Friday, 30 April 2010

The Hills are alive...

I'm aware that I haven't really touched on music games much in this blog. The reason for this is that there isn't a lot to say about them. They can't be wilfully misinterpreted as metaphors for the feminist struggle and they don't tend to feature tear-jerking stories about self-sacrifice. There are never any vehicle sections and I've never come across a romantic subplot. Also I am 23 years old (or thereabouts) and like to think that I have better things to do than get really good at playing Knights of Cydonia on a plastic guitar. Scoff scoff.

But despite being 23 years old (or, you know, thereabouts) I am still quite happy to dedicate hours to Final Fantasy XIII and have even made it to the bit where you actually get to play the game properly (about 20 hours in). So I thought maybe it was about time to cast my sardonic eye Sauron-style over music video games, and perhaps work out why I have avoided doing so thus far.

Actually, I know why I have avoided talking about music video games for so long. It because they clearly herald the coming of the apocolypse.

Talking about licensed music video games such as Hannah Montana: Music Jam is as good a place to start as any because if we start with the scary stuff, we'll have the rest of the article to recover. Like in The Mummy when there's that horrible bit near the beginning where the guy gets his eyes and his tongue ripped out by Imhotep and that scarab burrows into the other guy's eye but then the rest of the film is more about Brendan Fraser falling over and it all becomes a lot easier to cope with and you wonder why you were so scared of the scarabs in the first place.

That said, it is a little unfair of me to pick on Hannah Montana: Music Jam because I haven't actually played it. All I know that if we're not careful, Hannah Montana will take over the world, and the least we can do as a species is prepare.

In gaming terms however, Hannah Montana: Music Jam shouldn't give Gordon Freeman any sleepless nights. According to various reviews, it's a vaguely competant effort comprised of various minigames, the largest of which is a rhythm game in which Hannah has to play the guitar or sing a series of notes in order to invoke the firey demons of hell rock out the show.

Like many licensed games, i.e. games which are direct adaptations of film, television or music franchises, Hannah Montana: Music Jam doesn't have anything to offer people who aren't already fans of the original franchise. For an 8-13 year old girl who has already fallen under the psychic control of already watches Hannah Montana, I assume the game has the potential to be quite fun.

Taking into account the intended audience is necessary when reviewing a licensed game, and is one of the thousands of reasons why I don't review games. There have been a couple, such as Batman: Arkham Asylum and the hallowed GoldenEye 007 whose fun-quotient meant that they could appeal to people who aren't necessarily rabid fans of Batman or Bond. Mainly, this is because both these guys are cool and awesome and have loads of super fun gadgets to play with and so lend themselves to being video game characters. It would be fun to talk more about licensed games, but I'll do so at a later date. Let's get back to the music, man.

Unlike Bruce Wayne, Curtis James Jackson III, otherwise known 50 Cent, does not have any super fun gadgets to play with. Moreover, he is at a distinct disadvantage because he is a real person. No quasi-mythological back-story for him. Neither can 50 Cent (or "Fiddy", as he apparently prefers to be known) really do anything that a normal person couldn't do given a gun and a slightly troubling attitude towards the acquisition of wealth. Consequently, 50 Cent: Bulletproof is a fairly pedestrian shooter involving Fiddy running around mumbling at people and blowing things up.

This makes 50 Cent: Bulletproof unusual amongst games featuring musicians because it is not a music simulator. I include it here because its inherent rubbishness makes a good case for all games featuring musicians to actually feature music as well. Rather than concentrate on the no doubt awesome and cool life of a rap star, 50 Cent: Bulletproof tries to glamourise Fiddy's "real life" adolescence in which he gets shot (lots). This is all very well, but not only does it do so with absolutely no sense of humour at all, but there are countless games which do the whole "shooting" thing much better. Shooting has been a staple of video games since there were video games. In reimagining himself as a video game character who shoots stuff, Fiddy is competing with some of the greatest legends video games have ever produced.

Now I know that in "real life", Fiddy has actually shot at people, but do you think that he did it with such aplomb as Duke Nukem?

No, I don't think so either.

What I would have told Fiddy if he had asked my opinion (and I don't know why he didn't, I wasn't particularly busy at the time) is that although yes, he is a b***** m********* with a gun, he is also a rapper. Now Fiddy, I would have said, that's pretty cool, isn't it? How many other video game characters can you think of that are rappers? That's right Fiddy. One. Just one. And he's a puppy (more on him later).

The thing is, it would just have made evolutionary sense for Fiddy to compete in the arena with least competition (i.e. the video game rapping arena) as opposed to an arena completely stuffed with heavyweight opposition (i.e. the video game shooting arena).

Now that's not to say that licensed music games which play to the, erm, strengths of the artists in question are always great. Or even good. For example, Spice World is an dreadful steaming turd of a game.

Actually, it's rubbish for the same reason that 50 Cent: Bulletproof is rubbish, in that it doesn't play to the (ahem) "artists"' strengths. Just as any game featuring Fiddy should be about rapping, so any game featuring the Spice Girls should be about dressing up. Spice World consists of five limping mini games, one of which gives lucky players the opportunity to "remix" the best songs in the Spice Girls' discography. And by "remix" the game means "re-arrange", allowing players to place phrases from "Wannabe" in a different order. Yes, that's right, you too can replay the phrase "Yo, I'll tell you what I want what I really really want" over and over again for two minutes.

Where Psygnosis (bafflingly responsible for the rather excellent Lemmings) really missed a trick is by completely misinterpreting the Spice Girls' appeal. The Spice Girls were not about the music. Anyone who had working ears in 1997 can vouch for this. No, the Spice Girls were successful because their clothing and hair clearly distinguished them from one another. All Saints were around at the same time, but they were never as successful. This is because no matter how well they harmonised or how good their songs were (that they wrote themselves), no blotchy-legged 10-year old girl ever devoted an entire break time to discussing which sulky girl in green combat trousers they were most like.

No, they were too busy hiding out in the library, using scented gel pens to augment their drawings of themselves in Spice Girls outfits, clearly delineated by the colour of their hair and whether they were wearing leopard print or platform trainers. Every copy of Mizz, Shout, Girl Talk and J-17 for about 3 years featured a "which Spice Girl are you?" quiz. I went to about 3 Spice Girl sleepovers in as many months where I had to decide in advance (in consultation with the other guests, of course), which Spice Girl I was going to come as. (Sporty. Always bloody Sporty)

Which begs the question of why, Psygnosis, why on earth did you release a Spice Girls game which left you unable to alter the Spice Girls hair, clothing and make-up? The Spice Girls existed so everyone from Walkers Crisps to Chupa Chups could market five of everything in different colours so kids could buy the one that they felt most represented them. Spice World featured 5 almost identical models with irritatingly similar dance moves who all wore the same thing (actually, Emma didn't have her midriff showing, but that's it).

Dear me. That said, it wasn't as bad as Earache Extreme Metal Racing.

Since the dark days of Spice World however, licensed music video games recieved a bit of a boost. The last decade has witnessed the advent of Guitar Hero and its bastard offspring Rock Band. Unless you have been living under a rock, you will know that these games enable players to pretend they are playing real musical instruments by pressing coloured buttons on little plastic replicas of musical instruments. The first few games featured a good mix of tracks from rock and metal bands, and guitarists Slash (Guns 'n Roses) and Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) lent their likenesses to Guitar Hero III for what I imagine to be vast sums of money.

Later, those well-known paragons of restraint Aerosmith decided to buy extra helicopters with the royalties they earned from lending their songs and likenesses to Guitar Hero: Aerosmith.

Not to be outdone, the equally modest Metallica did exactly the same thing for the imaginatively-titlted Guitar Hero: Metallica. In order for a track to be suitable for inclusion in Guitar Hero, it must be remixed in order
to place the guitar sound at centre stage. Interestingly, the Guitar Hero mix of Metallica's album Death Magnetic was deemed better than the more compressed album release, which irritated fans and amused critics.

Critics, that is, who don't take music too seriously, which actually eliminates about 99% of music critics. Those 99%, alongside "serious" gamers (i.e. gamers with no sense of humour as opposed to people who are serious about how awesome video games are) really dislike Guitar Hero. This is because "it's not like playing a real instrument" (humourless rock critics) or "it's not a proper video game" (humourless gamers).

The ire stems from somewhere different depending on who you are. Humourless music fans dislike Guitar Hero for the same reason that Q magazine doesn't like Girls Aloud. Whilst Q is busy compiling serious features such as "50 Greatest Stadium Tours Ever", "100 Greatest Frontmen Ever" and "1000 Most Impressive Genitalia Ever", Girls Aloud are busy having fun and selling records. "They're not doing it properly", argues the journalist, "they just went on a talent show, did some dance routines, and now everyone thinks they're great. They don't write songs or play instruments. They are simply not proper musicians. Like, erm, Liam Gallagher".

Told you the apocalypse was coming.

Anyway, Q rather misses the point here because nobody needs Girls Aloud to play instruments or write songs. They are required to sing catchy pop for Friday night hijinx and up-tempo stuff for to accompany housework. I'm sorry, but on those occasions, Radiohead just doesn't cut it.

Similarly, Guitar Hero allows people who cannot play a real guitar to pretend to play a plastic guitar and have fun doing it. This attracts unprecidented ire from some camps. On one hand, I understand that there is questionable value in spending one's free time learning to complete "The Number of the Beast" on Expert, by yourself. But on the other hand there is huge value in a pair of buddies headbanging in the front room as they gurn through "The Number of the Beast" on Medium whilst everyone else sings along. Everyone has played air guitar at some point, and the Guitar Hero controllers are teriffic simulators. Sure, they're nothing like playing an actual guitar, but they are exactly like you imagine playing a guitar would be if you have never played an actual guitar. If you follow.

In short, Guitar Hero is fun, and it's funny how although you get guitarists complaining like it's nothing like a real guitar, you don't tend to get astronauts and marines complaining about how video games don't accurately represent their profession.

There is also a faction of gamers who aren't too keen on Guitar Hero or indeed rhythm games in general. This is because they appeal to people who don't necessarily like video games. Again, I find this opinion difficult to understand. It's as if one should not be allowed to enjoy the Elysian Fields of frivolous games like Guitar Hero unless you've battled through the Hades of Ninja Gaiden first, which is nonsense.

A gripe I do understand, however, is the one that bemoans peripherals. If you've just got one copy of Guitar Hero with a couple of plastic guitars, then fair enough. But if you decide you want Rock Band as well (which you will need to play the entire Beatles back catalogue), you must have all this:

Which all seems like a lot of faff.

Heigh ho. An ancestor of Guitar Hero is Dance Dance Revolution, the famous dancing game which emerged in the arcades of Japan. Japanese arcades have had rhythm games for decades, but it wasn't until Dance Dance Revolution that rhythm games became big in the West as a mainstream rather than marginal activity.

Dance Dance Revolution is a rhythm game in its purest form, in which music tracks generate a series of commands on screen (represented by arrows) which the player must match with their feet on the dancing stage below. In the west, it was hugely popular amongst girls who tended not to play video games, and paved the way for other games-for-people-who-don't-game, such as Guitar Hero.

However, the cradle of civilisation as far as rhythm and music games are concerned was more of a dog basket.

PaRappa the Rapper is perhaps the most influential rhythm game of all time. As you might have twigged, it features a rapping dog called PaRappa who is rapping to win the heart of Sunny Funny. Like Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution, players have to press the right buttons at the right time in order to progress through the track. Unlike those games however, PaRappa the Rapper encourages players to improvise by adding their own button taps. As long as they play the original taps as well and stick to the rhythm of the track, players are awarded points and accolades ("you rappin' COOL!") for improvising.

Furthermore, because PaRappa looks nothing like a real rapper and because action required to rap in-game (pressing buttons) is nothing like the action required to rap in real life (use vocal chords/diaphragm), PaRappa attracted nothing but praise and affection. Real rappers weren't annoyed that PaRappa was stepping on their toes, and gamers were happy because the game was just a regular video game. Not a plastic microphone in sight.

PaRappa was hugely influential. Other notable progeny include Bust a Groove, like PaRapper but with dancing.

Advancing technology means that more rhythm games are taking advantage of the fact that players often have their entire music libraries on a hard drive rather than separate discs. This means that many rhythm games now feature an engine which converts mp3s into game stages. One of the more successful in recent years has been Audiosurf, which features a floating highway and a jet car. The shape of the highway is determined by the music track chosen by the player, meaning that fast bits of music generate steep descents and slow bits feature slow inclines. The track's beat determines the placing of coloured bricks on the track, which the player must strategically collect for points.

Great fun. My very favourite rhythm game of all time remains Vib Ribbon. This game was released on the original Playstation before mp3s became mainstream. Therefore in order to play your own choice of music, you had to pause the game, remove the disc and replace it with your choice of CD.

Aah, memories.

Rhythm games show no sign of flagging, although the market for peripheral-based games such as Guitar Hero seems to be slowing down. Possibly because people's living rooms are already full of plastic instruments. I don't know. Either way, they are successful because they require no explanation to people who don't play a lot of games, and they are fun for everyone because humans have an affinity for rhythm.

As for music games in general, the horizon looks the same as it does for all licensed games. In other words, I predict that for every 99 gobsmackingly awful games featuring Miley Cyrus and/or Slipknot, there will be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

We have yet to see what form it will take.

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