Parappa the Rapper Vs. The Black Eyed Peas?: The Rhythm Action genre

Written on the back cover:

Experience the World’s Hottest Dance Party!

Your crew controls onscreen avatars as you dance with the Peas!
Includes Chart-Topping Tracks:
I Gotta Feeling ~ Boom Boom Pow ~ Imma Be
And Many More!

  • Learn the steps easily with seamless coaching!
  • Customize your avatar with your own style!

….All right then?
Have we seen enough?
I thought so….

There are many things I found offensive about this game, as I read the back of it. But more than anything else, it offended me to realize how incredibly lazy some game developers have gotten. I’m focusing on the rhythm action genre in particular because, for me, it is where the trend is most apparent. If you look at the line up of what developers are calling ‘music games’ now, this is what you are most likely to see:

  • Guitar Hero
  • Rock Band
  • Singstar
  • DJ Hero (possibly)
  • And an absolute slew of terrible, pain in your stomach awful, dance games like the one described above.

Let’s imagine for a moment, what would things be like if music games continue down this route? What if some mad game developer some day decides to make Step-Up: The Game? Or The Street Dance Experience? What if, I mean, what if that actually happened? Fire, brimstone, death will rain down from the sky!!

….Well, it may seem melodramatic, but I think it is safe to say that if that does happen, it will be the end of decent rhythm action games as we know it anyway.  This isn’t to say that it is altogether a bad thing. Guitar Hero remains a terrific way to spend rainy afternoons and The Beatles: Rock Band is a classic unto itself. But before all of these contemporary music games came about, developers had to rely on a little bit of ingenuity and creativity to sell their ideas. They came out with some hugely underrated gems, games that simply couldn’t compete with the Rock Band powerhouse despite their relentless charm.
Let’s have a look back at some of the best of these wonderful cult classics:

1. Parappa the Rapper (1996)

Music was integrated into games long before the Playstation arrived. The first proper rhythm game was called Dance Aerobics for the NES, and it involved using a Power Pad peripheral in time with the beat. But it wasn’t until a 2D dog decided to learn kung fu that the genre really got off the ground.

Pressing buttons that appear on screen in order to keep your character in time with the beat, this was a format that was later adopted by many other rhythm action games. It was an original concept, and the original tunes were also a major selling point for the game. Parappa the Rapper (reviewed here) is widely regarded as the godfather of rhythm action. It was entertaining enough to spawn a sequel, as well as a spin-off series entitled Um Jammer Lammy, which had the same principles as Parappa, only replacing rap with rock music.

With a benchmark game to work off of, any number of games copied Parappa’s style. One of the most notable examples of this was:

2. Bust-a-Groove (1998)

The essential difference between Bust-a-Groove and Parappa was that, while Parappa had you pressing buttons to rap, Bust-a-Groove had you pressing buttons to make your characters dance. The world came to an utter stand still at this incredible revolution!

Whereas it doesn’t win any major points for  innovation, Bust-a-Groove still represented a high point for rhythm action games. It allowed for two players to dance off against each other, and to pull of special moves to annihilate their opponents, usually through the use of fire. Now, if Step-Up ever manages to incorporate that into their films, I will watch them willingly!

3. Vib-Ribbon (1999)

Following it’s glory days of being king of rhythm games, NanaOn-Sha (the developer of Parappa) released a new game project, and a highly ambitious one. With the graphical prowess of a chalkboard, Vib-Ribbon was about as indie a game as you could find back in the late nineties. And yet, it was careful to cater to all audiences. How? Well, while you could play the game to the beat of the games’ own soundtrack, the real hook was the fact that you could play using any of your own CDs.

The gameplay was quite basic, but strangely addictive. The game took a melody and, based on a number of factors such as tempo and pitch, created a level based on it. Your character, a squiggle that the manual refers to as a rabbit, must get from one end of the level to the other, pressing buttons to jump ledges, step over holes and so on.

While it has potentially endless replayability, Vib-Ribbon faltered somewhat due to it’s insane difficulty. The tracks that come with the game are all slow mournful tunes, and it becomes clear why when you use one of your own CDs. Anything even remotely upbeat turns the entire level into a thrashing kaleidoscope, making it almost impossible to progress even half a minute into a song. This can be seen in the example above, but believe me, it doesn’t even compare to Queen’s ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’. The game had the thoughtful function of examining and playing the easiest songs on your CDs first, but these were all still quite difficult.

4. Samba De Amigo (1999)

Before the guitar from Guitar Hero was included as an extra peripheral, Sega had the market….well, they were in the market, and fair play to them for that much. Samba De Amigo is a game that seems like it would be perfectly at home in a carnival. The player is given a pair of maraca controllers and is prompted to match the actions of a monkey onscreen. If they do well, the monkey will be joined by others, who will dance. If they do badly, the monkey will look sad and lonely, the worst of all consequences!

Once again, this was a game that did quite well critically, but very few people played it. Released on the Dreamcast, it was already off to a bad start, as the Dreamcast had fierce trouble trying to compete with Nintendo’s Gamecube and Sony’s PS2. Additionally, the maraca’s could only really be used for this game and, at what would have been about 70 euro, this was quite an investment for just one game.

Despite this, the game was hugely entertaining and properly addictive. There’s something about a dancing monkey with maracas that just warms the hearts of players everywhere…

5. Gitaroo Man (2001)

Adding an extra dimension to the simple button presses, as well as buckets of style, along came Gitaroo Man (reviewed here). It could only have come out of Japan, a game whose style is so akin to anime. It features your main character, U-1, turning into some kind of super hero whenever he picks up a guitar and, naturally, he has to fight all kinds of crazy bad guys and giant robots because of this.

The gameplay differed from previous games because instead of just button presses, each stage was divided into segments in which you performed different actions. Most noteworthy of these is the segment in which you must follow the guitar line onscreen with the analogue stick, while keeping in time with the music with occasional button presses.

Though critically well acclaimed, Gitaroo Man wasn’t a major hit, with many Western audiences ignoring it entirely. If given the chance, I could not recommend this game enough.

6. Frequency/Amplitude (2001/2003)

Before Harmonix developed the legendary Guitar Hero, which became a household name shortly after release, it had two similar games that didn’t require the guitar peripheral. Both Frequency and Amplitude sees the player flying along a floating track with notes attached, notes which must be hit using the directional and face buttons of the PS2 controller.

Interestingly, this game occupies a space between the indie and the mainstream. The tracks featured are all from contemporary musicians, the primary difference being the way in which the controls are input. Both games paved the way forwards for Guitar Hero, but the fact that the control system has rarely been copied makes them something of an oddity.

7. Donkey Konga (2004)

Not learning the lesson from Sega’s mistake, Nintendo released it’s own rhythm action game with expensive controllers. Donkey Konga features everybody’s favorite chimp and pits him against friends and rival in a bongo tournament. Managing to take such a basic instrument and crafting such an addictive title remains an impressive feat, and one that was recognized by both the public and critics alike.

The bongos have four input controls, left, right, both and clap. A microphone senses all of these inputs, with impressive accuracy, and makes the game both fun and challenging. While many contemporary songs made it onto both this game and it’s sequel, tunes were also incorporated from the Mario and Zelda game series, as well as others.

Surprisingly entertaining, more than any player might expect, Nintendo justified the purchase of the expensive bongo peripheral with a sequel and a spin-off platformer, which was equally successful.

8. Elite Beat Agents (2005)

Taking the genre to handhelds, Elite Beat Agents made rhythm games feel as natural singing or dancing. Tapping notes at the right time on the DS screen might not seem very different from button prompts on earlier games, but it allowed a degree of freedom that made the game feel fluid.

The game featured a group of agents who help the general public in their day to day business. When these people feel under stress and can’t take anymore, the agents are called in to encourage them through the medium of…..dance! It’s a ridiculous concept sure, but you may have noticed that trend in many of these primarily Japanese rhythm games. Being on the DS, EBA was an extremely easy game to just pick up and play. It featured cover versions of contemporary music that, coupled with the bat-shit crazy happenings onscreen, felt very unique.

9. Patapon (2008)

Why are music games such family friendly products? They promise a playful, non-violent experience, something parents can be assured won’t badly influence their kids…until Patapon came along and blew that whole preconception out of the water!

In this PSP exclusive, the Patapon tribe have been driven off their land by the Zigoton empire. Putting the player in the role of GOD, you use the face buttons to input a drum rhythm in time with the warriors drum. If you are successful, the tribe will follow your order to attack, defend, retreat or whatever. While the gameplay was a little repetitive, and nowhere near as catchy as other rhythm games, it was still an ingenious integration of music into gameplay. There is a wonderful feeling of serenity to be had, watching your own little minions decapitate a beast at your melodious command…

10. Final Fantasy Theatrhtym (2012)

All right, so it’s a ways off yet, but previews that have been seen show a very unique approach to the rhythm action genre. Supposedly, the music is taken from all main entries in the Final Fantasy series, and features an RPG element that has hitherto never been seen in a music game. Characters can level up, depending on their progress, which in turn can make the music battles easier. After it was released in Japan, critics gave it generally positive reviews, praising it’s mix of music and challenges. They also noted that it would appeal particularly to Final Fantasy fans (der!) so hurrah for that.

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