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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Are Rhythm Games Ready for a Comeback?

Music has always been central to video games. Motifs from popular franchises like The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros. are so canonized that people who don’t play games could likely point them out. Even games with licensed soundtracks like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater have gone on to reflect and inform the tastes of an entire generation of players. But for a brief and fleeting moment in the mid-2000s, music became central to the way we played and interacted with games—and the genre this spawned, the rhythm game, became one of the most profitable in the world.

By the latter half of the 2000s, off the back of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises, the rhythm game cemented its commercial dominance. In NPD’s list of the 20 best-selling video games from 2000 to 2009, Guitar Hero III took the number one spot—while five other rhythm games made an appearance. That commercial success was short-lived, however. In the same list tracking sales across the following decade, not a single rhythm game made it to the top 20.

So, where did all the rhythm games go? For those who knew the genre solely through its big hits, it might be tempting to think the industry has moved on altogether. After all, popular genres come and go: Yesterday’s rhythm game is today’s battle royale.

But while it’s certainly true that big publishers have moved on, rhythm games have been kept alive primarily by small development teams and hungry fans. Games like Beat Saber (2018), Muse Dash (2018), and Sayonara Wild Hearts (2019) have all proved that by adding clever twists to beloved genre mechanics, great rhythm games—no matter the size of their budget—can still find adoring audiences.

A number of new rhythm games are seeing commercial success. Players are crowdfunding them. And the DNA of rhythm games can be found in all sorts of popular games from other genres. Developers are once again considering the rhythm game—and redefining it in the process.

“Karaoke For Feet”

In a rhythm game, music is central to the design. Players might be asked to press buttons that correspond to a musical rhythm (like in Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero). Or that relationship can be a bit more abstract. In the cult-classic shooter game Rez (2001), techno music ebbs and throbs to a shifting tempo as players blast away polygonal enemies.

The rhythm game was popularized on the original PlayStation by a game called PaRappa the Rapper (1996). Featuring a colorful art style, the game follows a rapping dog trying to win the affection of a sunflower-shaped girl named Sunny Funny. The game was designed by musician Masaya Matsuura and born out of a desire to make a more interactive musical experience. Matsuura said in an official PlayStation interview that, even after the game was finished, he wasn’t sure it was a game in the conventional sense at all.

A reviewer for a 1997 issue of PlayStation Magazine seemed to agree. “I will freely admit that the basis of this game seems just plain silly,” writes Joe Rybicki. “Punching buttons in time to a preset rap rhythm does not sound like the stuff of which great games are made.”

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But even then, it was obvious that the seeds of something great were being sown. Rybicki continues, “There is a quality to certain works of pop art which transcends greatness … It’s called pure enjoyment, and PaRappa is the new mascot.”

Over the next few years, more rhythm games showed up, mostly in Japanese arcades, including Beatmania (1997) and then Dance Dance Revolution (1998). DDR played a lot like PaRappa the Rapper—the player is tasked with hitting a descending series of notes in time with a musical rhythm. The big difference, though, was DDR simulated a dance routine, and was a very physical affair. Instead of a controller, DDR used a mat, with brightly colored arrows pressed by the player's feet. On higher difficulties, the game was brutally difficult, requiring quick reaction times and physical dexterity.

In 1999, the game started appearing at American arcades. It wasn’t long before a fandom was born. The Santa Cruz Sentinel ran an article in April 2000 about the game’s popularity at the Santa Cruz boardwalk with the subhed: “New interactive arcade game drawing crowds to the boardwalk.” Later that year, The Wall Street Journal dubbed Dance Dance Revolution the “latest arcade craze,” describing the game as “karaoke for feet.” The article notes that although arcade cabinets were sold to arcades at roughly $15,000 a pop, that money was recouped pretty quickly; a single DDR machine at an arcade in Stanton, California, pulled in nearly 40,000 dollars in one year.

But rhythm games were still an unlikely arbiter of commercial success in the United States. The early 2000s were dominated by the kind of games still popular to consumers today: action games, Nintendo platformers, and yearly sports titles. Rhythm games were a largely niche affair by comparison. While console titles like Rez, Frequency (2001), and Amplitude (2003) were well-received, none were met with any kind of rollicking commercial success.

This all changed with the breakthrough hit Guitar Hero in 2005. Developed by Harmonix and Red Octane, the game resonated with American audiences in a way that previous entries in the rhythm canon never had. Although it boasted all of the spectacle and high-skill ceiling trappings of DDR, it was packaged with iconography and music that was far more familiar to Westerners. Guitar Hero sold players the fantasy of being a rockstar. Instead of a dance mat, Guitar Hero shipped with a guitar-shaped controller sporting five colored fret buttons and a strum bar. Likewise, its soundtrack featured covers of songs by popular rock n’ roll artists like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Pantera (among many others).

Guitar Hero—and Rock Band a few years later in 2007—not only became ludicrously profitable and successful franchises, but part of a full-blown cultural phenomenon, spawning numerous sequels, spin-offs, and imitators. In 2008’s edition of the TIME 100, guitarist Steven Van Zandt said of Rock Band’s influence: “In the history of rock 'n' roll, Rock Band may just turn out to be up there with the rise of FM radio, CDs, or MTV. 

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Rhythm games like Rock Band had a little bit of something for everyone. They were a deeply social experience, the ultimate pick-up and play party game. But they also catered to hardcore fandoms. There were entire internet communities consisting of players in constant pursuit of higher scores. Rock Band also arrived just as downloadable content and microtransactions were becoming more popular in console video games. Rhythm games, with additional purchasable songs, used DLC to great effect.

The subsequent years saw publishers like Nintendo bring over eccentric and experimental games once deemed ill-fated for American consumers; including Electroplankton (2005), a Western reimagining of the DS game Osu! Tatake! Ouendan! as Elite Beat Agents (2006), and later, Rhythm Heaven (2008).

But the frenzy proved short-lived. Sales from music games accounted for $1.7 billion in 2008, according to Rolling Stone. Just two years later, that number had dropped precipitously to $300 million.

Be it through market saturation, a lack of developer innovation, or consumers simply turning their attention to whatever new gaming trend was being pushed onto them by publishers: it appeared that the days of rhythm game market supremacy were over as soon as they arrived.

Indies Carry the Torch

While rhythm games continued to do well in Japan, especially in the mobile space, sales of rhythm games have stopped being the big-business, money-making machine they once were in North America. But lurking just below the surface—across various crowdfunding efforts, indie projects, and fervent fan bases—it's also obvious a movement has been brewing.

In April, the Kickstarter campaign for an expanded version of the rhythm game Friday Night Funkin’ raised over $2 million to fund development. Currently hosted for free on Newgrounds, the game’s frenetic descent of arrows will be familiar to players of Dance Dance Revolution or even its free PC clone Stepmania. But its original vocaloid music and low-poly aesthetic—reminiscent of early 2000’s internet-fare—are the things that set it apart.

The first version of Friday Night Funkin’ came about as the result of a game jam, says developer Cameron Taylor, better known online by the name ninjamuffin_99. Taylor and three others set out to make a game infused with all the personality and charisma they used to find in rhythm games like Parappa the Rapper. After its short development, Friday Night Funkin’ was released on itch.io in October of 2020. But soon the creative team prepared a more complete version: one they felt was finally ready for Newgrounds.

Newgounds holds a certain weight among the creators and users who frequented it during its most productive period in the early aughts. For kids like me, who grew up watching Flash videos on their dial-up internet, it was also the first place many of us experienced the kind of shared creativity now common in online spaces. The free-wheeling, anything-goes ethos of that early internet playground still feels special to many, but it's particularly felt by its active creator community today, who still view it as a wellspring of authenticity.

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“We love Newgrounds so much that we posted the itch version first, but only because it wasn’t good enough for Newgrounds yet,” says David "PhantomArcade" Brown, who handles animation and character designs for the game.

”If you're looking to actually meet people and have a good time making stuff, Newgrounds is the place to do it,” he adds.

In many ways, Friday Night Funkin’ is an attempt to recreate that moment of gonzo creativity. It’s also a return to the simple charm of early rhythm games, where rock-solid mechanics were complemented by a charming aesthetic. Brown argues that after the success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, rhythm games kept getting farther away from the core elements that made them work and lost their personality in the process. Rather than leading with great music, personality, and charm, rhythm games became better known for their ultra-challenging tests of a player’s reflexes. “To reinvent the wheel, people made things nicher and nicher,” he says. ”I remember looking at rhythm games that had come out in 2020 … it would make you weep with how bland and lifeless they are.”

That goal—returning rhythm games to their inventive roots—is a shared mission of other developers hoping to spur renewed interest in the genre. During a video essay delivered at last year’s Taipei Game Developer’s Forum, Hafiz Azman, a developer for 7th Beat Games and the lead designer of Rhythm Doctor, described his rhythm game as one defined by “constraints.” Inspired by Nintendo’s Rhythm Heaven, the game uses only one button, tasking players with hitting the spacebar on the seventh beat of a measure. He compared it to a one-shot film, or a piano piece played only with the left hand.

Despite its simple concept, the game quickly becomes complicated and challenging. Players are forced to master songs with irregular time signatures and off-kilter rhythms. The seemingly improvisational nature of Rhythm Doctor results in an experience that feels more musical than the almost arbitrary and prescriptive scrolling notes found in more traditional rhythm games like Guitar Hero.

The original prototype of Rhythm Doctor was released on Newgrounds in 2013 (interestingly enough, the Friday Night Funkin’ team says their game would not exist without the help of a programming tutorial that Azman posted on the website). When Azman submitted the game to an indie game festival that same year and won an award, it finally dawned on him that it could be formally released as a proper commercial project.

But publishers didn’t share his enthusiasm. In the same video essay, Azman describes how one publisher called the game “a bit limited in scope and gameplay.” Another veteran game designer told him he should stop working on the game entirely. Rhythm Doctor’s eventual Early Access release on Steam proved those early predictions wrong: it’s currently among the top 40 highest-rated games on the platform. Azman says the game has sold around 300,000 copies in Early Access, which according to blogger Adam Saltsman, is incredibly rare for an indie game.

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Azman’s experience is an alarming one. Publishers naturally have a need to be profitable; but when those same entities determine what is worthwhile based only on what has already been successful, the resulting feedback loop limits the collective imagination.

When “Guitar Hero, Rock Band, all that kind of stuff started declining, I think a lot of publishers saw that as like … the rhythm game genre is declining … so, therefore, we won't publish any rhythm games because it's risky,” Azman says.

“It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The Future of the Hybrid Rhythm Game

One could argue, however, that it’s the rhythm games that are most comfortable with breaking genre expectations that are now seeing renewed interest. Many rhythm games of the last decade have found wider appeal by having gameplay melded with that of other genres. Crypt of the Necrodancer (2015), which combines rogue-lite conventions with movement and combat inspired by rhythm games, was a genre mishmash so successful it inspired an official spin-off within The Legend of Zelda universe.

A number of recent rhythm games have also made other game design elements, such as story and adventure, central to their design. Wandersong (2018) bills itself as a “musical platforming adventure game with an emotional story.” Sayonara Wild Hearts calls itself a “dreamy arcade game about riding motorcycles, skateboarding, dance battling, shooting lasers, wielding swords, and breaking hearts at 200 mph,” and also relies on narrative and rhythm game conventions.

The developers of Unbeatable, another upcoming rhythm game and notable Kickstarter success, look to do something similar. Some of its mechanics are familiar, with the classic “press buttons in time with the music” gameplay. But the game also promises to tell an emotional story that leans heavily on world-building and narrative, with a complex dialogue system akin to what you’d find in visual novels.

Developer RJ Lake doesn’t find the pairing of story and rhythm gameplay as unconventional as you might think. He argues that the rhythm game genre has always been dependent on narrative for its power. PaRappa the Rapper, he says, is actually itself a story-driven game. “Since music is so key to the emotional resonance those stories have, it just makes sense to make music-based gameplay a core facet of narrative storytelling,” he says.

This era of the new and more fluid rhythm game, one that borrows from multiple genres and aims for a wider player base, could hint at what’s to come: especially since recent games like Cadence of Hyrule and Rhythm Doctor saw a substantial commercial and fan reception.

Andrew Tsai, an artist and developer for Unbeatable, has another theory for why that’s happening: Those who grew up with rhythm games at the height of their commercial power are now artists themselves.

”There's a huge number of people who grew up playing rhythm games, even just casually,” he says. “Now they have this idea in their mind that, ‘Oh, I had a lot of fun playing music games … what if I made my own?’”


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