Rhythm game refers to a genre of music-themed action video games. Games in the genre typically focus on dance or the simulated performance of musical instruments, and require players to press buttons in a sequence dictated on the screen. Doing so causes the game’s protagonist or avatar to dance or to play their instrument correctly, which increases the player’s score.
Many rhythm games include multiplayer modes in which players compete for the highest score or cooperate as a simulated musical ensemble. While conventional control pads may be used as input devices, rhythm games often feature novel game controllers that emulate musical instruments. Certain dance-based games require the player to physically dance on a mat, with pressure-sensitive pads acting as the input device.
The 1996 title ‘PaRappa the Rapper’ has been deemed the first influential rhythm game, whose basic template formed the core of subsequent games in the genre. In 1997, Konami’s ‘Beatmania’ sparked an emergent market for rhythm games in Japan. The company’s music division, Bemani, released a series of music-based games over the next several years. The most successful of these was the dance mat game ‘Dance Dance Revolution,’ which was the only Bemani title to achieve large-scale success outside of Japan. Imitations of DDR flooded the genre until the release of Harmonix’s ‘Guitar Hero,’ which was inspired by similar, earlier Japanese games. However, Harmonix added rock music aimed at a Western audience. The game revitalized the rhythm genre and spawned the hugely successful ‘Guitar Hero’ and ‘Rock Band’ franchises, whose popularity expanded the console video game market and its demographics. The games provided a new source of revenue for the artists whose music appeared on the soundtracks.
By 2008, rhythm games were considered to be one of the most popular video game genres, behind other action games. However, by 2009, the market was saturated by spin-offs from the core titles, which led to a nearly 50% drop in revenue for music game publishers. As a result, the companies scaled back plans for further expansion in 2010. Despite these setbacks, the rhythm game market continues to expand, introducing a number of danced-based games like ‘Just Dance’ and ‘Dance Central’ that incorporate the use of motion controllers and camera-based controls like the Kinect. Existing games also continue to thrive on new business models, such as the reliance on downloadable content to provide songs to players.
Games in the rhythm genre challenge the player to press buttons at precise times: the screen shows which button the player is required to press, and the game awards points both for accuracy and for synchronization with the beat. The genre also includes games that measure rhythm and pitch, in order to test a player’s singing ability, and games that challenge the player to control their volume by measuring how hard they press each button. While songs can be sight read, players usually practice to master more difficult songs and settings. Certain rhythm games offer a challenge similar to that of Simon says, in that the player must watch, remember, and repeat complex sequences of button-presses. Rhythm-action can take a minigame format with some games blending rhythm with other genres or entirely comprising minigame collections.
The rhythm game genre has been traced back to the electronic game ‘Simon,’ invented in 1978 by Ralph Baer (who created the Magnavox Odyssey) and Howard Morrison. The game originated the ‘call and response’ mechanic used by later rhythm video games, in which players take turns repeating increasingly complicated sequences of button presses. Human Entertainment’s ‘Dance Aerobics’ was released in 1987, and allows players to create music by stepping on Nintendo’s Power Pad peripheral for the NES; it has been called the first rhythm action video game. The 1996 title ‘PaRappa the Rapper’ has also been credited as the first rhythm game, and as one of the first music-based games in general. It requires players to press buttons in the order that they appear on the screen, a basic mechanic that formed the core of future rhythm games.
In 1997, Konami released the DJ-themed rhythm game ‘Beatmania’ in Japanese arcades. Its arcade cabinet features buttons similar to those of a musical keyboard, and a rubber pad that emulates a vinyl record. ‘Beatmania’ was a surprise hit, inspiring Konami’s Games and Music Division to change its name to Bemani in honor of the game, and to begin experimenting with other rhythm game concepts. Its successes include ‘GuitarFreaks,’ which features a guitar-shaped controller, and 1998’s ‘Pop’n Music,’ a game similar to ‘Beatmania’ in which multiple colorful buttons must be pressed. While the ‘GuitarFreaks’ franchise continues to receive new arcade releases in Japan, it was never strongly marketed outside of the country. This allowed Red Octane and Harmonix to capitalize on the formula in 2005 with the Western-targeted ‘Guitar Hero.’ In general, few Japanese arcade rhythm games were exported abroad because of the cost of producing the peripherals and the resulting increases in retail prices. The 1999 Bemani title ‘DrumMania’ featured a drum kit controller, and could be linked with ‘GuitarFreaks’ for simulated jam sessions. Similarly, this concept was later appropriated by Harmonix for their game ‘Rock Band.’
NanaOn-Sha, the creators of ‘PaRappa the Rapper,’ released ‘Vib-Ribbon’ in 1999. It eschews instrument-shaped controllers; instead, players maneuver the protagonist through an obstacle course by pressing buttons at correct times. The game’s levels are generated by the background music, which players may change by inserting audio CDs. While it was praised for its unique style and artistry, Vib-Ribbon’s simple vector graphics proved difficult to market, and the game was never released in North America. Bemani’s ‘Samba de Amigo,’ released in arcades in 1999 and on the Dreamcast in 2000, features maraca-shaped, motion sensitive controllers. The game allows for two-player gameplay, provides a spectacle for onlookers, and allows players to socialize while gaming.
In 2001, ‘Taiko no Tatsujin’ combined traditional Japanese drums with contemporary pop music, and became highly successful in Japanese arcades. The game was later released on consoles in the West as ‘Taiko Drum Master,’ and the franchise continues to receive new installments in Japan. ‘Gitaroo Man’ featured a guitar-playing protagonist four years before the release of Guitar Hero, though the game employed a conventional rather than guitar-shaped controller. Gitaroo Man’s creator, Keiichi Yano, later created ‘Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan,’ a rhythm game for the Nintendo DS that utilizes the handheld’s touchscreen features. It became a highly demanded import title, which led to the release of an altered version of the game in the West—’Elite Beat Agents’—and a sequel in Japan.
Harmonix was formed in 1995 from a computer music group at MIT. Beginning in 1998, the company developed music games inspired by ‘PaRappa the Rapper.’ In 2001, the company released ‘Frequency,’ which puts the player in control of multiple instrument tracks. ‘Frequency’ was critically acclaimed; however, marketing was made difficult by the game’s abstract style, which removed the player’s ability to perform for onlookers. In 2003, Harmonix followed up ‘Frequency’ with the similar ‘Amplitude.’ The company later released more socially driven, karaoke-themed music games in ‘Karaoke Revolution’ and ‘SingStar’ (2003 and 2004, respectively).
In 2005, Harmonix and the small publisher RedOctane released ‘Guitar Hero,’ a game inspired by Bemani’s GuitarFreaks. Harmonix followed ‘Guitar Hero’ with the ‘Rock Band’ franchise, which supports multiple instrument controllers and cooperative multiplayer, allowing players to play as a full band. The ‘Guitar Hero’ franchise followed suit with the band-oriented, Neversoft-developed ‘Guitar Hero World Tour.’ ‘Guitar Hero’ installments based on specific bands, such as Metallica and Aerosmith, were also published. Additional songs were made available for purchase via the Internet, which generated further revenue. Artists whose work is featured in the games receive royalties, and the increased publicity in turn generates further sales of their music.
Video game industry analysts considered 2009 to be a critical year for rhythm games, and they believed that it would allow them to gauge the future success of the genre. Both the ‘Guitar Hero’ and ‘Rock Band’ franchises were expanded, and they received entries for handheld gaming devices and mobile phones. Specialized titles that targeted specific genres and demographics, such as ‘Band Hero’ for pop music and ‘Lego Rock Band’ for younger players, were released. Sales of music games were down in the first half of the year. This decline was attributed to fewer purchases of instrument controllers; it was assumed that players had already bought such controllers and were reusing them. While analysts had expected that US sales of ‘Guitar Hero 5’ and ‘The Beatles: Rock Band’ would be high—close to or exceeding one million units each in the first month of their release—sales only reached roughly half of those projections.
The failure to meet sales projections was partly attributed to the impact of the late-2000s recession on the video game industry, but analysts also considered it to be a sign of market saturation. Further contributing to the decline was genre stagnation; the franchises retained the same basic gameplay over several iterations, giving consumers less incentive to buy additional titles. Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos felt that the aggressive competition between the ‘Rock Band’ and ‘Guitar Hero’ brands (on the belief that the market could only support one franchise) also contributed to the decline of these games. As a result, analysts lowered their expectations for future music games; for example, projections of first quarter U.S. sales of ‘DJ Hero,’ a ‘Guitar Hero’ spin-off, were reduced from 1.6 million units to only 600,000. Sales of rhythm games, which totaled $1.47 billion in 2008, reached only $700 million in 2009.
In 2010, rhythm game developers included new features in their products. For example, ‘Rock Band 3’ and ‘Power Gig: Rise of the SixString’ support guitar controllers with strings, and both contain modes that teach players accurate fingering. Despite this new content, sales of music games faltered in 2010. By the end of 2010, the rhythm market was considered ‘well past its prime,’ and developers shifted their focus to downloadable content and potential integration with motion control systems. With the introduction of motion controllers for the Xbox 360 (Kinect) and the PlayStation 3 (PlayStation Move) in 2010 and 2011, some analysts stated that the rhythm market would resurge thanks to dance- and band-based games that use platform-agnostic controllers. Dance games such as ‘Dance Central,’ ‘Michael Jackson: The Game,’ and ‘Child of Eden’ were based on the new motion sensing technology. Industry pundits believe that, because sales of peripheral-based music games are lagging and the popularity of pop music is surging, dance-based games will continue to thrive. Dance games such as ‘Just Dance’ and ‘Dance Central’ boosted the rhythm genre’s late-2010 sales.
Rhythm games have been used for health purposes. For example, research has found that dancing games dramatically increase energy expenditure over that of traditional video games, and that they burn more calories than walking on a treadmill. Scientists have further suggested that, due to the large amount of time children spend playing video games and watching television, games that involve physical activity could be used to combat obesity. According to ‘The New York Times,’ more than ‘several hundred schools in at least 10 states’ have used ‘Dance Dance Revolution’ (along with ‘In the Groove’) physical education curricula.
‘Guitar Hero’ games have been used alongside physical therapy to help recovering stroke patients, because of the multiple limb coordination that the titles require. Blondie drummer ‘Clem Burke’ has worked with researchers to determine how games like ‘Guitar Hero’ can address issues of ‘child and adult obesity, autism, stroke patients and health and mental well-being in the workplace.’ Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have used ‘Guitar Hero III’ and its controller to help amputee patients, and to develop new prosthetic limbs for these patients. Researchers at University of Nevada, Reno modified a haptic feedback glove to work with the ‘Guitar Hero’ freeware clone ‘Frets on Fire,’ resulting in ‘Blind Hero,’ a music game for visually impaired players that is played with only touch and audio. MIT students collaborated with the government of Singapore and a professor at the National University of Singapore to create ‘AudiOdyssey,’ a game which allows both blind and sighted gamers to play together.
‘Guitar Hero’ and ‘Rock Band’ have introduced people to rock music and inspired them to learn how to play the guitar. A study by ‘Youth Music’ found that 2.5 million out of 12 million children in the United Kingdom have begun learning how to play real instruments after playing music video games. The group believes that these video games can be incorporated into music educational programs. Guitar teachers in the US have reported an increase in students who cite ‘Guitar Hero’ as their inspiration to start learning. On the other hand, industry professionals, such the inventor of the Fretlight practice tool, have expressed scepticism over the game’s educational value. There is anecdotal evidence that ‘Guitar Hero’ aids rhythm and general hand-coordination, but also that it creates a false preconception of the difficulty of learning guitar, which can lead students to discontinue their studies.