Music Gaming's Greatest Hits: The Nineties

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Activision’s Guitar Hero video game series may be dead, but our special tribute to music gaming’s greatest hits rolls on.

As part of the countdown, a preview of my upcoming free digitally downloadable book, Music Games Rock: Gaming’s 100 Greatest Hits of All-Time (Power Play, 2011), we present part two: The Nineties in Music Games.

Loom (LucasArts, 1990) – Adventure games (mouse-driven scavenger hunts interwoven with quirky dialog and poorly-animated cut-scenes) were once huge on home computers, but largely confined to formulaic fantasy, sci-fi and tongue-in-cheek outings. At least, until genre kingpin LucasArts told the haunting tale of Bobbin Threadbare, a magical Weaver who uses combinations of notes to string together tunes that act as puzzle-solving spells. Rather than simply chat or collect items, a mystic staff was employed to craft these otherworldly ditties, which could also be played in reverse to create opposing effects (bleaching vs. dying clothes) and, as a result, still more haunting jingles. The first game of its ilk to explore melody as a control method, as well as a best-seller and instant classic, a pair of planned sequels never materialized due to team members' preoccupation with other projects.

Miracle Piano Teaching System (The Software Toolworks, 1990) – While few people actually bought it (it cost $500), this physical MIDI-keyboard-touting piano trainer enjoyed high visibility as a standout catalog and marketing piece for the Nintendo Entertainment System. One of few titles that aimed to expand the mega-popular console's musical ambitions, it further served to illustrate set-top systems' viability for use with more than just mindless platform-hoppers. Plus, if you could convince your parents to purchase it at the time (remember, those are 1990 dollars), any other essential cartridge — e.g. Final Fantasy, Super Mario Bros. 3 or Bionic Commando — looked like a steal by comparison.

Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (Sega, 1990) – A "Smooth Criminal"-era arcade and Genesis title that saw the King of Pop shimmying it out with suited thugs to rescue kidnapped children, before that concept became so ironic. Highlights include an inexplicable cameo by Bubbles, who turns you into a laser-spewing robot. Reasonably enjoyable to play, and featuring MJ's creative input, it showed that with a little TLC, even the strangest SoundScan spin-off could be good. The game would prove a forerunner to Jackson’s long-running involvement in gaming, including guest appearances in Sega Dreamcast title Space Channel 5 and posthumous motion control dance and karaoke simulator Michael Jackson: The Experience.

Crüe Ball (Electronic Arts, 1992) – Pinball goes glam, with digitized renditions of Motley Crüe hits “Dr. Feelgood,” “Live Wire,” and “Home Sweet Home” accompanying the vertically-scrolling on-table action, which offers targets like maggots and skulls to squash. Cameos by onetime mascot Alister Fiend also amused Sega Genesis fans.

Make My Video Series (Digital Pictures, 1992) – Drunk with the power of CD storage — capable of holding hundreds of times more audiovisual data than floppy disks, the previous computing medium du jour — gaming industry insiders sagely assumed that digitized video and interactive movies (versus, say, creativity and innovative gameplay) were the future. This game let you play director by mixing and matching a limited selection of grainy video clips to provide a visual accompaniment to songs by Kris Kross and Marky Mark. More noteworthy today as a technology experiment gone horribly wrong — or a kitschy pop-culture footnote — it's an artifacts of a simpler, cheesier gaming era. See also: Power Factory Featuring C&C Music Factory, whose oddly lit, neo-industrial backdrops and diabolical close-up shots better suit a Saw flick than anything rated as suitable for consumption by Walkman-loving children. "Things That Make You Go Hmmm," indeed.

Rock n’ Roll Racing (Interplay, 1993) – An early collaboration between development studio Silicon & Synapse (later to become Blizzard Entertainment, creators of World of Warcraft) and industry legend Brian Fargo’s Interplay, this arcade racer nearly single-handedly destroyed millions’ high-school GPAs. A spiritual sequel to NES cult classic R.C. Pro-Am, it featured heavily-armed miniaturized cars jockeying to outmaneuver or blow each other to bits to backing tracks like “Born to Be Wild” and “Paranoid.” Among competitive multiplayer gaming’s earliest hits, its catchy blend of combat and hairpin turns made for an unexpectedly satisfying destruction derby.

Revolution X (Acclaim, 1994) – Packing a full-size machine gun in the arcade, or SNES/Genesis/PC controller at home, players were tasked with overthrowing the fun-squashing New Order Nation regime and saving Aerosmith in assorted shooting gallery sequences. Oddly, the game’s connections to music were tenuous at best, with CDs and laserdiscs that double as grenades, and later American Idol judge Steven Tyler’s contributions mostly limited to shrieks of “Don’t give uuuupp!”

RapJam Vol. 1 (Motown Games, 1995) – Coolio, House of Pain, Naughty by Nature, Onyx and Queen Latifah post it up in this Super Nintendo release, but fail to bring the thundering beats or sick vocals to match even their lackluster hoop game. The fact that there was never a Vol. 2 speaks volumes about genre pieces that don’t stay true to their roots or culture, an issue later properly addressed by more adept offerings like Def Jam: Rapstar.

PaRappa the Rapper (Sony, 1997) – A far cry from what was going on with PCs at the time (see: bizarre adventures like Peter Gabriel’s EVE), this quirky Japanese PSOne import challenged players, as a paper doll pooch, to bust a move by pressing buttons in time to featured beats. Do so correctly, and you drop mad science on onion-headed senseis, moose driving instructors, Rastafarian frogs and chickens that pass for chefs. Captivating domestic audiences with its sing-song vibe, hypnotic play and psychedelic cardboard cutout aesthetic, it's still one of the freshest interactive approximations of MCing hip-hop heads will find. The title helped popularize the "rhythm game" category in North American, which eventually gave birth to countless hip-wiggling rivals from Unison to Bust a Groove.

Beatmania (Konami, 1997) – Long before DJ Hero’s dawn, this DJ simulation equipped you with five keys and a turntable, demanding that players scratch their way through techno, drum-‘n-bass and hip-hop tracks. Originally launched in Japanese arcades, it’s credited with starting the faux tune-playing craze, and launching the “Bemani” category, developer Konami’s signature line of plastic instrument peripheral-equipped interactive music titles. In retrospect, it’s fair to say the game made quarter-munching dives cool again, and drafted the blueprint upon which nearly every single breakout music game success story from Rock Band to Guitar Hero has since been built. Dance Dance Revolution, played by physically shimmying on a virtual stage, is a direct descendant.

Spice World (Psygnosis, 1998) – Released at the height of Spice Girl mania, Geri Halliwell, Melanie Brown, Victoria Beckham and cohorts from the 75 million record-selling supergroup become yours to control in custom-built dance-offs. The game spearheaded Girl Power's conquest of the digital realm, shattering the simulated glass ceiling for every Sing It, Cheetah Girls and Hannah Montana title to come.

Sex ‘n Drugs ‘n Rock ‘n Roll (Sensible Software, 1998) – Canceled due to several shocking developments chronicled in designer Jon Hare’s harrowing Behind the Music-style account, this long-lost classic would've been a risqué adventure chronicling desperate rock star Nigel's rise to the top. Creator Sensible Software's self-described "multimedia experience" included 15 hours of lewd dialogue, animated music videos and a hero who could huff illicit substances, masturbate and, if he eschews condoms, even contract AIDS from groupies. Nearly 10 years in development, its production saga — conceived during home computing's dawn, intended to launch its maker into the 3D era, signed to Warner International, sold, dropped and beatified online — parallels that of legendary records.

Guitar Freaks (Konami, 1998) – A breakout smash in Far Eastern arcades: Armed with a Fender-like plastic guitar controller featuring color-coded buttons and a motion sensor, shred along to on-screen graphical indicators. Sound familiar? Despite Konami's failure to capitalize on the series' popularity in the US, the original "guitar hero" predates its best-selling cousin (and ill-advised clones such as Power Gig and Rock Revolution) by the better part of a decade. Somewhere out there, we just know there's a game industry A&R still weeping into his Schlitz.

Dance Dance Revolution (Konami, 1998) – The arcade game that inspired a cultural revolution, and pioneered active gaming over a decade before motion controls made Dance Central or Just Dance household names. Standing on a virtual dance stage, players work up a rhythm then step, jump and twist in time to floating arrow icons, and J-Pop hits, to perform something resembling an actual rump-shaking routine. The series has inspired local and national dance competitions; muscled its way into gyms the globe over; inspired a generation of footloose tweens who could contort like pretzels at the local Dave & Buster's but barely shoulder lean otherwise; spawned over 100 hernia-inducing sequels; made local quarter-munching dives cool again; and gave us all something to gawk at. Fun fact: States like West Virginia actually adopted it at one point as part of state PE programs to combat childhood obesity, a marked step up from ego-crushing kickball competitions and those thigh-chafing ropes.

Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style (Activision, 1999) –Staten Island's campy kung-fu clique (RZA, GZA, Raekwon, etc. – nine brawlers from Inspectah Deck to U-God appear) pummel martial arts-wielding opponents with karate kicks and special weapons. Shocker: ODB favors drunken moves, including an inexplicable decapitating finisher. While of questionable quality and subject to a lukewarm critical reception, the game proved there's ample room in the 3D space to expand an artist's surrounding mythology (also evidenced by 50 Cent's later efforts).

Um Jammer Lammy (Sony, 1999) – A spin-off of the popular PaRappa the Rapper series which introduced fans to Lammy, lamb guitarist of band MilkCan, who — with the aid of well-timed key presses — must jam her way to a gig she's late for. Most importantly, it exhibited how the basic rhythm game formula was easily transportable between musical genres, opening the door for punk, pop, rap and metal to later join the soiree.

Vib-Ribbon (Sony, 1999) – PaRappa creator and musical game genre pioneer Masaya Matsuura (who recently shared his thoughts on music gaming’s evolution) outdoes himself here, allowing you to insert any music CD into your PlayStation and enjoy uniquely-generated level designs. Wireframe graphics complement the action, which features a female rabbit running along a single-line pathway and avoiding obstacles as tracks play in the background. It’s the first title to turn your record collection into an endless source of button-mashing replay value.

MTV Music Generator (Codemasters, 1999) – A flagship music creation program built for PC and console platforms that enabled players to quickly and painlessly mix riffs, beats, sound effects and 3D visualizations. Nearly a decade before Beaterator and Traxxpad launched, it explored the much-ignored subject of stepping behind the actual boards and dialing up dance-ready joints (yours to distribute free of royalties or licensing restrictions) for non-commercial purposes. Who knows how many DJs it inspired?

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