous Dance Dance Revolution. Other Japanese arcade games in the 90’s that were less popular overseas were GuitarFreaks and DrumMania, which were the first to utilize simulated instruments.

With the American arcade scene all but dead by that time, American gaming companies like Harmonix eventually appropriated the formula for home consoles to create Guitar Hero and then Rock Band, kicking off a nearly universal music game craze.

This is where most of us got onboard, me included. DDR had its fans, but we gamers are by and large not the dance around in your living room type. The couch and chair are our natural habitat. We can maybe deal with holding a light plastic guitar and banging our head a little, but dancing? Do we look like Miley Cyrus to you?

I have so many fond memories of Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, it’s not even funny. The song choices were divinely inspired, the presentation was brilliant, there was challenge, great visuals, and universal approval, even from non-gamers. It was great. And the final boss from Guitar Hero 3 is one of the greatest of all time.

How do you beat challenging Satan to a metal guitar battle of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”? You don’t.

My custom band in Rock Band 2 was named Midget Apartheid (which got them banned from Xbox Live as a punk group should be) and consisted of a vampire girl on vocals and a zombie named Yum-E Brainz on drums as well as a recreation of my character, Thrashcanman, from the first game, who looks like he should be playing in Rammstein. I was really proud of that group.

Everybody loves music, gamers love games, and even non-gamers will game if there is music involved. Talk about a winning formula. Surely there is no way to screw that up. Surely. Unless, of course, they oversaturate the market to the point that people simply stop giving a damn because the alternative to dropping them altogether is to do nothing but buy and play music game after music game full time.

So instead of playing it smart, our corporate gaming overlords opted to release multiple games every year as well as slews of downloadable content to tempt music fans. Small investments: huge returns. Not only did we get the regular full games from Rock Band and Guitar Hero both, but both franchises released additional games based on real bands like The Beatles, Aerosmith, Metallica, and…..Green Day?

In case you’ve ever wanted to shout “Maybe I’m the faggot, America!” while jamming with your family.

If I had to pinpoint the minute it all went, wrong, I’d go with that one. In addition to too much rock, lamer people got second rate titles like the stupidly named Band Hero, numerous karaoke games, and even a DJ Hero series on top of them. By the time we got to Lego Rock Band, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the coffin lid was closed, nailed, set on fire, and then dumped into an unmarked grave.

Interestingly, at this point the genre didn’t literally die so much as it changed its focus. Rock Band 3 and other games changed the design of instruments to make them more trends come and go, but making real music has always been cool and will always be cool, and people do love to dance. Enter Rocksmith and Kinect.

Rocksmith was designed for guitar players and uses a cable to connect a real electric guitar to your console. It provides in-game guitar lessons, a great set of songs, a built-in tuner, and a customizable amp full of unlockable effects for custom tones that are worth the cost of admission by themselves.

With Microsoft’s new Kinect motion sensing technology, there was only one way to go. Well, two if you count light saber battles. But the obvious one was dancing games; so many dancing games. Michael Jackson: The Game, Just Dance, Grease, and god help me, The Black Eyed Peas Experience all happened, and we all let them happen. And remember how everyone wanted A Star Wars Kinect game? Well, here you go.

Where’s your god now?

If you can watch Han Solo thrusting at you while “Great!” and “Awesome!” flash on his crotch and not die a little inside, you are a stronger fan than I. This brings me to my next topic of discussion: celebrities. When a game is based around existing art, people, and intellectual properties you are going to have to deal with the creators and owners of that content, and that is a whole other can of worms.

For starters, legends like Led Zeppelin and hipsters like Jack White are on record as hating the very concept of music games and refusing to allow their music to be used while Courtney Love casually signed away the rights to her late husband’s music and likeness and then pretended to be offended when that image was used in-game as if he was just another celebrity whose likeness was licensed to be used in the game.

Cobain confirmed as ultimate hype man.

And while Jon Bon Jovi had no qualms about licensing his music for the same game, he turned down the offer to put him in it because see above video. Does this mean that the “queen of grunge” who is always sniveling about cred could stand to take lessons on integrity from a ridiculously mainstream 80’s hair metal singer? Looks like.

The aforementioned Black Eyed Peas got slapped with a million dollar lawsuit from Ubisoft after repeatedly ignoring requests to port their crap-hop atrocity dance game to iOS formats in breach of contract, showing just how many shits they had to give about it.

So it’s not just gamers who stopped caring about music games. Even the people starring in them don’t really care.

The funny thing is, if any of us went over to somebody’s house and there was a Rock Band party going on, we wouldn’t hesitate and a great time would be had. The appeal of “playing” great music is still there and always will be.

But the fact that these companies have burnt this winning concept out with excessive saturation could not be more apparent. It’s just hard to get excited for something that is constantly in your face and it’s too expensive and time-consuming to have so many games coming out on an almost monthly basis.

It’s easier to just move along to something else. And no, adding zombies to double up on the cliché factor was not the appropriate response, Rock of the Dead.

The only question at this point is whether or not resurgence can happen. The appeal of great tunes is eternal, but I wonder if there is another way to erase the passé-ness of it all and make rhythm games part of the standard gaming diet again like they were just a few years ago.

I don’t personally see how it can happen anytime soon, and I suspect and hope that the industry can learn a lesson from this that we gamers learned long ago through countless multiplayer matches: nobody likes a spammer.

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About Nick Verboon

I am a guy on the internet who writes stuff sometimes. Try and keep up. I used to write reviews Amazon and other sites under the moniker trashcanman before semi-retiring from my unpaid career for a while. But now I'm back in action writing columns for Unreality and Gamemoir. Enjoy. I

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