I’ve been a fan of music-based “rhythm action” games ever since they started being a thing around the time of the PS1 era, and while there aren’t anywhere near as many around these days as there were in their heyday, there are still some great ones out there. And, of course, those old games are, in most cases, just as playable today, so long as you can deal with some dated graphics!
Without further ado, then, here are five* of my favourites.
I can’t quite remember if this was my first ever encounter with rhythm action, but it was certainly one of my favourite games of the PS1 era. It’s also the sort of game that would probably never see a retail release these days: it’d be much more likely to be a £15-20 downloadable game. (In fact, why isn’t it downloadable on PSN? Get on that, Sony!)
Bust-A-Groove was an unusual and creative title that took the overall aesthetic of a one-on-one fighter and transplanted the hot versus action into the context of a dancing competition. Each song was based on four-beat bars, and in each bar you’d have to make sure you hit one of the face buttons on the PlayStation controller on the fourth beat. As you built up combos, you were given more and more directional inputs to squeeze in before that all-important fourth beat, but these didn’t need to be in time. You were usually pressing O or X on the fourth beat, but pressing Triangle would allow you to use one of your character’s special attacks (limited in the number of times you could use them per stage) and pressing Square would allow you to dodge an incoming special attack from the previous bar; failure to do so would put you out of action for a few bars and allow your opponent to get ahead.
Bust-A-Groove wasn’t perfect, particularly in two-player mode, where two equally matched players tended to reach a stalemate due to the way the game’s scoring worked. But as a single-player rhythm action game in particular, it’s still hard to beat — and it had some of the most memorable songs of any game I’ve ever played.
I always get Frequency and Amplitude mixed up — one was the sequel to the other — so I’ll cop out and put them both in here, since they were fairly similar to one another, as I recall.
Frequency and Amplitude were early titles from Harmonix, who would go on to create the Rock Band series. And it’s clear where the inspiration for those later, more popular titles came from: Frequency and Amplitude had the “note highways” almost as we recognise them today, but with a twist: you were playing all the parts on your controller.
This wasn’t as ridiculous as it sounds; what you’d do is pick a “track” (as in, part of a song, not a whole album track or something) and bang out a decent combo on it. After a short period, that track would “lock” in place and continue playing, allowing you to move on to another one and gradually build up the texture of the music, effectively creating a dynamic remix as you played. Perform well enough and you’d be able to get all the parts going together; perform badly and it would sound like a teenage wannabe rock group attempting to perform a piece far too ambitious for them one lunchtime at school.
Space Channel 5 Parts 1 and 2
Yes, I know that’s two games, making my “five” rather dishonest (particularly after including both Frequency and Amplitude), but really, Space Channel 5 deserves to be considered as a complete… thing. Because it’s quite something.
I’ve often described Space Channel 5 as “the gayest game ever” (the second-gayest game ever being Final Fantasy X-2) and I stand by that sentiment. Gloriously, unabashedly cheesy and camp as fuck with a kitschy ’60s sci-fi aesthetic, Space Channel 5 sees the leggy pink-haired beauty Ulala strutting her way to fending off an alien invasion and eventually saving the galaxy from the machinations of an evil villain.
Space Channel 5’s gameplay is extremely simple, essentially boiling down to a game of rhythmic Simon Says. Flowing pretty much seamlessly from cutscene to gameplay, Ulala would be confronted with some sort of sticky situation to resolve, and would have to do so by copying the moves of whatever dastardly (or, in many cases, not-so-dastardly) foe she’s facing this time. The twist on the usual Simon Says formula is that you have to do it in rhythm as your “partner” did it, too, and there are some seriously challenging rhythms to deal with. Once you learn it, though, you should be able to rattle through the whole game in about twenty minutes or so, but it’s very replayable, much like an entertaining short movie. Space Channel 5 Part 2 also comes with a sort of “challenge mode” alongside the main story, and that’s a lot tougher.
Space Channel 5 Part 2 is also noteworthy for featuring a bizarre cameo from a low-polygon depiction of the late Michael Jackson… sorry, “Space Michael”.
Elite Beat Agents
Elite Beat Agents is one of the best games on the Nintendo DS, and, surprisingly, one of the most effective examples of storytelling I’ve ever seen.
The titular Agents are tasked with jetting off around the world to save people from various mishaps, and they do so by dancing at them. Exactly how this solves the problem is anyone’s guess, but it seems to work, even going so far as to fend off an alien invasion accompanied by Jumpin’ Jack Flash in the wonderful finale.
The game uses licensed tracks (albeit cover versions in most cases) to complement the on-screen action and help tell their stories, and there’s at least one instance where the combination of music, subject matter and events in the story are genuinely emotional. You know the one if you’ve played it. (Also, it’s in the video above.)
But aside from all this, Elite Beat Agents is a strong rhythm game that makes excellent use of the DS’ touchscreen and stylus — and is a challenge and a half even for the most seasoned rhythm game pro, to boot. It’s just a pity we never saw the sequel over here.
Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f
I include Project Diva f (and its PS3 counterpart F, though I greatly prefer playing on Vita) on this list rather than its (apparently superior) sequel largely because I haven’t played said sequel. Project Diva f is a great game in its own right, however, and made me all sorts of happy the first time I played it, largely because it reminded me of the old PS1-era games.
It’s no Bust-A-Groove, though; no regular beats for you here. Instead, you’re expected to play Project Diva f’s levels like a percussion instrument. Depending on the piece in question, you might be accompanying the vocals, lead guitar and synth, rhythm section or even playing some completely different counter-rhythms that complement the main bulk of the music. The lower difficulties are deceptively easy; the higher difficulties are as challenging as playing an actual instrument.
It’s satisfying though. Pulling off a “Perfect” score on a difficult level is a wonderful feeling, and it’s something that will only come with practice — remember that, when games didn’t hand victory to you on a plate? Yes, in order to get good at Project Diva f you’re going to have to do more than just try each song once or twice; you’re going to have to actually learn them, so that eventually you don’t even need to look at the incoming note patterns, you can just perform them. When you reach that stage, then you’re a true Miku master.
Senran Kagura: Bon Appetit!
I won’t lie, I’ve lost count now, but I’m pretty sure we’re not doing “five” any more. Oh well.
Senran Kagura: Bon Appetit! is a game in which the ninja girls of Senran Kagura take time off from fighting each other and worrying about youma to indulge themselves in a cooking competition organised by pervy old ninja master Hanzo, who apparently wants nothing more than to watch his granddaughter and her friends literally cook each other’s clothes off in an attempt to secure a Super-Secret Ninja Art Scroll that will grant one wish.
It is as ridiculous as it sounds, but there’s actually a really solid, fun — albeit simple and straightforward — rhythm game underneath, with some wonderful pieces of original music; for those less familiar with Senran Kagura, it has consistently great soundtracks, and Bon Appetit! is no exception; good job for a music game, huh?
Not only that, but the game actually makes an effort to put all this ridiculousness in context with story sequences just like those in the mainline Senran Kagura games. It does take great pains to point out that you probably shouldn’t take Bon Appetit! too seriously or expect it to be acknowledged in the “canonical” Senran Kagura narrative, but it’s more than just a generic rhythm game with the Senran Kagura characters hastily slapped atop it.
It’s lewd as fuck, though; if you thought the clothes-ripping action of the main games was a touch on the suggestive side, you’ve not experienced anything until you’ve seen the cast posing provocatively and naked atop various delicious-looking desserts. But that is what Senran Kagura does, and by golly, we love it for it.
Love Live! School Idol Festival
The most recent addition to this list (which I’ve been keeping in my head prior to this post), Love Live! School Idol Festival is one of a few games that have got me playing games on my phone again for the first time in ages.
The basic rhythm gameplay of School Idol Festival is solid, and designed well for touchscreens — the icons you have to tap are all arranged in an inverted arc across the screen, making it easy to hit them all with your thumbs even when holding on to your phone. The songs are a lot of fun, too, capturing a lot of the energy of the show — and, of course, making use of some of the show’s most well-known and loved songs.
But arguably the more interesting thing about School Idol Festival — and the thing that keeps players coming back to it day after day — is its comprehensive metagame. At its core, it’s a fairly standard Japanese style collectible card game — collect cards of varying rarity, sacrifice cards you don’t need to level up cards you do need, increase the rarity of cards and assemble a powerful team — but the attachment to Love Live! makes it very endearing, and the game even goes so far as to include fully-voiced (in Japanese) visual novel-style story sequences as you make progress. The metagame also affects your performance; better cards will allow you to obtain better scores, and different cards have different “skills” that trigger over the course of a song and provide you with bonuses or other benefits.
You’ll obviously get the most out of School Idol Festival if you’re already familiar with Love Live!, but even if you’re not, it’s a solid rhythm game in its own right — so long as you like super-happy, cheerful, saccharine-sweet J-idol music. And I’m not sure I trust anyone who says they don’t!
Okay, okay, I’m done. Whatever.