Match 3: Rhythm Games

Remember when I started a series of posts detailing my three favourite games in each genre? You may not, because it only ever wrote one post which was about 11 months ago. Still, this blog’s unofficial motto is pretty much ‘better late than never’ so here’s another one.

I’m also cheating by stretching the definition of rhythm games to include any game in which the primary focus is on music. Hence the first title in the list.

Rez: Dreamcast, Playstation 2 & Xbox 360 (as Rez HD)

You’re always putting yourself in a difficult position when talking about Rez. People tend to either champion it as genius or decry it as pretentious art-game crap. In other words it’s a bit Marmite, if Marmite were a Panzer Dragoon clone based on the works of Kandinsky with the stated aim of inducing synesthesia in the player. It’s also a weirdly personal game to be talking about. I know I love Rez, but I’ve never really bothered to stop and think why. It’s Rez, you know?

Okay, clearly I need to try harder. Let’s start with this: Rez is a complete fucking cheat. Its primary gimmick is to tie every sound the player can make – essentially shooting enemies by dragging the reticule over them – to the backing music. Except these inputs snap to the beat so whether you’re killing enemies, collecting power ups or progressing to the next layer, it will never fall out of rhythm. The game’s entire premise is tightly controlled to stop the player fucking it up by being human.

That’s not a criticism, however, because it’s what makes Rez work and, assuming you like 10 year old electronica, Rez does work. By controlling the moment enemies explode into symbols and noise to the constant unmoving beat, complimented by the vibration of the controller, it really can induce a sort of faux-synesthesia. Its most exciting moments occur mid-way through each level, as you’re phasing between layers and everything – art, sound, vibration – begins to intensify, driving towards its unstoppable climax.

More importantly, on a personal level, it was the first moment I realised that games could actually be this. It’s cemented itself along with other PS2 titles like Ico and We Love Katamari that said to my teenage self, “stick around, this might just get interesting.”

Gitaroo Man: Playstation 2 & PSP (as Gitaroo Man Lives!)

Oh sure, Parappa The Rappa was great with its geek-funk soundtrack and memorable lines (“I gotta believe!”) but Gitaroo Man was the truly brilliant rhythm game. The main reason for this is the Legendary Theme, but it had other charms as well.

Such as? Well for a start it pastiches a far wider selection of musical genres. The game covers jazz, rock, punk, synth, dub, drum ‘n bass, j-pop and, bizarrely, electro-salsa; all performed in a coherent cheery pop wrapping. As for actually playing the game, each level is divided into two segments, battle and defend. Defend is the familiar Parappa-esque matching of the face buttons as they fly toward the centre of the screen whereas battle has you trace out the guitar riff, hitting buttons in time to the notes. It’s standard muscle memory fare, but keeps enough variation to remain enjoyable throughout.

Then there’s the story, casting you as U-1, a shy boy who learns to have confidence in his abilities with the aid of a talking dog, a magical guitar and a trip through space to face musical enemies. Frankly it’s almost cliched in its Japanese loner child + weird shit approach, but has some nice moments throughout and skirts just the right side of not taking itself seriously.

And then there’s the Legendary Theme. It’s a serene acoustic tune in a game filled with manic pop, but that alone propels it up to being one of the greatest levels in any rhythm game.

Rock Band 2: Playstation 3 & Xbox 360

The temptation when compiling these lists is to gravitate to the more obscure titles to prove your gaming cred. Rejected games for this final spot included Vib Ribbon, the PS1 choose-your-own-music line art platformer, and Harmonix’s own precursor to Guitar Hero and Rock Band, Frequency. Both would clearly be cheating because, for fun times with music, you can’t beat Rock Band 2. It’s the ultimate post-pub game. My own personal litmus test for how drunk I am is whether I gravitate towards the drums (not that drunk) or vocals (very drunk.)

Why Rock Band 2 over any of the other peripheral based rhythm games? Primarily because it has a better tracklist than the first Rock Band, and the Guitar Hero series is now essentially a competent knock-off. Harmonix has always been able to craft better note charts for their tracks, and the whole experience feels slicker than the Activision version.

Really the only downside to coming home, loading up the game and taking Posthumous Meerkat out for another tour of the classics (by which I mean Steve Miller Band’s The Joker) is that it tends to get us into trouble with the neighbours after about 4am. To date it is easily the greatest multiplayer rhythm game.

Of course, I’ve missed out plenty. From Vib Ribbon through to Audiosurf. Let me know your own favourite music games in the comments.


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