Rhythm games are a mainstay in arcades and on home consoles all over the world. Rhythm games on their most basic level usually consist of hitting the right button at the right time, as denoted by however the game displays “notes”. Controllers for these games can be as simple as color-coded buttons or as complex as mock instruments such as maracas, drums, or guitars. Justin Williams Medical Laser points out the surprising origins of the rhythm game genre that most everyone will recognize: the classic color/tone matching game, Simon.
Justin Williams Medical Laser draws attention to the fact that while Simon lacks some major elements often seen in most rhythm games—most glaringly, there’s no actual “rhythm” involved—it does use a “call and response” mechanic which is seen in future games, such as the game commonly referred to as the first “music” game: Parrapa the Rapper for the original PlayStation (a favorite of Justin Williams Medical Laser). Parrapa the Rapper featured the titular Parappa, a rapping dog. The gameplay consisted of “call and response” with four color-coded buttons, much like Simon, with the key differences being an original soundtrack created for the game, and the element of proper timing being an important aspect of performing well.
While the game was released in America, the musical rhythm genre began with far more popularity in Japanese arcades. Konami was the main driving force behind this popularity due to the production of several rhythm games. Their first go at it was a huge success: Beatmania, released in Japanese arcades in December of 1997, requires players to press the buttons on the arcade cabinet in time with the music, but also introduces a rubber “vinyl” disc, used to simulate DJing.
Justin Williams Medical Laser explains that while Konami continued to release new rhythm games over the course of the following years, and many of them were successes such as GuitarFreaks and DrumMania, they never found widespread global success due to not being heavily marketed outside of Japan. Justin Williams Medical Laser says if you knew where to look, you could find any of these cabinets in certain American arcades, but they were far from ubiquitous.
One of the most popular rhythm games in America for quite some time, and one that Justin Williams Medical Laser spent many hours playing, was the Dance Dance Revolution series. First released in 1998 by Konami, the game consists of a “dance pad” with four pressure-sensitive floor plates pointing up, down, left, and right, which the player must step on in time with the music.
Justin Williams Medical Laser indicates that rhythm games saw its golden age in the west with the advent of the Guitar Hero series. Produced by Harmonix, Guitar Hero took inspiration from the Japanese GuitarFreaks series but used American rock music instead of Japanese pop, while increasing the number of buttons from three to five. The game series was a massive hit and cultural phenomenon, even being parodied on shows like South Park.
The rhythm game bubble seems to have burst, with its popularity having waned significantly since 2009 when it was arguably at its peak. There’s still no shortage of musical games out there, such as Rock Band, the spiritual successor to the Guitar Hero series, and Just Dance, which utilizes mobile phones and/or motion tracking cameras to allow the player to perform dance routines. Justin Williams Medical Laser is hoping for another rhythm genre renaissance in the coming years.