Music Games Hit a Sour Note

Music Games Hit a Sour Note

Contemporary music video games have failed us.

A genre with plenty of untapped potential has devolved from games with plots and quirky characters/graphical elements to a genre stripped down to colored symbols, and heavy reliance on turn-a-quick-buck DLC. And it’s infinitely frustrating.

I love Guitar Hero/Rock Band/ DJ Hero as much as the next guy who’s always held fantasies of wearing tight jeans, lace, and some form of animal print, but whenever I see a video game news site post the weekly DLC releases, I can taste my own bile. The music video game genre isn’t just drowning in the RIAA’s profits–the lack of innovation is wrecking a potentially unique gaming segment.

That’s not to say that music games of yesteryear were radically different from today’s offerings. To the contrary, they all used timed button presses to help players keep the rhythm. However, earlier music video games added slick coatings so that the content appeared far more robust, as well as features that have yet to make appearances in today’s music video games.

parapper the rapper

For example, Parappa the Rapper‘s timed button presses are similar to those found in Guitar Hero/Rock Band/DJ Hero, but presented an awfully cute rapping narrative and Colorforms-like visuals that overflowed with high charm (the same formula that it’s sequel/spinoff UmJammer Lammy closely followed).

Space Channel 5 retained that core gameplay, but by removing the rhythm icons, utilizing a variety of camera angles, and focusing more on You Got Served-styled dance-offs, it feels fresher than any modern music video game even 10 years after its original release. Still, Space Channel 5 added something new to the genre by introducing backup musicians that could join your outter space funk posse and remix the track when you did a good job of cutting the rug. Bust A Groove, which pre-dated Space Channel 5, took the dance off concept to the next level by adding fighting game elements to the mix in a way that hasn’t been done since.

space channel 5

What do we have now? Games with plastic guitars, turntables, drumsets, and mics that blur the line between video gaming and real musicianship. That’s not bad by any means, as it’s catering to the masses’ inner rock star, but the big boys are stifling creativity by increasingly moving toward realism and away from inventiveness. This recycled gameplay may have been one of the contributing factors in DJ Hero and Beatles Rock Band‘s less-than-stellar sales. Still, there’s some glitter of hope in the music game genre and the kickstarter may be the Microsoft Kinect.

Harmonix is moving beyond the same old and aging formula with Dance Central, which is Dance Dance Revolution evolved. I had an opportunity to demo the game at a recent Microsoft event, and I was thoroughly amazed at how the Kinect was able to pick up my body movements as I matched an onscreen dancer step-for-step as we grooved through BBD’s “Poison.” It truly has the potential to knock DDR far out of the box by adding backup dancers (hopefully they’ll impact the game similar to Space Channel 5) and eliminating dance mats.

Also on the horizon is Children of Eden, an upcoming Xbox 360 rhythm action game from Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the creator of awesome music-shooter Rez. This spiritual successor to Rez fuses music, shooting, and in the case of the Kinect version, motion, to push the genre’s boundaries. Although details are still a bit scarce regarding Ubisoft’s upcoming The Michael Jackson Experience, players get to sing-and-dance to the King of Pop’s greatest tunes without using an accessory.

The answer to the music game conundrum lies in the past. Companies need to look at at worked then, tweak it with contemporary sensibilities, utilize the latest technologies, and craft more than me-too versions of chart-topping games. Otherwise, the music video game genre will be as zombified as the industry that fuels it.

About Jeffrey L. Wilson
Jeffrey L. Wilson’s electronics love has lead to nerd-related gigs with E-Gear, Laptop, LifeStyler, Parenting, PC Magazine, Sync, Wise Bread, and WWE. The founder also hosts the Bits and Bytes video game meetup. You can find him at a bar sampling foreign beers, or on Twitter doing twittery things.


  1. I found the new game from Masaya Matsuura “Winta” pretty nice and the idea behind it also refreshing.
    And not to forget this little game:

    There is a lot of small games getting made on the side, watch for a rebirth.

Leave a Reply