Music Gaming's Greatest Hits: 2000-2010 - Rolling Stone
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Music Gaming’s Greatest Hits: 2000-2010

The death of Activision’s Guitar Hero video game series came as a shock to many, even on the heels of music gaming’s recent troubles.

But while it’s game over for the popular franchise, as you can see looking back over parts one and two of our music gaming retrospective, historically, the hits just keep on coming.

In the final installment of our three-part rundown, a preview of yours truly’s upcoming free downloadable book, Music Games Rock: Gaming’s 100 Greatest Hits of All-Time (Power Play, 2011), we present 2000-2010: A Decade in Music Games.

Space Channel 5 (Sega, 2000) – Players parrot back moves according to displayed prompts to make cosmic reporter Ulala blast aliens, rescue human captives and otherwise jiggle her way through an intergalactic dance party. An early critical favorite for the Dreamcast, it highlighted music games’ continued cultural resonance, demonstrating that they even enjoyed enough inherent mass appeal to kick-start interest in a new console. It also features a random cameo by Michael Jackson (“Space Michael”), who’s still tearing up the interactive charts with new outings like Michael Jackson: The Experience.

KISS Psycho Circus: The Nightmare Child (Gathering of Developers, 2000) – A trippy first-person shooter inspired by Todd McFarlane’s cult comic books that re-imagine the hard-rocking quartet as supernatural warriors sent to eradicate ancient evil. Long before Family Jewels restored Gene Simmons to modern-day relevancy, the title helped to reintroduce the band to a new generation of tech-savvy comic book fans.

Frequency (Sony, 2001) – Zooming down kaleidoscopic 3D corridors, this racing and music game hybrid demanded that players tap buttons when prompted to make notes, drums and vocals play, eventually completing entire songs by electronic gurus like Orbital, BT and the Crystal Method. It’s an initial step towards exploring acoustics as gameplay elements and the first major console title from fledging developer Harmonix, who’d later go on to invent seminal titles Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Dance Central. Sequel Amplitude (2003) added online elements and higher-profile song licensing, hinting at key features of these later hits.

Rez (Sega, 2001) – Enter a surreal, vector-graphics representation of cyberspace and clear it of viruses by highlighting enemies and dispatching them in a psychedelic spray of colored light and shapes. Ever-present house music rounds out the experience’s peyote-tinged flavor, with shots keyed to land in time with thumping beats. Currently available for download on Xbox Live Arcade as Rez HD, the game champions the spirit of synesthesia, and is one of the earliest obviously intended to be played under the influence. Integrated support for a “trance vibrator” USB gizmo which shudders and pulses to the soundtrack further prompted several fans to undertake well-publicized experiments in masturbation. One can only hope spiritual sequel Child of Eden, a trippy motion controlled shooter for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (compatible with Microsoft’s Kinect gesture-tracking add-on) won’t inspire similar results when it ships later in 2011.

Karaoke Revolution (Konami, 2001) – In spite of standalone karaoke home systems’ success years prior, this was the first video game to actually put a microphone in wannabe stars’ hands and encourage them to torture friends and neighbors. Although it judged pitch, not accuracy or intonation (much to tipsy crooners’ delight), the title proved there was a major market for living room caterwauling long before SingStar, American Idol and LIPS ever even got the green light.

SingStar (Sony, 2001) – Although a largely copycat product, Sony’s answer to Karaoke Revolution, promising USB microphone-enabled sing-alongs to onscreen lyrics, still remains popular in America, with PlayStation Move support and online video sharing among features introduced in recent sequels. However, the franchise is a veritable juggernaut overseas, with a whopping 70 releases (including pop, R&B, and Nineties editions) spanning multiple languages, tributes to iconic bands (Queen, Abba, etc.) and custom set lists individualized by territory. Beyond illustrating music games’ multicultural appeal, scores bonus points for being the first game to boast a Bollywood edition.

Def Jam: Vendetta (Electronic Arts, 2003) – Long before hip-hop and karaoke successfully mated in Def Jam Rapstar, fighting was the genre of choice for blinged-out video game tie-ins. Here, rap’s most storied record label unleashes its roster of living characters (Ludacris, DMX, Ghostface Killah) on unsuspecting haters in a WWE main event-type scrapper that goes heavy on the urban machismo. Hip-hop and you don’t stop … smashing rival MCs’ faces in with uppercuts, roundhouses and occasional shots to the groin, that is. Like later sequels Icon and Fight for N.Y., it proved urban culture could fuel hit gaming tie-ins, and gave some of hip-hop’s big-name artists the perfect outlet to showcase their exuberance and outsize personalities.

Snoop Dogg Boxing (Blue Heat, 2004) – Years before the iPhone became ubiquitous and made mobile gaming an industry watchword, the eternally smoked-out West Coast MC turned reality TV star and youth football coach starred in a Punch Out! clone for cellular phones which landed with knockout results. Curiously, the veteran rhyme-spitter also doubles as the last opponent players get to beat the living gin-and-juice out of. Looking back, it helped establish the pop culture-skewering mold that would define many mobile celebrity cash-ins to come, including Lil’ Jon Crunk Golf. Thankfully, this trend has (hallelujah) since by supplanted by hits which focus more on gameplay, less on gimmicks, e.g. Riddim Ribbon and Tap Tap Revenge.

Guitar Hero (RedOctane, 2005) – A $2 billion franchise that’s sold over 25 million units worldwide; spawned piles of spin-offs (Guitar Hero: Metallica, Band Hero, DJ Hero, etc.); scored chart-topping adaptations for nearly every platform from Nintendo DS to mobile phones; once enjoyed a cultlike following amongst teens and twenty-somethings; and boasts entire South Park episodes devoted to its charms, you’d be forgiven for failing to recall that, prior to launch, the dynamo which sparked an entire industry was once just a risky, unproven gamble from RedOctane, a little-known manufacturer of dance pad peripherals and dabbler in online video game rentals. But despite being directly responsible for the last decade’s fastest-growing (and, apparently, collapsing) game category, the title once-hailed as the music industry’s possible savior has sadly been shelved, though hope remains for a rebirth via online, social and digitally downloadable platforms.

Lumines (UbiSoft, 2005) – Once upon a time, puzzle games were either cutesy, doe-eyed cartoon affairs or shameless spin-offs of Tetris. Then came this entrancing PSP effort from designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Rez, Child of Eden, etc.), which demands that you group colored squares before a screen-sweeping line synchronized to the beat of background music. Helping bring the club experience home with its laser-light show effects and pounding beats, it showed how audio could enhance, and be actively incorporated, into nearly any play experience. Later hits like Everyday Shooter and Every Extend Extra owe it an obvious debt of gratitude.

50 Cent: Bulletproof (Vivendi-Universal, 2005) – Having survived nine shots in real life, the Queens lyricist teamed with G-Unit soldiers Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo and ex-affiliate Young Buck to butcher his assailants in this fictionalized run-n-gun spin-off. Surprise: Eminem and Dr. Dre also make cameos, respectively, as a corrupt detective and trigger-happy dealer in black market arms. Despite bad controls, bad graphics, bad targeting, bad enemy artificial intelligence, bad song and video extras, bad publicity, bad voice-acting and an average Metacritic rating of 47, it still sold a million copies, testifying to Fiddy’s once-unstoppable star power. In keeping with rap’s fondness for remixes, it would also later spawn a better-received sequel, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand.

Musika (Sony BMG, 2007) – PaRappa the Rapper creator Matsaya Matsuura (most recent release: WINtA for iPhone) strikes again, turning the iPod into an interactive visualizer. The experience in a nutshell: After tapping your music library to provide a soundtrack, random letters appear onscreen in increasingly graphically surreal ways. Players must then identify ASAP if these letters are represented in the current song title by pressing the center button, or jab forward/back to prompt the next character’s appearance. An early iPod gaming effort, it pointed to the digital music player’s potential to deliver interactive entertainment, though few at the time could have suspected it would foreshadow Apple’s later dominance of the handheld and mobile gaming field.

Rock Band (MTV Games, 2007) – The first game to combine all aspects of the virtual music-making experience (singing, pounding skins, playing guitar or bass) was also the initial offering to deliver peripherals for all (including microphone, plastic drum set and faux axe) in one kit. Roughly 30 million digital song downloads; over 1,000 master, re-recordings or alternate tracks (all playable) by artists like Rush, Metallica and Weezer; and countless fans — who could now perform as cohesive four-man bands online — later, it for years remained a default house party icebreaker of choice. Providing the now-defunct MTV Games a then-marquee entrée into the gaming universe, it also laid the foundations for groundbreaking tributes (The Beatles: Rock Band), cutting-edge online innovations (Rock Band Network) and future motion-controlled games (Dance Central) to come. Backed by the network’s cachet, Harmonix founders Alex Rigopoulos and Eran Egozy were able to assemble what was once the greatest video game soundtrack ever, and snag a well-deserved slot on Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2008.

Wii Music (Nintendo, 2007) – The offering let players conduct orchestras or coax sweet nothings from 60-plus instruments — bongos, maracas, guitars, violins, pianos, even cowbells — by physically manipulating the Wii remote, nunchuk controller and balance board peripheral. Beyond bringing motion-sensitivity one of the broadest ranges of musical applications ever, it also proved that classic music could hold its own against more contemporary fare, and further cemented the Wii’s long-running romance with quirky, sonically-inclined titles like Just Dance and Major Minor’s Majestic March.

Audiosurf (Audiosurf LLC, 2008) – A hugely popular independent downloadable outing (available via online retailers such as Steam) that splits the difference between rhythm, racing and puzzle-based play. A steal at under $10, it turns your collection of DRM-free digital music into unique challenges, with each song presenting new tracks, timing to master and score-boosting collectible blocks. Like a cross between Guitar Hero and futuristic speedster Wipeout, it’s easy to learn, but tremendously difficult to master, and sports that intangible quality that demands “just one more play.”

Tap Tap Revenge (Tapulous, 2008) – The iPhone Guitar Hero clone that spawned a dynasty, leading to tens of millions of downloads, numerous sequels for iPad and iPod touch (Linkin Park Revenge, Katy Perry Revenge, Riddim Ribbon, etc.) and maker Tapulous’ subsequent purchase by Disney. The first major beachhead in music gaming’s war to become a mobile, online and social gaming staple, it has rapidly becoming a torch-bearer for the genre.

Guitar Hero: World Tour (Activision, 2008) – While Guitar Hero III was the retail pinnacle for the series, single-handedly generating $1 billion in sales, this later follow-up trumped it conceptually by offering players personalized song creation utilities (albeit just instrumentals) and options to share custom-built tracks online. It was also the first Guitar Hero to cram in support for microphone and drum peripherals, in answer to perennial rival Rock Band, providing the ability to quickly construct your own shred-ready spin on “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Miss Murder” or other favorite FM staples, then watch as peers voted it to the top of weekly rankings.

The Beatles: Rock Band (MTV Games, 2009) – A groundbreaking collaboration between music channel MTV, leading developer Harmonix, Apple Corps and surviving members of the Beatles camp, this was to be interactive entertainment’s Abbey Road. But despite launching to widespread critical acclaim and sporting dizzying production values, family-friendly play and dozens of definitive, career-spanning songs from “A Hard Day’s Night” to “Can’t Buy Me Love,” it struggled to go multiplatinum. Hoped to single-handedly grow the size of the music game market, it failed to move both Baby Boomers and Gen X/Yers, though it remains a fan favorite and well-respected testament to the best the genre has to offer.

Just Dance (UbiSoft, 2009) – Family-friendly play, idiot-proof controls and an innocuous “best of” style pop/dance soundtrack propelled what’s otherwise a critically-panned (average Metacritic rating: 49 out of 100) dancing simulation for the Wii’s gesture-tracking remote to household name status. Shockingly, its 4.3 million-strong sales, a testament to the power of suburbia’s fascination with Top 40 radio and harmless hip-waggling fun, have made it the second-highest selling Wii game not from Nintendo. Top honors, naturally, are reserved for its 5 million-selling 2010 sequel, Just Dance 2, with (shocker) token follow-up Just Dance 3 already planned for the holidays.

Beaterator (Rockstar Games, 2009) – Endorsed by hip-hop heavyweight Timbaland and inspired by a Web browser music mixing tool, this downloadable and PlayStation Portable beat-making utility allows aspiring producers to craft and share their own tracks. Like earlier efforts Traxxpad and KORG DS-10, helps everyday gaming fans migrate from idle listeners to hit-making artists in their own right.

Def Jam Rapstar (4mm Games, 2010) – Succeeded where earlier karaoke efforts (e.g. Get on Da Mic) failed, making rapping along with tracks by Drake, Lil’ Wayne and the Notorious B.I.G. realistic, enjoyable and socially acceptable in shared company. One of the first games to pay proper respect to hip-hop culture, it eschewed earlier outings’ such as Def Jam: Icon and Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style’s gonzo fighting elements to focus instead on beats and rhymes. That MCs could also share videos of freestyle battles online was simply an added plus, helping aspiring lyricists the world over step up their game schooling Internet haters with witty one-liners and quirky couplets.

Rock Band 3 (MTV Games, 2010) – Among the series’ best installments, this edition adds more realistic “Pro” instrument play and support for both a 25-key MIDI keyboard and three-part vocal harmonies. As much music teaching tool as actual game, critical praise unfortunately far outstripped commercial performance, leading owner Viacom to sell developer Harmonix and shutter its MTV Games division.


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