There was a time, in the not too distant past, when Harmonix and Activision were locked in a gaming battle of the plastic bands, with the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises facing off in the charts. It was a phenomenon, capitalising on the rise of a new generation of gamers, that allowed us to live out fantasies of being rock gods with some of our favourite music. Players who wanted to dive in had to pay some serious money for a plastic guitar to accompany the game, while those that really cared splashed out for band kits that included a microphone and drums.

It was a finite craze, however, as new entries all too quickly became over-familiar and predictable: the music tracks changed but the actual games brought more of the same. Maybe gamers became more self-aware and wondered whether rocking out on a plastic guitar was slightly silly, or perhaps it was just the inevitable burst of the bubble. In any case, the phenomenon was passing, and for those not paying attention it may have seemed like the end of rhythm music gaming. That wasn’t the case, however, and recent releases show that the genre still has some life in it yet.

Who needs instruments?
Who needs instruments?

Of course, it was only the Rock Band and Guitar Hero titles – and their imitators – that relied on reproducing popular music with instruments. Rhythm titles of various kinds have enjoyed a solid role on Nintendo systems in recent years, with one example being Let’s Tap on Wii; it was rather innovatively controlled by tapping a box, with the Wii Remote picking up the vibrations and converting them into moves in the game. DS also enjoyed its share: two notable examples were Rhythm Heaven – or Rhythm Paradise in Europe — and Elite Beat Agents. Both were quirky, particularly the latter, and simply required taps and swipes of the stylus to play. Elite Beat Agents, and its Japanese predecessor Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, became a bit of a cult hit; its peculiar style perhaps contributed to modest sales, but it nevertheless has a considerable group of enthusiastic advocates. Rhythm Heaven, on the other hand, was advertised heavily as part of the ‘Touch Generation’ campaign that Nintendo pursued, recruiting Beyoncé Knowles, for one, to the cause.

As was the case with the increasingly stale plastic instrument titles, however, there were mis-steps that didn’t quite hit the mark and started to have a negative impact on the genre. Wii Music was, arguably, a disappointment: the concept of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk serving as a variety of instruments or conductor’s baton may have been intriguing on paper, but the execution didn’t live up to expectations. As the first decade of the 21st century gradually drew to a close, rhythm games became less bankable and prominent, and a new craze for karaoke and dancing started to take its place. There were perhaps smaller releases but, as a genre, there were question marks whether critically acclaimed experiences would make high-profile returns in the future; developers became all too aware of a shrinking market.

2012 – The year of rhythm
2012 – The year of rhythm

For musically inclined gamers who also own Nintendo systems, perhaps 2012 can be thought of as a year that has seen a return to the simple and addictive pleasures that rhythm games can offer, with some important twists to enliven the genre. First up, in Europe at least, was Rhythm Thief & the Emperor’s Treasure, a SEGA title that not only delivered solid stylus-based controls and terrific original music, but also a humorous and well-produced storyline. The production values in terms of both sound and cut scene visuals gave the title a sense of flair, and producer Shun Nakamura stated that it was all with the aim of reviving music games.

What I wanted to accomplish is the blending of rhythm and narrative. Standard rhythm games don't have such backbone and the core fun factors are to groove and simply enjoy the music. I liked being able to [achieve] a different level of fun there.

...In fact, my personal feeling is that the Bemani style has reached its limit and users feel that way too. As I mentioned before, I created a similar game about 10 years ago and I felt that creators ran out of fresh ideas to grow the genre and as a result, users have grown tired.

The approach we are taking now, of adding in plot, is my way of reviving music games. In this new method, I believe old-fashioned music games and Bemani style have a place to live.

The self-professed goal of adding a new sense of purpose to the music is also evident in the latest 3DS rhythm title, Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy, which celebrates 25 years of the venerable Square Enix franchise. Heavily stylised, the title features music from all of the major releases in the series, while incorporating elements of battles and RPG mechanics: it’s accessible to newcomers but also has enough fan-service to attract experienced gamers. Much like Rhythm Thief, the stylistic flourishes are backed up by excellent implementation, and the concept of more celebratory franchise-based Theatrhythm titles has been raised by producer Ichiro Hazama, in an interview with Siliconera.

There are many series that I would want to work on for Theatrhythm. Dragon Quest has a lot of music and Kingdom Hearts would be wonderful to do if it’s possible. I’m not too familiar with the Eidos collection, but Tomb Raider has a long history so it must have a great collection of songs. That might be fun.

The final title that absolutely must be mentioned as a top rhythm title this year is Rhythm Heaven Fever – or Beat the Beat: Rhythm Paradise in Europe – on Wii. Much like its DS predecessor it combines relentless charm with impeccable design, and is regarded as pure joy on a disc by various members of the Nintendo Life team.

If 2012 has brought us a high quality revival, what’s next? We’re hoping to see more of the same; a consistent stream of innovative, entertaining rhythm games that bring control innovation, storytelling, new game mechanics or a mix of all three. The upcoming Wii U also has potential for the genre, as the GamePad combines conventional controls with a touch screen, meaning that DS-style experiences can be recreated and enhanced. There’s potential for cross-play, too, where a new rhythm title that uses touch screen inputs, for example, can be played on either a 3DS or Wii U: play a few tracks on the bus, get home and pick up where you left off on the TV.

So many gaming genres have enjoyed sustained success, with examples such as 2D platformers, racing games and the ever-popular FPS. If music rhythm titles can continue to evolve and succeed in the same way for years to come, then that can only be a good thing.