Music Tech Showcase 2021: How do you take music to the next level? Surely, with all that computing power there has to be a way of effectively merging music and videogames?
Hmm… you’d have thought so but, at the time of writing, not only has a whole music/rhythm/action game genre risen and fallen but there’s no sign of today’s music stars donning a velcro-balled motion capture suit any day soon.
But, the future of music is in here somewhere, so let’s take a musical journey through music-versus-videogame’s biggest winners and losers.
Not to be confused with the 1987 global smash from The Fat Boys featuring The Beach Boys. This one is bigger than that.
In the quest to find the dawn of ‘proper music in videogames’, you have to draw a line in the sand, and we’re placing it here with the 1995 European launch of Sony’s first PlayStation and the game Wipeout.
In an age when flawless 44.1kHz ‘real music’ has replaced the bleeps and bloops of old entirely, it’s difficult to imagine the days when a videogame first sounded ‘great’, but this is really where the twin worlds of ‘proper’ music and videogames were first melded.
The upshift in gaming audio was all thanks to new CD technology and, while Sega had beaten it to it with the Saturn the year before and 3DO with its Multiplayer before that, Sony’s new console - the first PlayStation in 1995 - featured games on a compact disc based proprietary format that - while sleek black in colour - were ostensibly exactly the same as the rainbow-shiny audio version that had revolutionised music 13 years earlier.
Prior to the advent of CDs in videogames machines, soundtracks were complex code written to play a basic synthesizer chip. Massive respect to the likes of Chris Huelsbeck and his early ‘chiptune’ work on the likes of Turrican and Turrican 2 on the Amiga, and Hiroshi Miyauchi’s amazingly complex Outrun for Sega, and also the thousands of others who crammed music code into stunningly minimal memory.
By comparison, post-CD format music was simple. Now, your audio could be full ‘real’ 44.1kHz audio accessed with a simple ‘play track 1’ command.
The revolution was instant and remarkable. Games suddenly sounded great and companies had to step up their game (literally) to provide music that played the perfect partner to the - at the time - stunning new visuals.
While Namco’s Ridge Racer had set the bar with its brain-meltingly unsubtle take on techno for the Japanese release of the console (see below) it was the European release a year later that got the music/games culture clash just right.
Wipeout was produced by the UK’s Liverpool-based Psygnosis. Already years ahead of the competition when it came to CD-ROM tech (see its groundbreaking for the time Microcosm on various CD-based formats here) the team really found its feet when Sony wisely snapped it up during the PlayStation’s development and gave it some real power to play with.
Wipeout was arguably the first videogame, therefore, to feature real music by real artists. Of the 11 tracks on board it’s amazing to think that only three were by named artists - Orbital (Wipeout P.E.T.R.O.L), Leftfield (Afro Ride) and - perhaps most famously - The Chemical Brothers (Chemical Beats) - but this was enough to put Wipeout and its music front and centre at the PlayStation’s European launch and spell out the crossover combination of games, music and club culture cool.
Special mention to Psygnosis’ in-house composer Tim Wright (under the name CoLD SToRAGE) whose bespoke tracks flesh out the game and sit perfectly alongside the big names. Wright himself would go on to create the stunning-for-the-time DAW-in-your-console Music 2000 (released in the States as MTV Music Maker) for PlayStation 1.
The only casualty of the revolution it seems was UK games magazine Arcade which had to trash tens of thousands of Wipeout soundtrack CDs it pressed and intended to use as a Psygnosis-approved cover gift after realising that - since this particular soundtrack featured actual real music by actual real artists - the artists would legally require MCPS remuneration for their work. Ouch.
2. Ridge Racer
While Wipeout gets the credit for truly crossing over, it was Namco’s Ridge Racer, also for the first PlayStation and released for the Japanese launch the year before, that really outlined what the new technology had made possible.
Tasked with creating a full-soundtrack for its - at the time revolutionary - 3D driving game, the game’s music team (Nobuyoshi Sano and Ayako Saso, under the guidance of producer Shinju Hosoe) went into the studio to craft what would become a benchmark for all driving games going forwards.
In fact, so similar was the CD-style audio playback of PlayStation that it was possible to trick the machine into thinking its lid was closed and then ‘ripping’ out the disc after the loading of the code to replace it with a CD of your choice and thereby drive along to your choice of soundtrack.
Deciding that the emerging ‘techno’ music could be a good fit to the game’s fast paced graphics, the team set about creating a perfect pastiche. When grilled in retrospect about their cross-genre rock/pop/techno mashups, Hosoe confessed to PlayStation Power magazine that “this was our first attempt at making techno”. The team had simply fired up their Akai samplers and copied the styles that they had heard on imported European 12 inches.
The team inadvertently aced an extreme take on the genre that drove the already thriving techno scene in the likes of Rotterdam to ever more extreme - and previously unheard - juddering clashes of tone and tempo.
3. PaRappa The Rapper
“Kick, punch, it’s all in the mind…” We’ve covered music being used to power-up a videogame, but how about that music actually being the game?
Welcome to the world of the rhythm-action game, a genre which sprang up to dominance, before the novelty evaporated in a sea of me-too clones a few short years later.
Among the very first - and arguably still its king - was PaRappa The Rapper, a Sony exclusive (on PlayStation, of course) that broke more than a few moulds and shifted more than a few consoles.
As a brand-new console Sony needed games - something its rivals at Sega had in spades via third-party developers and their own world-class internal teams. PaRappa was a project from Sony’s semi-secret dev team Division Zero, which was tasked with trying out new ideas while the other teams took on and fleshed out games in more traditional shooting and driving genres.
PaRappa was - as its title suggests - a ‘rapping game’, requiring the player to hit the joypad’s soon-to-be-famous square, circle, triangle and cross ‘shape’ buttons in time with the music track to enable the 2D beanie-hatted dog-star to rap along with it.
Mis-time your raps too often and you’ll get boo-ed off stage. Keep up the pace and the scenery literally begins rocking and you’re through to the next track.
Its new gameplay, excellent music and innovative mash-up of 2D and 3D graphics - with the backgrounds rendered in 3D but the characters being totally flat 2D shapes, a fact gleefully revealed as the characters dance and turn as the in-game camera tracks around them - made it an instant smash (PaRappa actually being a variant of the Japanese expression for ‘paper thin’).
4. The Beatles: Rock Band
Yes, it’s Pete Best’s favourite game - a dazzling mash-up of some of the world’s most familiar songs with state-of-the-art music-based gameplay honed through one of the most tortuous backstories in gaming history.
Developer Harmonix had first made its name via theme park hardware dancing/movement game CamJam, but after limited installation in Disney parks, it went gunning for a better avenue for its music/interaction skills.
The result was PlayStation 2 game FreQuency and its follow-up Amplitude. Both were backed by Sony, which was keen to coin new music crossovers and set the PS2 apart, exactly as it had done with Wipeout and PaRappa for PS1.
However, it was when the company teamed up with hardware maker RedOctane that things really took off. RedOctane approached Harmonix with a concept for a guitar-playing game shamelessly borrowed from Konami’s Japan-only GuitarFreaks (for which it had built the bespoke guitar controller).
Harmonix would provide the interactive music bit - ostensibly an adapted version of FreQuency and Amplitude - while RedOctane would take care of the hardware. The pair were soon packaged up for a new genre-defining (and premium priced) videogame - Guitar Hero - which went on to become a smash hit via a succession of sequels.
It’s about here that things get a little confusing. Seeing the success that, out of nowhere, RedOctane was enjoying, games giant Activision stepped in to snap up the company for $100million and instantly gain top footing in the burgeoning multi-million-dollar music game industry.
Meanwhile, in a cunning coup, Viacom (via its subsidiary MTV Networks), pounced for power-behind-the-throne Harmonix… Effectively meaning that Activision had just bought a plastic guitar company.
And while Activision first drafted in software giant Neversoft (creator of the hit Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games) to make the next Guitar Hero, they soon watered down the brand across multiple platforms and versions (including early pre-smart mobile phones) with a succession of lesser and lesser developers.
The series’ low point came on Guitar Hero 5 which scored yards of ire - not least from Courtney Love - after featuring Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain as an unlockable, ‘playable’ character that enabled players to use his reanimated likeness to bust out some disrespectfully non-Nirvana jams. The less said about this the better.
Meanwhile, back in a parallel development world, Viacom/MTV tasked Harmonix with merging its Guitar Hero skills with its early work behind the scenes on Konami’s Karaoke Revolution - part of their ‘Bemani’ series (see elsewhere) - a karaoke game in the same style as Sony’s SingStar, with pitch-tracking software and hardware microphones.
The result - with a new percussion controller on board - was Rock Band, the first ‘full band’ music game that enabled guitar, vocals and drums to play together and compete. It was a big box, big bucks smash hit, but it’s the third installment in the series that’s the most remarkable.
It’s worth remembering that The Beatles had - up until this point - not only refused to allow their music to appear on streaming platforms, but had famously never allowed their music to appear in advertising or to be licenced anywhere. Therefore, the idea of any company (Activision, Viacom, MTV, RedOctane, Harmonix, whoever…) getting their hands on some of the world’s best-loved tunes was hugely unlikely.
And as for cashing in on the likenesses of the (still living and not exactly in need of a bob or two) Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and the dearly departed George Harrison and John Lennon? Forget it.
The key to unlocking this puzzle was close at hand, however, as George Harrison’s son Dhani was a huge Guitar Hero fan, and through the small print in his recording contract had already seen one of his band’s songs (thenewnumber2’s Yomp) appear as one of the many downloadable add-ons for the newly released Rock Band. At an industry dinner with Harmonix owner and MTV boss Van Toffler, Dahni praised the game and said he was a fan.
The idea for a Beatles game was now officially ‘out there’ and began to grow, with Dhani becoming the ‘inside-man’, gluing the remaining living Beatles, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, and the brains at Harmonix and MTV together.
A demo was quickly crafted and signed off and the deal and logistics required by the game began to take shape… While rumours began to swirl that the Guitar Hero team had come knocking, too. And there were sticking points on the Rock Band deal. Lots of them. Beatles owner Apple Corps rightly decided that this had to be so much more than taking existing tech and applying a topcoat of Beatles for maximum brand synergization.
In fact, the negotiations went on to take 17 months to complete before Viacom/MTV could even announce the game…
Apple Corps’ first stipulation was that The Beatles music could only appear in a Beatles-branded game rather than as any form of additional content for the preceding Rock Band games (despite this being technically a breeze to implement.)
Also the inevitable slew of additional (ie, paid-for) Beatles DLC would similarly ONLY be in The Beatles branded game and invisible to all versions, causing existing bought-in Rock Band 1 and 2 owners to cry foul.
Of course, the band would appear in the game, but given Apple Corps’ insistence that the game represent the full gamut of the group’s music, this would require precise recreation of each of the band’s famous looks and ‘periods’, meaning months of painstaking research and recreation by the developer’s artists.
Likewise the band's instruments - most famously McCartney’s Hofner 500/1 Violin Bass and John Lennon’s Rickenbacker 325 Jetglo - would of course need accurately recreating in downsized plastic.
And the locations in which the in-game avatars would pluck and bash them would require similar nit-pickingly accurate modelling of Hamburg nightclubs, the set of the Ed Sullivan Show, and Liverpool’s famous Cavern club - among other famous live landmarks - in order to appease fastidious fans.
And the absolute entirety of the above would - of course - require individual personal sign-off from Paul McCartney, Ringo Star, Yoko Ono and Oliva Harrison before any single element could appear.
Oh, and the game would be called The Beatles: Rock Band. NOT Rock Band: The Beatles.
With paperwork at least gaining some progress, the task of adapting the myriad, priceless Beatles recordings - every tape, take and out-take - could begin, being handled by a suitably sensitive Beatles-approved pro.
Step up Giles Martin, son of the band’s original producer George Martin, who was tasked with the arduous job of dismantling the tracks to create the musical stems required by the game, separating music only ever heard in unison into separate bass, guitar, drum and vocal channels for the first time.
Impressively, Martin recreated 45 classic Beatles songs in this way for the game, with a further 29 being made available as additional, purchasable DLC in the five months following the September 2009 release day.
The Beatles: Rock Band therefore contains unheard mixes of the band’s legendary tracks, enabling fans to hear them in previously unreleased light. Something that holds true to this day. There are even new endings for tracks that originally faded out - a necessity of the game’s mechanics - and these were digitally fashioned from the raw materials on the tapes. Most notable is the inclusion of a brand new final ringing chord at the end of the famously run-off-groove-hitting, abrupt Abbey Road album closer, Her Majesty.
It’s rather sad, therefore, that these 29 download-only versions are now lost to history, being wiped from the game’s storefronts on 5 May 2009 when the licensing agreement with Apple Corps expired.
It’s estimated that The Beatles: Rock Band sold over three million worldwide copies - a good result for all that effort - but less than the preceding two Rock Band games as the desire for expensive, big box, hardware music games had already started to wane.
Sensing the downturn, Viacom began trying to find a buyer for Harmonix, and by December 2010 - after ever diminishing returns from Rock Band 3 and 4 - succeeded in selling Harmonix to a new company, Harmonix-SBE Holdings LLC, as part of a tax deal that saw the music game giant change hands for a rumoured $50…
Meanwhile, back at Activision, Guitar Hero never recovered from the Cobain/GH5 debacle and multiple releases (GH: Aerosmith, GH: Van Halen, GH: Metallica) saturated a market bored with plastic guitars. There were 25 different Guitar Hero skews released in 2009…
Guitar Hero 7 was scrapped after a new six-button guitar controller - aimed to more accurately replicate playing an actual guitar - proved too expensive to manufacture.
Activision closed the GH online store, deleting 500 songs and officially bringing the rhythm action game genre to an end, on 1 December 2018.
5. Shakin’ Stevens: The Game
As early computer games came on cassettes, the inclusion of audio on the flipside of a videogame was a no-brainer. Enjoy the first game with a theme song - the B-side of 1982’s adventure game Pimania by Claire Sinclive and The Pimen here.
But what about a game being inserted into music?… Take a listen to the final track on Shakin’ Stevens’ 1983 The Bop Won’t Stop album - cassette version - for perhaps the Welsh Presley’s most avante garde work…
For those who thought that Oh Julie was a little too go-ahead (featuring - whisper it - a synth) The Bop’s closer represents the final straw. Kicking in with a Stormtrooper’s assault of electronic gunfire it rattles the teeth and the senses and - most daringly - doesn’t feature any Shaky vocal at all…
Except of course that this is all a big lie as the final track on The Bop… is in fact computer code for the “Spectrum four eight K”, no less, a fact introduced by a glum-sounding Mr Stevens himself on the tape once the strains of vinyl album closer It’s Late subside.
At this point Sinclair Spectrum “four eight K” users could connect the UK’s favourite computer and treat themselves to The Shakin’ Stevens game… and ‘enjoy’ perhaps the worst videogame ever made.
Your quest is to drive Shakey through a [cough] ‘maze’ all the way to “the ol’ house of vampires”, avoiding the vampire bats on the way. Quite why a) Shaky can’t drive himself and b) Wants to reach a house full of vampires, is anybody’s guess. It’s as if ‘Sisters of Mercy: The Game” was left looking for a home after its original endorsees kicked it to the kerb for being ‘too goth’.
As such, Shaky’s music doesn’t feature in the game at all (which is - of course - a huge shame) but his likeness does, being cunningly rendered with brutalist pixels either congratulating you (“You’ve reached the ol’ house”) or - far more often - berating you with “A bat bit you” every time your ‘car’ meets a ‘bat’. Which is about every five seconds.
And should you make it to ‘the ol’ house’ the game simply starts again… Watch the game being played here. And be thankful that you don’t have to.
6. Konami’s Bemani Games
Special mention to the master originator. It seems rather cruel to group this back catalogue of trend setters together, as Konami totally aced the music game genre in the ‘90s and is the godfather of (what remains of) the music game.
Konami’s rise to the top involved the bucking of an obvious and previously gospel videogames publishing notion: that gamers would never pay double the price for a game because it required (and came packaged with) some sort of novelty controller.
This was soon proved wrong, with the passion for new ways to play opening up hearts, minds and wallets worldwide.
It all started in the Japanese arcades, with their large, standalone Dance Dance Revolution machines that enabled Japanese players to step along with their favourite J-Pop and Para Para tracks.
But pretty soon inexpensive floormats facilitated a global rollout to home consoles everywhere.
Guitar Freaks, Drum Freaks and Keyboard Mania followed - each utilising a mini, simplified version of the instrument in question as the controller - with the most famous being Beatmania, which used a mini combo of turntable and piano keyboard that let you play, scratch and trigger samples along with dance hits of the day.
Thus the precedent was set and the boxes (and prices) got ever larger. At the genre’s peak a Limited Edition pack of The Beatles: Rock Band with all the gear required to play on board (even a mic stand) would set you back $249.99…
This multi-million selling, Euro-targeted Sony-only franchise was huge on the PlayStation 2, being THE after-the-pub, neighbour-annoying weapon of choice for thousands of student houses across the land.
However, smart-arsed players are soon able to ace the game by adopting a robotic droning style of singing, simply modulating pitch up and down until they score a hit, then singing as hard and holding each note as freakishly long as possible, with the game perceiving this as a even better than the original.
And Daniel Beddingfield’s If You’re Not The One sounded pretty awful to begin with.
8. Xplora 1: Peter Gabriel’s Secret World
Yes, take a giant leap back to the advent of ‘multimedia’, when some bright spark first had the notion of shoehorning not only a new-fangled CD-ROM drive but SPEAKERS into a computer, too. Imagine that.
The move prompted a minor, early-’90s flurry of ‘interactive experiences’ by name artists looking to spearhead the inevitable onslaught of… whatever comes after ‘music’.
Most high-profile of which was Gabriel’s Xplora 1 for the Mac, which mashed interviews and footage of the man and his WOMAD compatriots together with puzzle games and limited ways to ‘remix’ tracks and videos. The idea - as was the way with all of these things - was that the player ‘explored’ and ‘unlocked’ hidden ‘extras’…
In actuality, the player trawled the screen with a mouse pointer, clicking on things to see if something happened. Which it often didn’t. And the limited power of the machines at play meant that the video on board was limited to small framed windows on screen.
Special mention to the excellent Momus, whose This Must Stop CD-ROM did similar on a rather lower, homemade budget. Still, at least his badly animated ‘interactive experience’ featured some excellent new Momus tracks.
9. Omikron: The Nomad Soul
Going one further than Gabriel, Lord David of Bowie not only appears as a character in multi-genre leviathan Omikron: The Nomad Soul, but also contributes 10 original tracks and plays three gigs inside the game, such was his desire to dwell upon the cutting edge.
Being ahead of his time is something Bowie was famous for, but in the world of computer games, trying to squeeze a 200-page script, a third-person adventure, a first-person shooting game and a beat-em-up into a PC (and Dreamcast) in 1999 was only ever going to end in jerky disappointment.
Still, hats off to Bowie for taking the plunge, and the game’s visionary director David Cage subsequently went on to nail the odd (and more often than not unexpectedly sexual) interactive adventure genre. Press L1 to remove pants then hammer X…
10. Michael Jackson in Space Channel 5
And finally, Do Stop Cos we’ve Had Enough.
Eager to stem the tide of far more innovative titles they wheeled out the big guns with none other than Michael Jackson appearing in the game. At least that’s what it said on the box…