Stuff You Should Know: A Brief History of Video Games That Rock

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As video gaming’s fastest growing genre ever, music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band barnstormed the charts to the tune of $1.7 billion in 2008, transforming the face of pop culture and turning legions of pasty, tone-deaf teens into virtual rock gods overnight. Following a 46% sales crash which single-handedly took the games industry’s fortunes with it just one year later though, they just as quickly became the butt of late-night talk show jokes, and a cautionary business fable.

But with all due respect to those late to the party, which neither begins with freestyling pastel dogs nor ends with synchronized teams of plus-sizers two-stepping to Dance Dance Revolution, that’s just one chapter in a long, rich and equally fun and f*cked up history. Since the very beginning of interactive entertainment, when the Atari 2600 first emerged from the primordial ooze to permanently screw any chance countless kids had at becoming productive, well-adjusted citizens, let it be known – there was rock.

Of course, it looks to critics as if the genre is alternately dying, dead or on life support, with sales falling, plastic instruments increasingly hitting the scrapheap and gamers moving on to other popular categories en masse. But shh, don’t tell haters: As the following titles – among the best, worst and most inexplicably bizarre to grace rhythm gaming’s evolutionary 8-track – reveal, it’s a little premature to write the field off as yet another one-hit wonder yet…

1983 – Journey

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Behind The Music: Riding high on 1983’s No. 2-charting Frontiers album and with spirits undoubtedly buoyed by one of the music industry’s first sponsorship deals (with Budweiser), the San Francisco balladeers were tapped by coin-operated amusement staple Bally Midway to computerize their brand of corporate rock. The setup: controlling band members with cartoon torsos and black-and-white photos for heads, the player avoids or blasts glowing alien adversaries while collecting instruments to be rewarded with an animated concert complete with a cassette player-fueled rendition of “Separate Ways.”

Having been named one of Game Informer magazine’s Top 10 Worst Licensed Game Ideas Ever, we can only assume editors hadn’t played Data Age’s Journey Escape for Atari 2600—released a scant year earlier, this home console counterpart, also inexplicably set in space, saw you fighting intergalactic groupies (read: hearts with legs) and promoters (floating heads) with the help of roadies in hopes of reaching your insect-like spaceship. Seriously.

Why It Rocks: Purely for permanently setting the quality bar for hard-rockin’ videogame cash-ins somewhere around Mariana Trench level, a proud tradition that’s still alive and well today (Lady Gaga Revenge, anyone?). The cosmic irony is that both Journey outings feature snippets of Don’t Stop Believing—after roughly 90 seconds playing either game, we only wish it were that easy.

Did You Know: Journey was the first ever example of a band being given its own licensed videogame—previously, only pinball tables had played host to such branding. One might argue that the title paved the way for every other band appearance, or interactive tribute (e.g. Green Day: Rock Band, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, etc.) since.

1984 – Break Dance

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Behind The Music: California Games wasn’t even a twinkle in daddy Epyx’s eyes when the company first offered Commodore 64 owners the chance to do the worm by using joystick inputs to repeat back computerized dancers’ moves.

Why It Rocks: As primitive as popping-and-locking may seem here, it nonetheless kicked open the door for game makers to shine the light on musical subcultures, not just songs (a method later to be explored in titles like B-Boy and Def Jam: Fight for New York). Besides, as rudimentary as the animation is, every move looks like you’re doing the robot.

Did You Know: The most recent game to bring breakdancing to videogames was Red Bull BC One for the Nintendo DS, which sees players drawing geometric shapes on the touch screen in order to recreate breakdance moves in one-on-one street battles. The game is licensed from the official Red Bull Breakdance Championship, which takes place every year. Also, new Commodore 64 computers with familiar old-school, chunky beige styling but modern-day PC hardware inside are now available, in case you want to compare the original Break Dance using a software emulator such as Frodo or C64 Forever.

1985 – Frankie Goes to Hollywood

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Behind The Music: Launched on British home computers, this offbeat adventure saw you playing mini-games, solving murders and otherwise attempting to escape life as a boring, nondescript sod on Liverpool’s streets. Admittance to the fabled Pleasuredome—your ultimate goal—came at a price though: Specifically, having to boost your sex, war, love and religion attributes, each statistic inspired by ciphers on the dance-pop staple’s album covers.

Why It Rocks: Hailed as a classic across the pond, it helped break down barriers for independent game makers and was amongst the first titles to dabble with symbolism (a prelude to later offerings like Peter Gabriel’s EVE and Devo’s Adventures Of The Smart Patrol). Further reflecting the free-spirited, DIY design ethos that defined the early-‘80s garage coder era—seriously, nearly a quarter-century on, we’re still left clueless by what it all means—it additionally proves the band’s mantra of “Relax, don’t do it” also applies to hallucinogens.

Did You Know: The original ZX Spectrum version of the game came packaged with an extra cassette featuring a live version of the hit single Relax. Frankie says, “Hell yeah!”

1987 – Otocky

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Behind the Music: Released only for the Famicom Disc System in Japan, Otocky was a side-scrolling shooter that let the player fire in eight directions, with each direction producing a different note. In this way, the player could essentially become a composer and add their own beats to the background music, making this an early preface to later music creation studios such as MTV Music Generator, Traxxpad and Beaterator.

Why It Rocks: Think generative music content is a modern-day thing? Think again. While Rez gets most of the credit for allowing players to directly influence the background music through their actions, Otocky—which does exactly the same thing—predates it by 15 years.

Did You Know: The man responsible for creating Otocky, Toshio Iwai, was also behind Nintendo’s quirky music creation “game” Electroplankton.

1990 – Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker

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Behind The Music: A Smooth Criminal-era arcade and Genesis title that saw the skull-faced, androgynous albino King of Pop shimmying it out with suited thugs to rescue kidnapped children, way before the concept became so ironic.

Why It Rocks: You mean apart from an inexplicable cameo by Bubbles the chimp, who turns you into a laser-spewing robot? Surprisingly enjoyable to play and featuring MJ’s direct creative input in the development, it showed that with a little TLC, even the strangest SoundScan spin-off could (gasp!) occasionally be good. It was also a forerunner for Jacko’s involvement in other games such as Space Channel 5 and the posthumously created motion-controlled dance and karaoke simulator, Michael Jackson: The Experience.

Did You Know: Jackson also turned up as an unlockable character in Midway’s boxing title Ready 2 Rumble: Round 2. Oddly, there was no dancing involved, only punching.

1994 – Revolution X

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Behind The Music: Packing a full-size machine gun in the arcade (or a SNES/Genesis/PC controller for the home version), players overthrow the fun-squashing New Order Nation regime and save Aerosmith in a series of mind-numbing shooting gallery engagements.

Why It Rocks: Educational value at best. After all, what other game teaches us the dangers of hyperbole (CDs and laserdiscs double as grenades), poor contractual negotiation (Steven Tyler’s contributions mostly include shrieks of “Don’t give uuuuupp!”) and the danger of filtering social commentary through the marketing department’s eyes (enemies are led by the sunglasses and leather bustier-sporting dominatrix Headmistress Helga)?

Did You Know: The lady who played Headmistress Helga, Kerri Hoskins, also played the role of Sonya Blade in several Mortal Kombat games, as well as on the live Mortal Kombat tour.

1997 – PaRappa the Rapper

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Behind The Music: A far cry from what was going on with PCs at the time, this quirky PSOne Japanese import challenged players, as the titular paper doll pooch, to bust-a-move by pressing buttons in time to featured beats. Do it correctly and you drop mad science on onion-headed martial arts masters, moose driving instructors, Rastafarian frogs and chickens that pass for chefs. Captivating domestic audiences with its sing-song vibe, hypnotic play and psychedelic cardboard cutout aesthetic, it’s still one of the freshest interactive approximations of MCing hip-hop heads will find.

Why It Rocks: PaRappa brought the “rhythm game” category home to North American shores, which eventually gave birth to countless hip-wiggling rivals from Unison to Bust-A-Groove.

Did You Know: PaRappa The Rapper creator Masaya Matsuura was previously the head of a Japanese progressive rock band (or “pop unit” as he labels it) called Psy•S. Formed in 1983, they had a number of hit records before disbanding in 1996 (three years after Matsuura had formed his own game development studio, NanaOn-Sha).

1999 – Dance Dance Revolution

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Behind The Music: The arcade game that inspired a cultural revolution and pioneered active gaming over a decade before motion controls made Dance Central or Just Dance household names. Standing on a virtual dance stage, the player works up a rhythm and then steps, jumps and twists in time to floating arrow icons and J-Pop hits, hopefully performing something resembling an actual rump-shaking routine. Still a hot property even after more than a decade, new versions are hitting consoles and arcades regularly to keep the time-honored tradition of couch potato choreography going strong.

Why It Rocks: DDR has touched our society in so many ways, it’s amazing. It inspired local and national dance competitions; muscled its way into gyms nationwide; spawned a generation of footloose tweens who could contort like pretzels at the local Dave & Buster’s but barely shoulder lean otherwise; spawned over 100 hernia-inducing sequels/spin-offs; inspired numerous rivals like Pump It Up and In the Groove; and gave us all something to gawk at. Plus, it was actually adopted by states like West Virginia as part of state PE programs to combat childhood obesity, a marked step up from ego-crushing kickball competitions and those damn thigh-chafing ropes.

Did You Know: Playing DDR while holding the rear guard bar (which is there to prevent you from falling of the back of the machine) to improve balance and increase foot speed is known as “bar raping.” It’s also massively looked down on by experienced players and makes you look like a bit of an idiot.

2001 – Rez

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Behind The Music: Enter a surreal, vector graphics representation of cyberspace and clear it of viruses by using a targeting reticle to highlight enemies and dispatch them in a psychedelic spray of colored light and shapes. Ever-present house music rounds out the experience’s peyote-tinged favor, which players can currently experience as Rez HD on the Xbox 360.

Why It Rocks: One of the earliest games obviously intended to be played under the influence, Rez’s use of synesthesia (the stimulation of various senses through a single sensory input; in this case, sound) is well documented. It also integrated support for the Trance Vibrator, a USB gizmo that shuddered and pulsed in time with the soundtrack, further prompting several fans to conduct well-publicized experiments in masturbation. Happily, Child of Eden, a trippy motion controlled shooter for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 that’s compatible with Microsoft’s Kinect gesture-tracking camera and acts as a spiritual sequel to Rez, has yet to inspire similar results. Wet wipe, anyone?

Did You Know: THQ’s de Blob (2008) on Wii similarly uses synesthesia in its gameplay; as Blob paints buildings, different colored paints create different musical effects that can be layered on top of one another when applied in sequence.

2005 – Guitar Hero

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Behind The Music: Not heard of Guitar Hero? What planet have you been living on? It’s a $2 billion franchise that’s sold over 25 million units worldwide and spawned piles of spin-offs including dedicated tributes to bands like Aerosmith and Metallica, not to mention the likes of Band Hero and DJ Hero. The series also scored chart-topping adaptations for nearly every platform from Nintendo DS to mobile phones, once enjoyed a cult-like following amongst teens and twenty-somethings and even boasts entire South Park episodes devoted to its charms. That said then, you could be forgiven for forgetting that prior to launch, the dynamo which sparked an entire industry was once just a risky, unproven gamble from RedOctane, a little-known manufacturer of dance pad peripherals and dabbler in online video game rentals.

Why It Rocks: Guitar Hero turned the nation’s youth into drooling vidiots, single-handedly built today’s fastest-growing game category and potentially helped save rock through the sale of online music. But despite being directly responsible for the last decade’s fastest-growing (and collapsing) gaming genre, the title once-hailed as the music industry’s possible savior has sadly been placed on temporary hiatus by now-owner Activision. While the publisher insists that reports of the franchise’s death have been greatly exaggerated though, it’s still sad to see the former king of the castle being left to rot in the dungeon. Thankfully, there’s still hope for a rebirth via online, social and downloadable platforms.

Did You Know: In a list of top grossing games published since 1995 released by NPD in March 2011, Guitar Hero 3: Legends Of Rock came out on top with life-to-date sales of $830.9 million—more than the Call of Duty games—and that’s not including revenues earned from additional downloadable content.

2007 – Rock Band

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Behind The Music: The first game to combine all aspects of the virtual music-making experience (singing, pounding drums, playing guitar or plucking bass) was also the initial offering to deliver peripherals for all (including microphone, plastic drum set and faux axe) in one kit. In total, over 100 million digital songs have been downloaded for the Rock Band family of games, with more than 2700 tracks from 900 artists including Metallica, The Ramones and Fleetwood Mac available across all retail and downloadable installments, including digital distribution platform the Rock Band Network. Thousands of masters, re-recordings or alternate tracks (all playable) by artists like Rush and Weezer, not to mention countless fans — who can perform as cohesive four-man bands online — should ensure that it remains the default house party icebreaker of choice for years to come.

Why It Rocks: Providing the now-defunct MTV Games a then-marquee entrée into the gaming universe, it also laid the foundations for groundbreaking tributes (The Beatles: Rock Band), cutting-edge online innovations (Rock Band Network) and future motion-controlled games (Dance Central) to come.

Did You Know: The runaway success of Rock Band is obviously the downloadable content store, which, at its peak, was estimated to generate one million song downloads every nine days. An example of how popular it is can be seen in Motley Crüe’s “Saints of Los Angeles”—released as a single simultaneously on both the Rock Band Store and iTunes, first week sales were 34,000 higher in Rock Band’s favor. According to Harmonix, nearly 5 million people have downloaded songs from the Rock Band catalogue, and more than a million players still sign in each month to play the game and purchase new music.

2009 – The Beatles: Rock Band

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Behind The Music: A groundbreaking collaboration between music channel MTV, leading developer Harmonix, Apple Corps and surviving members of the Beatles camp (including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison’s wife/son Olivia and Dani, and hanger-on Yoko Ono), this was to be interactive entertainment’s Abbey Road. Sadly, despite launching to widespread critical acclaim and sporting dizzying production values, family-friendly play and dozens of definitive, career-spanning songs from “A Hard Day’s Night” to “Can’t Buy Me Love,” it struggled to go multiplatinum. Developer Harmonix had hoped to single-handedly grow the size of the music game market with it, but it failed to move both Baby Boomers and Gen X/Yers en masse compared with previous titles. That said, it remains a fan favorite and well-respected testament to the best the genre has to offer.

Why It Rocks: It’s the ultimate tribute, packed full of loving care and attention—there’s previously unheard studio asides of the boys talking before many of the tracks, and each song has its own unique setting that just screams the Beatles style from the time. It was also the first Rock Band title to introduce three-way harmonies on the vocals and, if you were so inclined, you could use the in-built drum trainer to learn just how Ringo managed to do the things he do… er, did.

Did You Know: Ringo Starr’s unique drumming ability was made possible thank to the fact that he’s ambidextrous. If you’re not, consider the Expert drums of The Beatles: Rock Band off-limits… unless you like failure, of course.

2009 – DJ Hero

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Behind The Music: Never has the phrase “spin-off” been more apt—DJ Hero took the foundations laid by Guitar Hero and applied them to the art of the disc jockey. Nearly 100 remixes, mash-ups and other tracks brought multiple tunes together, with players having to push buttons, move a cross-fader and scratch the custom-made plastic turntable controller in order to score points. True, it didn’t look as complex as the guitar game (it only had three colored streams instead of five), but then appearances were more than a little deceptive…

Why It Rocks: Besides taking a successful formula and doing something interesting with it, you can now pick up a full controller with the original game (or even the sequel) for less than a third of what it originally retailed for. Thanks to the franchise failing to do anywhere near as well as Activision hoped—a problem it blamed on the lagging music game market, not on the fact that it had managed to create yet another $100+ product for people to buy—anyone with a bit of shop savvy can find the entire package for hardly any money these days. Shame, really, but then we’re not complaining.

Did You Know: Despite sales falling well short of what Activision expected, the publisher still claimed that DJ Hero was the highest grossing new intellectual property (IP) of 2009. Of course, when your game’s selling for $120 a pop, that’s not surprising; even low sales would have meant it made a ton of cash.

2010 – Dance Central

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Behind The Music: Does for dancing games what Rock Band did for music games (which is to say, it totally redefined how we saw them). Of course, much of that’s down to Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral, for which Dance Central was a leading launch title—the motion-tracking camera meant players could do away with dance mats, waggle controllers and other things that were previously required for dancing games, leaving them with just their bodies to do the poppin’ with. As the on-screen character performs moves, you simply replicate the move in time with the music… although as you might suspect, that makes the process sound far easier than it actually is.

Why It Rocks: Previously, dancing games didn’t actually require much dancing—the likes of Dance Dance Revolution hinged on hitting oversized buttons with your feet, while Just Dance could be played from any sofa simply by waving one arm around. Dance Central, however, doesn’t work unless you actually dance. Granted, that makes the level of challenge slightly higher, although there’s a fair amount of leeway allowed on the lower difficulties. That said though, even a few songs played back-to-back leave the average player sweating buckets—who said playing games wasn’t good for you?

Did You Know: Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America’s president, appears to be a fan of Dance Central, having cited it as “the best Kinect game” in his opinion. We suspect he plays it in between kicking ass and taking names.

2011 – Rocksmith

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Behind The Music: Looks like Ubisoft didn’t get the memo about games utilizing hefty peripherals being supposedly dead in the water: The soon to be released Rocksmith takes the opposite approach, as a music game that’s only playable using real guitars. And yes, we mean the real McCoy; not some pointless piece of plastic styled up to resemble an actual axe, but literally ANY real guitar with a standard quarter-inch jack on the end.

Why It Rocks: Supposedly, Rocksmith automatically adjusts to the player’s skill level, thereby acting as a guitar teacher by offering up challenges appropriate to your actual talent. It sounds great in theory, but whether it works in practice is another matter—the final product has yet to ship, giving you a chance to prep in the meantime as millions traditionally have before, e.g. twanging away poorly to Led Zeppelin covers.

Did You Know: Contrary to Ubisoft’s claims, Rocksmith isn’t the first game capable of using real instruments to interact with the music—that honor went to Power Gig in 2010. As is evident by the fact that, if you pick up the book, you’ll find it hiding in our Worst Music Games section though, well… It was pretty much complete rubbish.

Excerpted from Music Games Rock: Rhythm Gaming’s Greatest Hits of All Time (2011, Power Play Publishing) – 100% free to download at www.MusicGamesRock.com, also available on iBooks and Kindle ($2.99) and in paperback ($24.99) editions.

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