Annual video game industry tradeshow E3 brought its fair share of surprises last week, from gala performances by Eminem and Jane's Addiction to a new 3-D handheld Nintendo 3DS. And despite a 46 percent drop in sales for the category in 2009, music games clearly remain at the top of software publishers' playlists, with new titles featuring a diverse array of artists from Michael Jackson to Gene Simmons. The main reason: the development of high-wattage rock-out experiences through more realistic instruments and motion-detecting technology.
Game makers have listened to the common critique that music video games rob enthusiasts of the ability to play real-world instruments. MTV Games and Harmonix's Rock Band 3 (PS3/Wii/360), which also adds three-part vocal harmonies and support for a 25-key MIDI keyboard peripheral ($80), hopes to address this issue with the introduction of its new "Pro" mode this holiday season. Designed to double as an actual musical tutorial, it allegedly offers more authentic guitar and keyboard fingering, as well as more realistic striking of cymbals and snares. Two original guitar instrument controllers including a six-string Squier Stratocaster (price TBD) and Fender Mustang Pro ($150), plus three new cymbals for the drum kit ($40), will be released to capitalize upon this software option.
Also coming in October is rhythm game Power Gig: Rise of the Six String (PS3/Xbox 360) from Seven45 Studios, powered by a real six-string electric guitar. The accessory can double as a normal, everyday instrument when not being used to strum along with in-game tracks by Dave Matthews, Kid Rock and Eric Clapton. Emphasizing proper finger placement and realistic chords, it strangely takes the opposite approach with drums, which are activated by having your arms pound away on high-tech drumsticks without physical contact, similar to playing air guitar.
Def Jam: Rapstar (PS3/360 - $70, Wii -$60), also due in October from newcomer 4mm Games, ships with a wireless microphone and takes a similar approach to the SingStar series. A hip-hop karaoke challenge, players must rap along with dozens of featured songs from Slick Rick's "Children's Story" to Young Jeezy's "Put On" and Drake's "Best I Ever Had." Contenders can also freestyle, battle, record short film clips of their performances, add special effects and upload mini music videos online for friends or community members to critique.
Music games are uniquely poised to take advantage of new motion-sensing interfaces like Microsoft's Kinect, which makes your body the controller, or Sony's wand-based PlayStation Move, seemingly tailor-made for dancing simulators and karaoke challenges.
Esoteric music titles such as rhythm game Child of Eden (PS3/360, price TBD), coming from Rez creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi, have always been part of the interactive entertainment canon as well. But like offerings in other genres from sports to arcade, they too will now come equipped with motion controls as a de facto standard on compatible set-top consoles.
A trippy shooter compatible with Sony's PlayStation Move and Microsoft's Kinect, Child of Eden sends players floating through psychedelic worlds scarred by computer viruses. Fighting off luminous, gelatinous and geometric adversaries with a wave of the hand, and clapping to change weapons, music plays as you clear each stage.
Publisher UbiSoft's Michael Jackson video game (DS/PS3/PSP/Wii/360, price TBD) will likewise emphasize movement and vocals. "We'd been considering making a game for years, but the technology wasn't there," the company's international brand manager Felicia Williams tells RS. "Now, we're ready."
Although compatible with standard controllers, it serves to underscore the point that gesture-tracking interfaces may be the next logical evolutionary step for music games, regardless of whether they employ custom peripherals. By allowing players to physically shake and groove to the beat of featured selections of all stripes, the industry continues to make a strong case for the integral part music may play in helping bring such technologies to mainstream prominence.