Today’s youth doesn’t understand the joy that came with shredding on a plastic guitar.
As Guitar Hero became a global phenomenon, groups of friends spent countless after school hours trying to conquer complex offerings from Van Halen, Metallica, Buckethead, Slayer, and the Charlie Daniels Band. The next day, they’d regale their peers with their efforts, as one friend would chime in and say he knows a guy’s cousin who allegedly scored 100% on DragonForce’s elusive “Through the Fire and Flames” on “expert” difficulty.
While music games feel like a nostalgic relic of the past, they actually have a rich (albeit strange) history. Long before Dance Dance Revolution spawned a cultural craze and catapulted bizarre music games into the mainstream, the indie music games of yore were a special kind of silliness.
Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker
Loosely based on the odd 1988 film of the same name, The King of Pop rescued kidnapped children from the evil Dr. Big and kicked some syncopated musical ass along the way. (Alleged) irony aside… The SEGA side-scrolling beat-em-up game was launched on computer and arcade consoles–and actually possessed a lot of charm.
The game was soaked in Jackson jams, and Bubbles the Chimpanzee even made multiple cameos throughout the game, aiding MJ by sometimes transforming him into a robot with higher health and laser eyes. The only downside of this game was that MJ didn’t do any slick karate; alas, he relied instead on magical powers.
Rock and Roll Racing
With a ludicrous premise that spawned a cult following, 1993’s Rock and Roll Racing was one of the earliest efforts in competitive multiplayer games. The game pits four racers against each other, with each armed to the teeth. The racers get four laps around various courses, all while mega-hype rock tracks like “Born to Be Wild” play in the background. As strange as it was, the game was so successful that it spawned a sequel.
The New Order regime and their vile leader, Helga, have kidnapped Aerosmith! Armed with nothing but a big gun, only you can save Steve Tyler and the gang from certain doom! The insane arcade shooter used Aerosmith more as a throwaway plot point than anything else, as the game’s soundtrack merely recycled “Eat The Rich,” “Sweet Emotion,” “Toys in the Attic,” and “Walk This Way,” and the shoot-em-up style gameplay is mind-numbing yet entertaining. But if you saved the gang from certain doom, you could party with them at the end of the game, and that was something, I guess.
PaRappa The Rapper
A game that should be cited as a huge inspiration for the music games that came after it, the odd Japanese PSone title had players break it down by pressing buttons in a certain, timely order. The songs were catchy, and almost anyone can pick it up and enjoy. The game is regularly cited as one of the best of all time; with surprisingly versatile game dynamics and a kooky cast of characters, PaRappa The Rapper is nothing but good vibes for the whole family.
Def Jam Vendetta
While nostalgic gaming fans will undoubtedly cite Dem Jam: Fight for NY as the superior entry in the series, Def Jam Vendetta was a historical moment for rap fans, as it was the first to feature cameos from legendary rap artists. Combining rap with pro wrestling, the fighting game received rave reviews and was praised for its detail. Its soundtrack was one of gaming’s best, and with the ability to play as legendary rappers like Method Man, DMX, Joe Budden, and Scarface, it served as a one-of-a-kind gaming experience.
The first major spinoff from Guitar Hero, DJ Hero was oddly not like the former at all. With a plastic turntable, players could become a scratch DJ and experiment with legendary songs from DJ Shadow, Grandmaster Flash, and even Daft Punk. But as good as the game was, it unfortunately didn’t sell well due to a collective waning interest in music video games. DJ Hero served as a preview of where the genre could have gone had it not fizzled out. Today, with Hip-Hop and EDM popularity at an all-time high, DJ Hero inevitably feels like a tragic, missed opportunity.