Are Rhythm Games Ready for a Comeback?

Azman’s experience is an alarming one. Publishers naturally have a need to be profitable; but when those same entities determine what is worthwhile based only on what has already been successful, the resulting feedback loop limits the collective imagination.

When “Guitar Hero, Rock Band, all that kind of stuff started declining, I think a lot of publishers saw that as like … the rhythm game genre is declining … so, therefore, we won’t publish any rhythm games because it’s risky,” Azman says.

“It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The Future of the Hybrid Rhythm Game

One could argue, however, that it’s the rhythm games that are most comfortable with breaking genre expectations that are now seeing renewed interest. Many rhythm games of the last decade have found wider appeal by having gameplay melded with that of other genres. Crypt of the Necrodancer (2015), which combines rogue-lite conventions with movement and combat inspired by rhythm games, was a genre mishmash so successful it inspired an official spin-off within The Legend of Zelda universe.

A number of recent rhythm games have also made other game design elements, such as story and adventure, central to their design. Wandersong (2018) bills itself as a “musical platforming adventure game with an emotional story.” Sayonara Wild Hearts calls itself a “dreamy arcade game about riding motorcycles, skateboarding, dance battling, shooting lasers, wielding swords, and breaking hearts at 200 mph,” and also relies on narrative and rhythm game conventions.

The developers of Unbeatable, another upcoming rhythm game and notable Kickstarter success, look to do something similar. Some of its mechanics are familiar, with the classic “press buttons in time with the music” gameplay. But the game also promises to tell an emotional story that leans heavily on world-building and narrative, with a complex dialogue system akin to what you’d find in visual novels.

Developer RJ Lake doesn’t find the pairing of story and rhythm gameplay as unconventional as you might think. He argues that the rhythm game genre has always been dependent on narrative for its power. PaRappa the Rapper, he says, is actually itself a story-driven game. “Since music is so key to the emotional resonance those stories have, it just makes sense to make music-based gameplay a core facet of narrative storytelling,” he says.

This era of the new and more fluid rhythm game, one that borrows from multiple genres and aims for a wider player base, could hint at what’s to come: especially since recent games like Cadence of Hyrule and Rhythm Doctor saw a substantial commercial and fan reception.

Andrew Tsai, an artist and developer for Unbeatable, has another theory for why that’s happening: Those who grew up with rhythm games at the height of their commercial power are now artists themselves.

”There’s a huge number of people who grew up playing rhythm games, even just casually,” he says. “Now they have this idea in their mind that, ‘Oh, I had a lot of fun playing music games … what if I made my own?’”

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