Published Mar 01, 2006In the early 1980s, the streets of New York were covered in cardboard as a burgeoning b-boy scene attracted crowds marvelling at their gravity-defying dance moves. Flash forward 15 years and similarly awestruck onlookers filled the sidewalks of Tokyo watching equally limber youths moving their feet to a new arcade game Dance Dance Revolution beat-matching onscreen arrows and real-world footpads.
Zip ahead again to 2006 and not only has the game become a cult hit in North America, but some American schools are actually incorporating it into their phys-ed programs to trick fat kids into exercising.
The music-based rhythm game craze, which recently hit new heights thanks to the ridiculously fun PS2 game Guitar Hero, can be traced back to a two-dimensional canine MC. The 1996 Playstation title PaRappa the Rapper involved hitting buttons in time to the rhymes and became a near Mario-size hit in Japan. Konami took note and began developing rhythm games for the nation's futuristic arcades.
"In the late '90s, arcade games started to become repetitive, with popular genres like racing, fighting and shooting being redone over and over again. Gamers wanted something new," explains Jason Enos, product manager for Konami's American wing. "This is what led to the development of a whole new genre [and] unlike traditional games where you press buttons and move the joystick, these games offered customised experiences through unique gameplay and controllers."
In 1997, Konami introduced the inaugural arcade rhythm game BeatMania a highly anticipated home console version finally hits North American PS2s this month. At the time, everyone in Japan wanted to be a DJ so Konami created a controller that used a five-button keyboard and a scratchable turntable to create music in real time. It proved such a hit the company borrowed its name for a new division called Bemani, which soon delivered rhythm gaming's killer-app Dance Dance Revolution.
Though it would take much longer to crack the North American market due to the dearth of arcades, a Playstation title eventually came out complete with dance pad.
"The console version allowed people to practice at home and walk back into the arcades to strut their stuff, thus drawing even more crowds and consumer attention to the game," says Enos. "Additionally, [it] allowed people who were too shy to play in front of strangers in the arcade a chance to practice the game in the privacy of their own homes."
Over the years DDR has grown in popularity a new arcade version DDR SuperNOVA is due this spring and tournaments have sprung up alongside various knockoffs like Ubisoft's breakdance game Flow or Codemaster's upcoming Dance Factory, which works with your own CD collection.
Konami has also released specialised permutations like the microphone-enabled Karaoke Revolution and DDR: Mario Mix, a fun GameCube version incorporating Nintendo's iconic characters, sounds and settings while dropping hilarious lines like "we will hypnotise the rhythmless masses with our moves."
Nintendo has also found a hit with its Donkey Konga series, which comes equipped with bongo controllers and requires both drumming and clapping to score points, while other games have used maracas (Samba de Amigo) or traditional Japanese taiko drums (Taiko no Tatsujin).
Harmonix's Guitar Hero takes the basic gameplay of the company's dance-oriented classics Frequency and Amplitude and adds a near life-size guitar controller complete with five fret buttons, a strum button and even a whammy bar for solo freestyling.
But be warned if you invite a bunch of musician friends over to play Guitar Hero, as it applies real music theory and their familiarity with the instrument may embarrass your ass while trying to rock out to "Iron Man," "Ace of Spades" or "Take Me Out."
As Enos notes, "[DDR] is one of those games that is as entertaining to play as it is entertaining to watch someone else play," which is really what makes the entire genre so damn fun.
With most modern non-sport videogames rooted in single-player mode or online multiplayer against cyber-strangers, rhythm games turn what has become a largely solitary pastime into a full-blown party.
Do the Electro Slide
Music games aren't always about rhythmic button-mashing and cool peripherals. Tetsuya Mizuguchi pioneered abstract music simulators with his rave-era classic REZ, a tunnel-vision shooter where each blast added a beat or electronic effect to a looping dance-scape. He returned to music-based gaming with last year's PSP puzzle title Lumines and the upcoming rhythmic shooting game Every Extend Extra.
But dude's already been out-abstracted by the inspired Nintendo DS title Electroplankton, which does away with the whole game aspect. Created by multimedia artist Toshio Iwai, it's an open-ended simulator that uses the DS's touch screen, microphone and stylus to make music with ten species of adorably psychedelic underwater creatures. Electroplankton's vast permutations make this audiovisual "art installation" incredibly addictive, though it criminally lacks an easy save function for your compositions you need special cables to hook it up to your computer. But just as Iwai launched Electroplankton in Tokyo by duetting with a violinist, it's only a matter of time before fans start using the non-game like the instrument it actually is.
Indigo Prophecy (Atari/Quantic Dream; PS2, Xbox, PC)
Most games boasting a cinematic scope include interminable cut-scenes that take the player out of the moment. But the hugely ambitious Indigo Prophecy, which bills itself as an interactive movie, uses split-screen cinematics that are both engrossing and artistically impressive. More importantly, it's reinvigorated adventure gaming by making a player's impulsive, real-time decisions impact a branched storyline reminiscent of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. The plot, which unfortunately falls apart toward the end, is a complex supernatural thriller where you not only play an unwitting participant in a ritualistic murder, but also the cops investigating the case. Mixing quotidian activities like working out and playing guitar with complex detective work and a series of ethical dilemmas, the French developers have crafted a truly adult effort. A European "director's cut," including scenes censored in the North American version, will soon be released on this side of the pond.
Ape Escape 3 (Sony Computer Entertainment; PS2)
Believing the only thing more fun than a barrel of monkeys is catching them in a pixilated net, Sony delivers the third iteration of their long-running Ape Escape series. Though not particularly different than its predecessors, this time around the cartoon-y game ups the funny. The threequel's plotline centres on evil monkeys using a TV satellite to take over the world. The humans fall into a trance while watching bad TV shows and movies, ranging from Monkeypiece Theater to Nightmare on Ape Street, and it's up to you to put an end to these diabolically silly pop-cult parodies.
Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows (Midway; Xbox, PS2, PC)
The original Gauntlet, a pioneering four-player arcade classic, ate enough quarters to fuel two decades of nostalgia. Though the latest revamped version sports a similar dungeon-crawling design and fantasy characters elf, warrior, valkyrie and wizard it replaces the original's infinite levels with a rather short campaign more suitable, in single-player mode anyway, for rental than purchase. But Gauntlet was never meant for solo hands and Seven Sorrows sports four-player connectivity online and off so you can kill monsters with friends. If the retro-trappings on this otherwise typical hack'n'slash aren't retro enough, then the Xbox 360's "Live Arcade" offers the original for download.