Looking back on the greatest music games of all time

Written by Brandon John on 4th July, 2018
Looking back on the greatest music games of all time

Right from the primitive loops of bleeps and bloops of the earliest arcade games, music has been an inseparable part of the gaming experience, evolving into the lush cinematic scores and dynamic soundtracks we have today.

Music games, though, are a different beast: the soundtrack doesn’t just complement the gameplay, it becomes the gameplay. Controllers become instruments, with the player’s rhythm just as vital as their reflexes, making for a level of immersion few other genres can match.

It’s a formula that eventually managed to take over the world since springing from the pop-fuelled optimism of the ’90s, and over the decades music games have carved out their own unique niche in gaming culture, with all sorts of fascinating experiments and offshoots along the way.

The CD changes everything

The first experiments into dance and music games came as early as 1987’s NES title Dance Aerobics, which worked with the system’s innovative dance and fitness mat the Power Pad, but the genre would mostly disappear again for the better part of a decade until technology caught up in 1994.

Sony made a lot of smart moves with their first foray into the home console market, the PlayStation, but the shift from cartridges to compact discs was possibly the wisest – and one that had a huge impact on the direction music games would take from that generation onwards. Suddenly, rather than just electronic chiptunes, hoards of CD-quality audio were suddenly available to developers, and the move ushered in a wave of titles that changed the way gamers could interact with music.

While not strictly music games, we can’t talk about the genre without first mentioning the Wipeout series. Released in 1995, it completely turned gaming on its head with its stylish futuristic setting, artwork and design by the legendary Designers Republic, and most of all its incredible techno soundtrack featuring well-known artists like The Chemical Brothers. It may have been a racing game, but the feeling of tapping into the flow of a pulsating beat as you hurtle along a track would become a common refrain for rhythm games to this day – and it brought a lot of adult music fans flocking to Sony’s system.

The Beverley Hills Cop theme recreated on Music 2000

Deepening the connection between racing and music games, we also have 1998’s dryly-titled Music: Music Creation For The PlayStation and its sequel Music 2000, made by British racing game experts Codemasters. Approximating a full-fat production suite like FL Studio or Ableton, it let budding producers whip up complex tracks using the included riffs and samples, and the latter even included its own versions of tracks by Leftfield and Grooverider.

There were some more bizarre titles competing for PSX gamers’ attentions too, including 1996’s Fluid (known as Depth in Japan), which was less of a game and more of an interactive tool for manipulating dance music samples and shaping the included electronic tunes. Oh, and you played as a dolphin, which just made the whole thing feel like the video game equivalent of a chill-out room.

With ambient beats and a playable dolphin, Fluid had it all… except deep gameplay

1997 saw the release of another oddity in Baby Universe, a quirky title that was more a piece of software than a game, allowing the user to generate psychedelic visuals based on the player’s own CD collection, by hot-swapping discs. It was pretty lightweight but, like the rest of the games here, it tapped into the nightclub cool that Sony had bought into with Wipeout.

While titles like these were all helping to legitimise the PlayStation as the home of music games, another stylish title was laying the groundwork for the true ‘rhythm game’ as we know it now.

The dog who started it all

If one creature can be credited for the popularity of mashing buttons in time to on-screen prompts, it was a pooch called Parappa the Rapper, whose 1996 debut really did change the game. With a unique paper-thin graphic style and a tonne of personality, it saw him rapping along with memorable co-stars like ‘Chop Chop Master Onion’, cementing lyrics like “Kick, punch, it’s all in the mind” into the memories of a generation of PlayStation gamers as they hit buttons to get through the game’s handful of different tracks. Followed up by its guitar-based pseudo-sequel Um Jammer Lammy in 1999, and a rehashed PS2 sequel in 2001, this is where rhythm gaming really began to take off.

It wasn’t just Parappa who was to thank for the rhythm game boom, though, as Konami also blew things wide open with the 1997 release of Beatmania, the DJ-themed arcade title that made instrument-shaped controllers a reality with its stripped-back turntable controller. Like Parappa, it was a game-changer, and soon the shortened version of the title, ‘Bemani’, became shorthand for the whole genre of music games – to the point that Beatmania‘s development studio Konami G.M.D. decided to adopt it as their new name.

Trust me – in the ’90s, this was the shit

They went on to follow the series up with 1999’s equally-revolutionary pairing of GuitarFreaks and DrumMania, which brought plastic guitar and drum controllers to arcades and even home consoles – although it would take another half-decade for the idea to catch on with Western audiences and for music games to really take over the world.

In the meantime, plenty of new rhythm games were flooding arcades and homes, including some particularly creative offshoots. A perfectly fitting hybrid between a fighting game and a rhythm game, Bust A Groove (or Bust A Move in Japan) switched the formula up by pitting players head-to-head in a beat-matching contest that saw a cast of genre stereotypes throw attacks at each other to an eclectic soundtrack. Interestingly, it actually saw an arcade release after its home console release, showing just how influential home console music games had become.

Not to be forgotten from the PlayStation era is the stylish Vib-Ribbon, released in 1999 by Parappa developer NanaOn-Sha. Rendered entirely in scrawled black-and-white, it tasked gamers with controlling the rabbit-esque main character along to the beat of the player’s own CD soundtracks, dodging obstacles generated by the waveforms on the disc. It’s a concept that’s been used many times since, especially in recent smartphone games, but it all had its beginnings here in this unassuming little gem.

Dance Dance Revolution became a genuine lifestyle choice

Of course, arcades weren’t slacking off either in the ’90s, and served up one more undeniable rhythm classic in Dance Dance Revolution, which hit Japanese arcades in 1999 and instantly became the go-to ice-breaker for a first date. Another Konami contribution to music gaming, you’ve seen this one show up in countless movies and, while home versions were eventually released complete with floor-mat peripherals, this really is a game that needs to be played in all its two-player arcade glory. Rather than tapping buttons, it puts your legs to work instead as you stomp away to the beat, trying to look as coordinated as you possibly can as you keep up with the mad pace.

With so many different titles to choose from, rhythm and music games were a genuine craze, and with new home hardware on the way – and a generation of gamers ready to party into a new millennium – they weren’t going away any time soon.

Next gen experiments

Being a pretty simple concept at their core, rhythm games could have easily become a fad, but instead they would thrive on the next generation of consoles. PS2 brought us the cult classic Gitaroo Man, and Sega also leapt into the game with 1999’s quirky arcade and Dreamcast hit Samba de Amigo, which saw players shaking along with a pair of maracas and was actually developed by Sonic Team of Sonic The Hedgehog fame. Space Channel 5 was another Sega-published hit on Dreamcast – even if its main character, the “funky space reporter” Ulala, saw the company sued by Deee-Lite member Lady Miss Kier for stealing her unmistakeable image (spoilers: she somehow lost).

It was in 2001, however, when a new superpower of music games would emerge: Harmonix. Having started out years earlier making experimental instrument controllers and software, it was their first major title, Frequency, and its 2003 sequel Amplitude, that saw them begin down the path that would change music gaming for good. The games split each song up into distinct tracks for each instrument and allowed players to switch between them all, remixing them based on which path they took through the song – and being able to play along with big artists like Paul Oakenfold and Garbage gave us the first hint of the formula that the studio would soon perfect with Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

Amplitude would soon evolve into the world-conquering Guitar Hero

Another step forward would come with the popularity of Sony’s Singstar series and its Harmonix-made competitor Karaoke Revolution, which tapped into the hype surrounding the emergence of American Idol by gamifying karaoke and creating what was then the ultimate party game. In fact, Karaoke Revolution scored a couple of Idol-themed versions with the hosts appearing in-game, and would go on to make High School Musical versions as well, whereas Singstar was hugely successful in PAL territories, but didn’t quite dominate the U.S. market in the same way.

Other games tried to put those microphones to good use too, and with hip hop’s popularity as high as ever, 2004’s Get On Da Mic was an attempt at rap-centric karaoke that missed the mark. Later down the track, 2010’s Def Jam Rapstar would promise that at least one famous rapper would be discovered through its online competitions – needless to say, that definitely didn’t happen.

Rez was the peak of style, becoming a cult hit

Speaking of idols, the arcades weren’t dead just yet, and one quirky series that would go on to make big waves in wider culture was The Idolmaster, which saw the player training a team of pop idols in a part management sim, part rhythm game. Since its 2005 arcade release, it’s spawned countless sequels across every platform imaginable, as well as its own anime series – but it also laid the groundwork for the emergence of the world’s biggest ‘vocaloid’ star, the simulated pop idol Hatsune Miku. A true pop sensation, the character’s recent international stardom has also been accompanied by its own run of rhythm games in the Project DIVA series.

The 2000s also gave us one of the most stylish games ever to exist: Rez. Exploding onto the PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast in 2001, the game’s gorgeous style still holds up to this day with its HD and VR versions, the controller pulsating along to music that syncs up perfectly with the gameplay for a euphoric drug trip of an experience. Of course, the game got even more immersive with the use of the optional ‘Trance Vibrator’ accessory, a vibrating pack that drew comparisons to a sex toy at the time (for obvious reasons), and managed to bring the game some welcomed notoriety.

Lumines became an addiction for PSP owners

On the opposite end of the style spectrum was Nintendo’s 2003 stab at the rhythm genre, the GameCube’s Donkey Konga, which was based on a Japan-exclusive rhythm series Taiko no Tatsujin, and saw the titular ape drumming away to hits like ‘We Will Rock You’ – cute, but hardly essential.

It wasn’t just home consoles getting all the love by now, and with the advent of the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, we saw some genuinely unforgettable music games released on handhelds too. 2004’s Lumines became an instant classic, its music-driven take on the block-matching puzzle game turning the PSP into a ‘Lumines machine’ for many – and it’s still seeing re-releases to this day. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s console gave us the gloriously off-the-wall Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! in 2005, which would become Elite Beat Agents when it came to the West the following year, putting players in the shoes of a musical task force cheering people through wacky life challenges to cover versions of Avril Lavigne and David Bowie.

Both it and the now-Westernised Rhythm Heaven series made perfect use of the touchscreen on the DS, concocting a formula that would work wonders in smartphone games too, with touch-based games like Tap Tap Revenge becoming big hits toward the end of the decade, and still making for popular time-wasters today.

The rise and fall of the plastic rock band

Of course, we all know when music games hit their peak of popularity and commercial success – when everyone became a rock superstar in their own homes. The declining popularity of arcades and the dominance of home consoles eventually demanded that the arcade pleasures of plastic instruments make their way to our own TVs, and it was Harmonix who made it happen, working with peripheral-maker RedOctane and gaming giant Activision to release what would become the single biggest game the genre had ever seen.

When Guitar Hero first hit in 2005, it turned not just music gaming but gaming in general on its head. Sure, it owed plenty to the groundwork laid in arcades by GuitarFreaks, but its miniature Gibson SG controller and hit-laden tracklist (even if many were cover versions) gave it the worldwide appeal it needed. Everyone was rocking out in their living rooms, and the game was racking up universal acclaim in the gaming press too, while an improved track list helped its sequel Guitar Hero II became an even bigger hit.

When Guitar Hero finally hit, this became the peak life goal

It was here that the band would break up all too soon, and arguably the demise of rhythm gaming would begin. With so much success, the series was suddenly bought out by Activision, while Harmonix were nabbed by MTV Networks. Soon a swathe of sequels and alternate versions followed as Activision cashed in on their hot new property, from era-themed packs like Guitar Hero: Rocks the ’80s, to band-specific titles focused on acts like Metallica, Aerosmith and Van Halen, and even a portable version in Guitar Hero: On Tour – each with more and more controllers to go with them. The game was everywhere.

While this was all happening, though, Harmonix weren’t sitting idle, and had headed back in the lab working on the game that would take the genre to even greater heights. Released in 2007, Rock Band allowed players to bring together not just a pair of guitars to compete against one another, but a whole band – weaving the long histories of games like GuitarFreaks, DrumMania, Karaoke Revolution and more into one package. With varied, expandable tracklists and razer-honed gameplay, its two sequels (and competitors Guitar Hero: World Tour and Band Hero) became the ultimate realisation of the long-running Bemani genre, bringing the arcades into the home for the ultimate party game.

The plastic instrument genre reaches its zenith by roping in none other than The Beatles

Of course, the bubble burst – and quickly. From the dizzying heights of securing the elusive and ridiculously expensive catalogue of The Beatles: Rock Band – even presenting the game onstage with Paul McCartney – the genre soon became oversaturated, and sidesteps like the turntable-toting DJ Hero did little to expand the appeal.

Ultimately, after years of clogging up our houses with plastic instruments (and giving up on ever passing ‘Jessica’ on expert difficulty), the novelty began to wear off for many – not helped by the exhaustion that came with the endless run of sequels and spinoffs from both Rock Band and especially Guitar Hero. The games would introduce everything from more complex guitar peripherals to keyboards in an effort to keep things fresh, and 2006 PC title Frets On Fire let players create their own note charts and play along with any song they liked, but by the end of the decade most of us have dropped our little plastic axes off at the nearest charity store.

Just Dance never hit Guitar Hero levels of popularity, but still releases sequels to this day

The rhythm genre wasn’t done quite yet, though, with the brief emergence of home dance games that hoped to pick up the party game mantle. Nintendo Wii’s had just introduced motion controls to every gamer and their grandmother (quickly copied by the Xbox Kinect and PlayStation move controllers), and the idea of waving your arms around and dancing like you just didn’t care was in fashion, so Just Dance hit it big when it released in 2009, with sequels still being released in 2018. Not to be left in the dust, Harmonix hit back with their own take Dance Central the following year, although this was an Xbox 360 exclusive and relied on the fairly clumsy Kinect camera to work, limiting its popularity. Even Michael Jackson got in on the game, posthumously racking up some fair-to-middling reviews with Michael Jackson: The Experience.

Despite the swift rise and fall of guitar games, they also led to one of the most interesting and underappreciated titles to spring from the entire music genre. In 2011, Rocksmith launched on consoles and sought to teach gamers how play not just a plastic guitar, but a real one. By plugging whichever guitar you could get your hands on into the console, you could strum along with actual strings and start to live out the rock star dream for real, and its 2014 sequel smoothed out some of its kinks for an even better experience – blurring the lines between music games and genuine music completely.

The search for the new sound

With the Guitar Hero boom and subsequent crash still ringing in the ears of many gamers (and publishers), the next big revolution in music games is, for now, still waiting in the wings.

Rock Band VR figured virtual reality could be the next big thing by putting guitar hero players right up there on a virtual stage, but it loses out on the co-operative joy of forming a band with mates, dinky little instruments and all. Harmonix have since tried to bring their music game expertise to the realm of board games with the pretty nifty DropMix, which lets players craft live remixes with collectible cards, but it didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Guitar Hero Live also hoped to reboot that series a couple of years back with a new FMV-based presentation and streaming format, but its live servers are set to shutter at the end of the year, and no replacement is on the cards.

Crypt of the NecroDancer weaves rhythm-based gameplay into a new form

What else is out there for music gamers? Smaller-scale titles like the Audiosurf and Bit.Trip series and “rhythm violence” game Thumper have been able to find themselves a following, while games like Rez and Amplitude are getting a new lease on life with HD re-releases. Crypt of the NecroDancer mashed the ancient roguelike genre together with rhythm games into a surprisingly successful whole – even letting players control the action with an old-school dance mat – but overall, there haven’t been that many recent titles capturing the playful energy of the mid-’90s rhythm game.

Perhaps, though, the ready availability of free music-making software for every computer and phone has opened doors for people to not just rap along as a cartoon dog, but make their own hip hop music instead. Could Music 2000 have had the right idea, skipping the strict note highways of the rhythm game and empowering people to actually create, rather than follow?

Or maybe the next huge music gaming craze is just around the corner, waiting to sell us all another batch of plastic instruments.

The article was originally published on Brag Magazine