Activision’s Guitar Hero video game franchise is dead. But music gaming’s legacy, a part of interactive entertainment’s history since the very beginning, lives on.
A special preview of yours truly’s upcoming free digitally downloadable book, Music Games Rock: Gaming’s 100 Greatest Hits of All-Time (Power Play, 2011), we’re proud to present a look back over the field’s 30-year history.
In the first of a special three-part series, we give you some of music gaming’s top smashes from the Seventies and Eighties. These kept players happily glued to monitors, TV screens and arcade machines since home computing’s early dawn.
Simon (Milton Bradley, 1978) – Launched May 15th at Studio 54, this Jurassic forerunner to today's touch-sensitive Nintendo DS/3DS featured four colored buttons and three simple variations. Memorization's the goal, with players required to repeat back a randomized or user-created sequence of lights and tones with a simple poke. Named for "Simon Says" and created by Ralph Baer, who also invented home console gaming with 1972's Magnavox Odyssey, it quickly became an American institution. Besides single-handedly popularizing handheld electronic entertainment and directly influencing every subsequent system from Game Boy to PlayStation Portable, its pattern-based action set the mold for nearly all successive music-themed titles. That goes double for many of the current generation's most "innovative" offerings, which simply require enthusiasts to play back notes synchronized to audiovisual prompts that appear onscreen.
KISS Pinball (Bally, 1978) – Resplendent in dragons, flames, lightning bolts and black-and-white face paint, this classic flipper-swatter features enough flashing lights and table-shaking tones to pass for one of its namesake band's infamous stage acts. Lovingly showcasing Gene Simmons' proboscis-like tongue, it offers chilling foreshadowing as to fellow rockers' insatiable appetite for high-tech merchandising that would follow. Amusingly, it was later reprised in 2001 with an unrelated and eponymous PC/PlayStation follow-up which didn't even feature licensed music or speech samples.
Journey (Bally/Midway, 1983) – Riding high on 1983's Number Two-charting Frontiers album, the San Francisco balladeers were tapped by coin-operated amusement staple Bally Midway to computerize their brand of arena rock. Controlling band members with cartoon torsos and black-and-white photos for heads, avoid or blast glowing alien adversaries while collecting instruments to be rewarded with an animated concert complete with a cassette player-fueled rendition of "Separate Ways." Oddly, the arcade game was preceded by 1982 home console counterpart Journey Escape from Data Age, also inexplicably set in space and featuring players fighting intergalactic groupies (hearts with legs) and promoters (floating heads) with the help of roadies to reach an insect-like spaceship. These ventures marked the first time a band got its own licensed video game — before Journey, only pinball machines featuring acts like Kiss were available. The title paved the way for every other band appearance, or interactive tribute (e.g. Green Day: Rock Band, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, etc.) since.
Will Harvey’s Music Construction Set (Electronic Arts, 1984) – Will Harvey was an Apple II protégé who built this intuitive, drag-and-drop, user interface-powered (if tedious to operate) song-building kit while still in high school. One of the earliest forerunners of ProTools, it proved that a voracious appetite for music-themed desktop titles existed. The program also provided an early hit for then-nascent publisher Electronic Arts long before Madden NFL debuted, let alone dreamed of providing a soundtrack featuring Good Charlotte.
Break Dance (Epyx, 1984) – Legendary home computing hit California Games wasn’t even a twinkle in storied developer Epyx’s eyes when the company first offered Commodore 64 owners the chance to do the worm by using joystick inputs to repeat back computerized dancers’ moves. Primitive as popping-and-locking was here, it nonetheless kicked open the door for game makers to shine the light on musical subcultures (later to be explored in titles like B-Boy and Def Jam: Fight for N.Y.), not just songs. Amusingly, the rudimentary animation makes every dance look like the robot.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood (Ocean, 1985) – Launched on early British home computers, this psychedelic adventure had you playing mini-games, solving murders and otherwise attempting to escape life as a boring, nondescript sod on Liverpool's streets. Admittance to the fabled Pleasuredome, the ultimate goal, came at a price: Specifically, having to boost your sex, war, love and religion attributes, each statistic inspired by ciphers on the dance-pop staple's album covers. Hailed as a classic across the pond, it helped break down barriers for independent gamemakers and was amongst the first titles to dabble with symbolism – a prelude to later offerings like Peter Gabriel’s EVE and Devo’s Adventures of the Smart Patrol.
Rock Star Ate My Hamster (Codemasters, 1988) – An economic simulation for early home micros. As much budget-balancing challenge as interactive satire, this money-juggling game tasks you, as scummy manager Cecil Pitt, with guiding pop star parodies like "Dorrissey," "Maradona" and "Bill Collins" to gold-selling status. For the first time (and long before later debuts like 2001’s Rock Manager and recent Facebook release Recordshop Tycoon), it chronicled almost every aspect of recording industry self-production/promotion, from gigging and publicity stunts to dealing with piracy and shooting videos. References to "Bruce Stringbean" and "Tina Turnoff" still make us giggle.
Rockstar (Wizard Games, 1989) – A forgotten PC gem, this all-text outing is the earliest popular business simulation to fully embrace the shadier aspects of backstage life, including use of controlled substances and groupie exploitation. Generations before Midway's NARC remake glorified casual narcotics use, it actually offered you the opportunity to manage coke or pot intake, with side-effects ranging from creativity boosts to painful stints in rehab.