(Note: This post is about the evolution of music based home video games. No offense intended to die hard Amiga, Apple, Atari, and Commodore 64 fans. I’ll cover music based personal computer games another time. I promise!)

Every year the commercial video game industry pumps out several thousand new titles across all platforms in North America. Christmas is still the ‘make or break’ time for many developers and publishers. The currently terrible economic conditions are hammering the industry worldwide. Thousands of creative folk are losing their jobs.  In the big leagues of commercial video games, it’s all about having a ‘Top 20‘ hit that catches the player’s imagination – and their money.

Since 2005, music based video games like Guitar Hero and more recently Rock Band gained status as the hot new hit, grabbing everyone’s attention with the ultimate fantasy of ‘living large’ as a big time rock star. Of course! It makes perfect sense when you think about it. But not so long ago this genre was considered an odd niche that belonged to those quirky gamers in Japan. It took many years to gain acceptance.

So where did the idea for musical video games come from? The roots of this genre go back to 1974, when Atari released their arcade title ‘Touch Me‘. But it was in 1978 at New York City’s Studio 54 night club, when the Milton Bradley Company debuted a disco newcomer named ‘Simon‘.

Simon was the epitomy of cool. It became an icon of the early 1980’s.

The game was a huge hit and many companies created copycat titles. Even Atari came out with a portable version of Touch Me.

The first half of the 1980’s were a tough time for the video game industry in North America. The home consumer market imploded and game companies went under because of a huge glut of shoddy titles that retailers couldn’t sell. Meanwhile in Japan,  Nintendo was enjoying much success with its ‘Family Computer‘ game console, nicknamed ‘Famicom’. Japanese consumer culture idolized Nintendo’s game characters. You could find them on beach towels, books, clothes, comics, keychains, lunch buckets, toys, and many other items. The arrival of CD technology resulted in game companies selling music compilations from popular arcade and Famicom titles. In-house music bands from companies like Capcom, Konami, and Taito’s Zuntata were legendary rock stars in the eyes of Japanese gamers.

The first home video game to let players compose music was Mario Paint for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in 1992. It also came with the Nintendo Mouse and featured a music composition program for players to create their own game music using icons from well known Nintendo titles.

How creative could some budding game musicians get? Judge for yourself:

If you asked me to identify the moment when music based video games showed off their potential to be really entertaining and commercially profitable, I would say it happened with the release of Parappa the Rapper for the Sony Playstation in 1997. Here was a strange little game that combined the memory play of Simon, the popularity of hip hop music, and the Playstation’s graphics potential. My gamer intuition told me I was looking at a hit title. Yet Parappa was featured all by its lonesome self on a booth table at the E3 trade show in Atlanta, opposite a large marquis where a giant Crash Bandicoot mascot with an awful fake Australian accent tried cozying up to visitors. Nearby were a row of Playstations featuring the new fighting game Star Wars: Masters of the Tera Kasi and Gran Turismo. But it was the little dog in the wool toque that hooked me:

Parappa sold 2 million copies worldwide and spawned several sequels.

The Sony Playstation marked the transition of video game consoles into more sophisticated entertainment platforms. By 1997, there were already rumours that Sony Computer Entertainment was working on something extraordinary (rumours in the video game industry are usually exaggerated). Nintendo and Sega were already having a tough time competing against the Playstation. Sega’s answer to Sony and their ‘next generation’ system was the Sega Dreamcast, a console still regarded fondly by many gamers. The Dreamcast featured two very fun musical video games – Samba De Amigo and Space Channel Five. In fact, Samba is available for the Nintendo Wii  – get this game! It’s hugely fun. It takes place in a Brazilian Mardis Gras environment where players shake maracas in time to the music. The characters, graphics, and music are bright, colourful, and the energy is infectious.

But don’t take my word for it:

Space Channel Five was originally released by Sega for the Dreamcast in 1999. The story is definitely out there. The plot can be summed up this way: Beautiful television reporter Ulala (Oo-la-la) saves the world from marauding aliens in an intergalactic dance battle! Shades of Austin Powers meets James Bond’s Moonraker. It’s still one of my favourite Dreamcast titles that I like to play. When I attended the 2000 E3 show in Los Angeles, Sega built an enormous Space Channel discotheque which featured five very pretty space go go dancers. All the Sega exhibit area was buzzing with crowds playing the latest Dreamcast games. Meanwhile, the Sony exhibit across the aisle was touting the new Playstation 2. You could have heard a pin drop in their exhibit space. But that’s a story for another day.

Here’s a clip from the game:

In the year 2000, music video games were clearly developing a devoted following.  Stay tuned for Part Two, where we’ll take a look at the Japanese arcade games of the late 1990’s that inspired the creation of Guitar Hero.

Doctor Arkanoid

© Anthony Gurr and Doctor Arkanoid – Revelations From the Inner Sanctum!, 2009.