Here’s an oddball corner of the game-o-verse for you: rhythm games. Just bringing up the very concept will inspire deep division amongst gamers. Much like a certain vegetable preserve, you either love them or hate them. I face torn reactions when I mention my love for the genre, ranging from exalted agreement to utter derision. “You absolute casual,” they cry. “Is that like Guitar Hero?” query the rest.
In short, there doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground of opinion when it comes to rhythmic button-tappin’. Largely, I suspect, because of the knack it takes to get to grips with them. Case study: I have a mate who’ll play pretty much any game under the sun I care to recommend, yet rhythm games are tough; he just cannot get with the beat, try as he might. Not intending to mock that, mind you. Far from it. Reverse the roles and put me in front of a battle royale shooter, and I’m buggered.
I, however, like to think I’m pretty musically inclined. I’ve jumped and jived my way through countless rhythm games and have a fair few I’d love to spotlight. And with God of Rock, a fab rhythm-brawler from Modus Games, on the horizon, here’s a look at a handful of my personal faves.
1. Rhythm Thief and the Emperor’s Treasure (3DS, 2012)
Starting on our original home turf, we have SEGA’s Rhythm Thief and the Emperor’s Treasure. Man, talk about a franchise being totally shot in the cradle before it even got a chance to walk. This quirky 3DS title garnered heaping helpings of critical praise on its 2012 debut. However, it nonetheless met with a financial mauling. Mobile spinoff quickly crapped out, sequel quietly cancelled, burgeoning anime adaptation plans binned. And it’s such a shame, because within the genre there really isn’t anything like Rhythm Thief.
You play a dude named Raphael. This Parisian student moonlights as Phantom R – a suave thief on the trail of Napoleon Bonaparte’s treasure. Said treasure, he reckons, will lead him to his father who vanished mysteriously five years prior. As fathers of troubled protagonists tend to do. From there? God, all sorts happens. A convent-dwelling girl named Marie discovers her lineage and kicks off a fight against a resurrected Napoleon; Raphael has run-ins with a paragliding child detective who attacks with soccer balls; and Raphael’s loyal pooch Fondue finds himself in a love triangle. To give away the absurd, Layton-esque twists would be a disservice to anyone who fancies giving the game a spin. But suffice it to say there are a few face-slapping moments of endearing narrative stupidity (and the requisite finale with a big-ass mechanical thing in the sky).
The Layton parallels are also excruciatingly obvious in the game’s structure. You walk around painterly 2D environments, prodding with the stylus to uncover coins, assorted extras and witty dialogue options. Or, in the lone point of divergence from the otherwise faithfully-ripped off Layton formula, one of the 100 rhythm games (as opposed to puzzles). These are the true stars of the show; to a series of infectious tracks, you’ll sneak into the Louvre, fend off robotic knights with a handgun, chow down on giant steaks, pose as a poncey waiter, pull off hardcore parkour, and more. Control schemes vary from game to game, keeping things fresh, and there’s even the odd homage to Samba de Amigo and Space Channel 5 tossed in for the nerds. All told, Rhythm Thief is a fantastic time with a bangin’ soundtrack – please Google ‘Showtime’ and ‘Looting the Louvre’ – that I can’t recommend enough. Pop onto eBay and steal yourself a deal, pronto.
All told, Rhythm Thief is a fantastic time with a bangin’ soundtrack – please Google ‘Showtime’ and ‘Looting the Louvre’ – that I can’t recommend enough. Pop onto eBay and steal yourself a deal, pronto.
2. Rhythm Heaven: Fever (Wii, 2011)
I’ve got a bone to pick with you, Nintendo. Why is Rhythm Heaven called ‘Beat the Beat’ here in the UK? What, do you think we’re all a bunch of atheists? That we worry the mere mention of Heaven might pose a risk to our poor impressionable children? Or, more boringly, that market research indicated it’d sell better here under that name? Whatever the reason, we should probably be thankful we even got such an off-the-wall, quintessentially Japanese game as Rhythm Heaven localized to begin with. Just me begging and choosing, as per usual.
The actual quality of Rhythm Heaven (not calling it Beat the Beat, formal protest) amply compensates for this confusion. There’s no story to speak of, really; you just select one of the generous number of musical minigames, and off you go. In a gorgeous hand-animated style, you’ll batter your Wiimote’s A and B buttons to the beat of a variety of frankly insane scenarios. Scenarios that could only have been conceived of several feet under the influence. Or in Japan. Basically the same thing.
One stage has you golfing with a pair of mandrills. Another has you ensuring a wristwatch powered by monkeys functions correctly. Yet another has you spinning pigs on office chairs. Kicking balls away from canoodling gophers; helping germs cavort their way through a Petri dish; keeping breaded shrimp in time to a conga line; the list goes on. The constant invention and charm on display across the entire package, right down to the optional ‘café’ area where you can chill with the NPCs between minigames, elevates this above being a mere compilation.
Add into that the fact the game majorly tips its hand with its ‘Go For a Perfect’ challenges (which will pop a blood vessel, grow you a new one then pop that too) and you’re onto a winner. If you can stomach the weirdness, which is like WarioWare after downing three packets of sherbet, you’ll be over the moon.
3. Elite Beat Agents (DS, 2006)
Here’s one I haven’t touched for years, but which has never left my head regardless. Elite Beat Agents is something of a cult classic. Released on the DS under Nintendo’s ‘Touching Generations’ scheme – which sounds less like what it actually is (a label intended to attract generally non-gamer demographics like the elderly) and more like a harassment support group – it’s the first game on our list to make use of real-world songs. Hissssss! But that’s okay, because they’re encased in a mold of that unique whimsy only mid-2000s DS games could evoke. You know what I mean: the crunchy soundbites, the experimental vibe, the occasional forays into FMV, the widgety presentation.
Elite Beat Agents, developed by the curiously-capitalized iNiS, was an attempt to produce a Western-oriented successor to the Japanese-only Ouendan; which also saw considerable success as an untranslated import. The game concerns a band of cheery fellows, the titular agents, who galvanize ordinary folks through tough situations via the power of song. Only songs that the developers could license, however. The Agents are nothing if not litigious.
Your DS touch screen will soon be smoking from the pounding your stylus will be giving it, as you tap, drag and scribble to the likes of ‘YMCA’, ‘ABC’ (man, there are a lot of acronym songs, huh?) and ‘Walkie Talkie Man.’ These tracklists, of course, firmly date the title in 2006 – but it’s tough to care as you help pirates plunder some treasure while The Village People warble in the background. An absolute standout chapter, and the one which probably earned the game most of its accolades, is the one where a dad who died before he could give his son a Christmas present is summoned back from the dead by the Agents boogying to ‘You’re the Inspiration.’ The father’s spectre ultimately materializes, and gives his son what he always wanted: a humble teddy bear. No, I’m not crying. I’m sweating through my eyes.
Combining some classic tunes with some great comic-book visuals and the odd tearjerker moment, Elite Beat Agents is definitely something special. Give the Agents a call if you fancy it.
4. Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory (Switch, PC, PS4, Xbox One, 2020)
This one puts me in a bit of a sticky wicket. See, I can’t really recommend Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory unless you’re already deeply married to the absurd Kingdom Hearts lore, because it provides only a CliffsNotes recap of what came before, before leaping fully into the usual insanity come the third act. Only Tetsuya Nomura would be bonkers enough to make a bloody rhythm spinoff integral to the plot, after all. But at the same time, the core gameplay is so fun, and the musical caliber so fine, that I’d be remiss if I told non-believers to avoid it entirely. I can’t make you decide either way, of course, so how about I just describe the thing?
Sora is missing, after he faded into inexistence following the end of Kingdom Hearts 3. He vanished because he tinkered with death by way of time travel by way of splitting his heart by way of – you know what, forget it. I’m neck-deep in this stuff after two decades of following the franchise and even I’d say there’s little point recounting the plot. Perhaps someday soon I’ll finally write that ‘Kingdom Hearts In a Nutshell’ feature I’ve always had my eye on (editor permission pending). Upshot is, Sora’s band of friends are trying to track him down, but can’t find him in any plane of reality they know of. Which is like six planes of reality, for anyone keeping score.
Up steps Kairi, Sora’s kind-of sorta love interest, who volunteers to have her memories probed by Ansem the Wise’s machinery to see if they can uncover any clues as to where Sora might be. As good a starting point as any, I suppose. And to be fair, it technically means Kairi’s the protagonist here, and she’s even the one on the game’s cover – about damn time.
From there, it’s just an excuse to revisit the entire 15-game-long Kingdom Hearts saga up to that point, reviewing a few of the major beats and locales from each title in musical form. You pick one of the series’ three core trios (Sora, Donald and Goofy; Roxas, Axel and Xion; or Terra, Aqua and Ventus) to smash and thwack your way through hordes of Heartless. Your chosen heroes will run automatically, and blindly, into the screen and it’s your task to keep their unseeing butts safe. As if by magic, the enemies will spawn in precise synchronization with the music’s tempo, so as you administer the usual KH smackdown, you’ll need to stay in time.
What sets Melody of Memory apart from other examples on this list is that it’s a full-blown RPG. All the series staple moves (Keyblade swiping, dodge rolls, air slashes, gliding, magic spells) are here and can be pulled off at will, enabling you to tackle stages how you please. Plus, the trios actually level up and have equippable items, not unlike Final Fantasy: Theatrhythm, a similar Square-Enix effort. It’s very strong stuff. Perhaps the only downside is the lack of explicitly ‘Disney’ tunes; aside from the mandatory Let it Go, Circle of Life and maybe one or two others relegated to an optional music video mode, you get diddly squat from the Mouse House, which is disappointing since that’s half of KH’s appeal. Still, that means the focus is on Yoko Shimomura’s stellar compositions, which is no bad thing.
Overall, while Melody of Memory has the unfortunate gate for entry that is reading up on Nomura’s twenty-year fanfiction, if you can look past that you’ll find a marvelous RPG-rhythm experience. May your heart – and the beat – be your guiding key!
Thus does the curtain come down on our little vaudeville show of rhythm games. There are so many more I could have touched on. Parappa the Rapper, with its cheesily awful visuals and addictive bar-spitting gameplay. Major franchises like Just Dance, which somehow manage to keep cranking out year after year. Hell, I could even have started cheating and listing rhythm minigames from otherwise non-rhythm titles, because there are some good ‘uns out there. But I’m happy with the four I’ve spotlighted today, as I feel they all need more love. Much like me. A hug doesn’t go amiss every once in a while, Ed.
Rock on, readers, and look forward to God of Rock when it lands later this year! Any rhythm games you love which we didn’t mention? Let us know!