Music video games give a taste of performance

wen Sound Sun Times (On)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

I really like music and I really like video games, so naturally I like the two combined.

Essentially a music game is a game in which you play the game along with music.

They most often have licensed soundtracks to heighten the appeal, but actual game play varies greatly from title to title.

Music games as a concept originated in Japan.

Japanese arcades are full of them. These games mostly allow you to emulate playing an instrument. Japanese versions of these include guitar, drum and turntable games.

At the heart of a rhythm game is responding to the beat of the music.

Most games have an interface in which some kind of shape moves past a point on the screen to the beat and you have to hit a button or perform an action corresponding to that shape.

It sounds very monotonous, but they’re fun to play and easier to get into than one might think.

A large part of the appeal of these games is the interactivity – most of them have a controller or controllers that look like instruments.

They also recreate the sense of accomplishment in playing a musical instrument, but without the hours of practice with no immediate reward.

I’ve spent a lot of time with two vastly different music games: Guitar Hero II (for PS2 and Xbox360) and Elite Beat Agents (for the DS)

Guitar Hero II is by far the more traditional of the two. It comes with a controller that looks like a Gibson guitar, with five colour-coded buttons on the “fretboard” of the guitar and a switch where you would pick the strings.

The game’s soundtrack spans about four decades and includes hits and songs you’re guaranteed never to have heard before.

To start, you pick a rock ‘n’ roller to represent you, a guitar and a song. As you start to play a stage appears, with your character as lead guitarist in a band. Superimposed over this is a large guitar fret board that scrolls towards the screen.

Colour-coded marks in time with the guitar scroll towards the screen. You have to hold down the appropriate buttons while clicking the “strum bar” in time to the music, sort of like you were playing guitar. If you hit the note at the right time you’ll hear the guitar part along with the rest of the band, but hit the wrong note and you’ll hear a dead fret noise and the crowd booing.

The single player mode lets you go through various gigs and earn money for equipment until you reach the final encore (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird”, complete with solo)

The way the guitar controller responds and the way the songs sound is very convincing. You really feel like you’re rocking out.

But what really sells the game are the small details. As you play the speaker cones move in beat to the music. The drummer keeps the correct beat and your virtual guitar player strums and moves around the neck in a remarkably convincing way. This all makes it feel like you’re rocking, while you never have to tune a string.

And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, the game gets HARD, and frustratingly so, but it’s very rewarding to make it all the way through songs like “Freebird,” or Buckethead’s original recording of “Jordan,” specifically for the game.

The game starts out very easy, just playing the roots of the song, but stick with it all the way to expert mode and you’ll be hitting pretty much every note the original guitarist did as you try to get a five-star rating and a good (virtual) press review of your show.

Guitar hero is a great bet for a music game as it walks the line between simulating playing guitar and keeping it accessible for non-musicians. It’s great fun if you’ve never played guitar before, and if you’ve wailed on any axes, you’ll appreciate all the small details.

On the other side of the music game coin is Elite Beat Agents for the Nintendo DS.

This game doesn’t have an instrument-like controller, but it’s very interactive thanks to the DS’ touch screen.

Elite Beat Agents follows a trio of super spies helping people with their everyday activities such as running a successful car company and finding buried treasure.

They help by dancing, and you help them dance. The song’s soundtrack is composed of licensed, recognizable songs.

As the songs play, colour-coded numbered dots appear on the screen. You have to tap them in time with the music to make the agents dance well. This, in turn, makes the people they are helping do well.

Sounds like a ridiculous concept. It is. That’s why it’s so fun, it’s off the wall, but the controls work very well, the tapping is natural and responsive and the scenarios are well drawn and well presented in a comic book style. As with Guitar Hero II it gets hard, but it’s very rewarding as you feel a sense of accomplishment and you unlock hidden songs.

Elite Beat Agents is based on a Japanese series of games called Ose! Tatakae! Ouendan! which include two games.

The core game play is the same as Elite Beat Agents, so if you like it either Ouendan game can be fairly easily imported on the Internet. (I prefer the Japanese versions as they are even wackier.)

Guitar Hero II and Elite Beat Agents come from opposite ends of the spectrum of music games, but both are fun, addictive and easy to jump into. If you like these, there are many more music games, both more realistic and zanier to check out, but don’t take my word for it!

Calen Henry is a fourth year student of Japanese Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University. He grew up in Owen Sound, has been a gamer since childhood and is also interested in music and film.

© 2007 Osprey Media Group Inc. All rights reserved.

Advertisements