It began with a dog and an onion.
Sure, NanaOn-Sha’s PaRappa the Rapper wasn’t the first video game to demand players sync button presses to a basic beat via on-screen prompts. For instance, the early Bandai dance mat peripheral-based game Aerobics Studio – a primitive NES precursor to the likes of Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution – was first released in Japan in 1987 and handily pre-dates PaRappa. It wasn’t the first to intrinsically weave music into the core of the game itself, either, as anyone who had the misfortune of, say, waking up during 1992 and unwrapping a copy of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch: Make My Video can probably attest.
But Aerobics Studio is overtly an exercise game set to some bleeps and bloops, and the Make My Video trio of FMV games (INXS, Kris Kross, and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, all released in 1992) are famously regarded as some of the worst ever inflicted upon humanity.
If you’re really looking for the flame that truly lit the rhythm game fuse – a genre that would later go on to become one of the most lucrative in the industry throughout the mid- to late 2000s – look no further than this love-struck, two-dimensional dog and his onion-headed karate mentor.
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Development for PaRappa the Rapper began in 1994, just after the original PlayStation was announced. It was launched in Japan in 1996 and a worldwide release followed in 1997. Created by Japanese music producer Masaya Matsuura and American graphic artist Rodney Greenblat, PaRappa the Rapper was a game like no other that had come before it.
It was so unique, in fact, that Matsuura himself wasn’t even sure it was a game – and, according to him, neither were some of the folks at Sony when it came time to promote and publish it. With the initial production run for PaRappa the Rapper in the tens of thousands, Matsuura hadn’t anticipated it being particularly successful.
PaRappa the Rapper’s quirky charm and catchy songs caught on, however, and after a slow start it became one of Japan’s best-selling games of 1997. It was awarded Platinum status – the designation Sony historically bestowed upon games selling over one million copies – in 1998. Matsuura, Greenblat, and the NanaOn-Sha crew had crafted something that successfully struck a chord with gamers, establishing the bones of the structure of most modern rhythm games in the process – that is, tapping indicated buttons in time with music. A simple formula, no doubt, but an accessible and addictive one. It worked.
NanaOn-Sha followed the success of PaRappa the Rapper with UmJammer Lammy in 1999 (a spin-off that traded raps for rock riffs) and Vib Ribbon in 2000 (a rhythm-based musical platformer with simple vector graphics and the ability to generate levels from your own CDs). However, by the time PaRappa the Rapper 2 emerged on PS2 in 2001, a rhythm revolution was well underway.
Rhythm games focusing on dancing had begun to combine the concepts pioneered by Aerobics Studio with PaRappa’s clear and elegant interface, and Sega’s Samba de Amigo – which debuted in arcades in late 1999 and appeared on Dreamcast in 2000 – required players to shake a pair of maracas in time with the music. However, it was Konami – which sauntered to the stage in the late ’90s with its DJ-themed rhythm game Beatmania – that would take things up a notch.
Konami quickly shadowed Beatmania with a pair of guitar and drum equivalents: GuitarFreaks and DrumMania. These peripheral-based Japanese arcade cabinets have been rocking Japanese arcades for the past two decades, and Konami has released new editions of the series every year since 1999. GuitarFreaks and DrumMania ultimately didn’t make much of a global dent as home console ports, but their instrument-shaped controllers and vertically-scrolling on-screen button commands would be the blueprint for the next big thing in music games, unequivocally paving the way for the plastic instrument tsunami soon to follow.
Danger Is Go
The stratospheric rise of rhythm gaming in the mid-2000s would ultimately come courtesy of a little-known Boston, Massachusetts-based company called Harmonix. However, while the studio’s success would ultimately come from building upon the foundation formed by Konami’s peripheral-based arcade cabinets, it didn’t come instantly.
Established in 1995, Harmonix has spent the last two-and-a-half decades devising ways to allow non-musicians to experience the joy of creating music. Harmonix’s first product was a joystick-based “music improvisation system” for PC called The Axe that reportedly sold only around 300 copies, but the studio’s failure with this project led them to look towards the Japanese karaoke market. When this didn’t work out either, however, Harmonix pivoted instead to examining the ideas established by Japanese studios with the likes of PaRappa the Rapper and Beatmania and finding ways of bringing this brand of music gameplay to the West.
2001’s Frequency and its 2003 sequel Amplitude, both for PS2, were Harmonix’s first real attempts at riffing on the burgeoning rhythm genre. By blasting gems as they scrolled down the screen, players could activate the separate instrument tracks of a song. The gameplay was similar to Konami’s brand of rhythm action but they didn’t utilise bespoke controllers – players used Sony’s standard DualShock2. Neither game was a massive commercial hit, although each secured a keen cult following and plenty of critical acclaim. Crucially, however, they made Harmonix the most visible developer of music games in the West.
First, Harmonix caught Konami’s eye; the studio became the initial developer of Konami’s Karaoke Revolution series. Karaoke Revolution arrived in North America in late 2003, a few months before Sony’s own singing sensation SingStar hit various PAL territories in mid-2004. The first-party muscle of Sony would ultimately see SingStar become the preeminent karaoke game series – especially in Europe and Oceania; the series was a monster hit shifting dozens of different editions in various languages and moving mountains of microphones into PlayStation 2 households.
However, Harmonix’s work on Karaoke Revolution had already attracted the attention of California-based games and gaming accessory business RedOctane, a California-based games business that was already producing third-party accessories, like dance mats, for existing music games. It was to be this partnership that would crank the music game business up to 11.
More Than a Feeling
The proposal from RedOctane was simple: If RedOctane built a guitar controller, Harmonix would build a guitar game. No-one knew if bringing a GuitarFreaks-style game West was going to work but, nevertheless, it was the kind of game Harmonix had been champing at the bit to make – and the opportunity had arrived.
The original Guitar Hero arrived in November 2005 to immediate acclaim and strong sales. Featuring 30 tracks covering 50 years of rock (plus a handful of bonus songs, primarily from indie bands that Harmonix developers were either part of, or knew), Guitar Hero was a runaway success. It blazed the trail for a brand-new era of what was to become a billion-dollar business. Striking while the iron was steaming hot, Guitar Hero II followed the very next year. With even more songs than the original (plus bass and rhythm parts, to encourage purchases of a second guitar peripheral), the wildly-popular Guitar Hero II eclipsed the acclaim of the original and went on to become one of the highest-rated games on PS2.
In barely a year Guitar Hero had become a cultural phenomenon, though Activision had already seen the profit potential; it acquired RedOctane and the Guitar Hero brand (but not Harmonix) in the lead-up to Guitar Hero II’s release, in June 2006. A few months later media juggernaut Viacom scooped up Harmonix and placed it under its MTV wing. With RedOctane and Harmonix now under separate ownership, the rapidly-assembled follow-up to Guitar Hero II (Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s, released in mid-2007 and just eight months after Guitar Hero II) would be Harmonix’s last Guitar Hero game.
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock followed quickly in late 2007 and, despite the diminishing gap between instalments, the series showed no sign of slowing down just yet. Assembled by Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater veterans Neversoft, Guitar Hero III maintained the basic formula but was stuffed with over 70 songs (most of them master tracks performed by the actual bands, rather than covers), online multiplayer, and even appearances from rock legends like Slash and Tom Morello.
According to Activision, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock was the best-selling game of 2007, both in terms of units sold and dollar sales, but the good news for Guitar Hero just kept coming. In January 2008 Activision confirmed the Guitar Hero series had raked in over a billion dollars in sales in North America alone. In January 2009 it was announced that Guitar Hero III had hit a cool billion in dollar sales by itself.
According to Activision it was the first single video game to do so.
Here It Goes Again
But let’s jump back to 2007. Since parting ways with RedOctane, Harmonix had immediately begun heating up its Guitar Hero rival – a game that would ultimately go head-to-head with the series Harmonix had previously helped establish.
Rock Band, released in November 2007, was a fusion of Harmonix’s original Guitar Hero vision, its work with Konami on Karaoke Revolution, and Konami’s own DrumMania. The result was something immense – both in the size of the retail box and the success that followed. Augmenting the massively popular Guitar Hero gameplay with the crowd-pleasing appeal of karaoke games (and tossing drums into the mix for good measure) created a co-op experience truly like no other.
The multi-instrument gameplay was praised by critics and fans flocked to it en masse; sales of four million were reported for the first year alone.
It helped that the Rock Band ecosystem was also an incredibly strong one. Harmonix’s ongoing commitment to regular DLC meant new songs were available on a weekly basis, and the ability to export disc-based set-lists to your console meant songs could be carried from previous editions of the games and into the sequels; a player’s whole library of songs was available in one place.
Guitar Hero was never quite able to match Rock Band’s all-in-one elegance in this department, but it did immediately pivot to emulate Rock Band’s multi-instrument approach with Guitar Hero: World Tour in late 2008. The cracks, however, were already beginning to show; initial US sales of Guitar Hero: World Tour were less than half those achieved by Guitar Hero III in the same time frame.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
The steady salvo of rhythm games that filled the end of the decade saturated the marketplace. Beyond the widely-celebrated Rock Band 2 in 2008 and 2010’s Rock Band 3 – which added keyboards – Harmonix squeezed several side-projects into the mix, including a LEGO-themed Rock Band game and AC/DC’s famous Live at Donington album (which found its way to the Rock Band series as a standalone expansion). Green Day and The Beatles also received dedicated Rock Band experiences. The Beatles: Rock Band is actually regarded by many as one of the most artistically striking and achingly reverent music games ever made – and it sold well over two million copies – but the tide was still turning.
Outside of Guitar Hero V (2009) and Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock (2010), Aerosmith, Metallica, and Van Halen each got a Guitar Hero game to call their own before the decade was out. Activision also dabbled with several other music projects, including the bafflingly-titled Top-40-focussed Band Hero in 2009, plus a pair of DJ-themed spin-offs that shipped with their own bespoke, Beatmania-inspired turntable peripheral: 2009’s DJ Hero, and DJ Hero 2 in 2010.
However, music game sales dropped around 50 per cent in 2009, and even more the following year. On top of this, Activision was facing legal trouble from Courtney Love for the tone-deaf decision to allow an avatar of the late Kurt Cobain to be displayed in Guitar Hero V comically miming songs performed by other artists, and No Doubt took similar issue with their appearance in Band Hero.
In early 2010, Activision shuttered RedOctane. In late 2010, Viacom offloaded Harmonix to a private investor and the studio became independent again. In early 2011, four months after Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock fizzled, Activision put the series on ice and Neversoft’s GH development team was disbanded.
From 2000 to 2009, five out of the top 20 best-selling games in the US by dollar sales were rhythm games – including three out the top five. Guitar Hero III was number one, and Rock Band was number three. These games captured the imaginations of a broad spectrum of gamers and were incredibly lucrative for several years.
But then, almost as suddenly as it arrived, music mania was over.
Still Into You
But while the rhythm sector had run its course as a fad, it certainly never went extinct. Rather, it simply returned to servicing its loyal base of diehard fans – both the ones that had been playing since PaRappa dropped his first rhymes back in the ’90s and those that had been enchanted along the way by the genre’s ability to democratise the art of music-making for everybody, regardless of their actual musical ability.
Harmonix supported the Rock Band series with 275 consecutive weeks of additional DLC songs, until 2013. After a two-year hiatus it released Rock Band 4 for PS4 and Xbox One and allowed returning players to re-download all their previously purchased PS3 and Xbox 360 songs and disc exports to their new consoles, free-of-charge. Rock Band 4 DLC continues to be released every week, five years after the game’s launch. From Fantasia: Music Evolved to the upcoming Fuser, Harmonix has not stopped making music game experiences.
Ubisoft appeared to arrive late to the party, debuting Rocksmith in 2011 (the finger pickin’ good follow-up, Rocksmith 2014, was released in 2013 – and Rocksmith 2014 Remastered was released in 2016 for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4). Rocksmith differs from Guitar Hero and Rock Band by allowing users to plug in their own electric guitars to play along and learn the tracks. Rocksmith carved out a well-deserved reputation as a respected music instruction tool over the decade, and its epic run of 383 weeks of song releases only came to an end in April this year.
VR has also emerged as an intriguing space for rhythm games over the past several years, with Thumper, Audioshield, Beat Saber, and many more. VR is a thriving area of experimentation in highly-immersive and regularly brain-bending rhythm experiences.
While it seems extremely unlikely rhythm games will ever see the kind of spike in immense popularity they enjoyed in the late 2000s again, this last decade has proven they’re equally unlikely to ever go away.
The tempo may have changed, but the beat goes on.
Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. He’s a mediocre pianist and a rubbish guitarist but he still owns more plastic instruments than real ones. You can find him on Twitter sporadically @MrLukeReilly.