Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 1

Western audiences were by no means unschooled in games with action synced to music thanks to the contributions of Bemani (Dance Dance Revolution, Beatmania)  in arcades, while the likes of NanaOn-Sha (Parappa the Rapper, Vib-Ribbon) and iNiS (Gitaroo Man, Ouendan) made ventures on consumers' home and portable systems. Their appeal, however, was often limited by song selections and/or original compositions that did little if anything to line up with American popular musical taste, as well as often highly abstracted translations of input. It was the synthesis of Western music selection, home console availability, and the tactile sensation of simulating playing a guitar (borrowed from Bemani's GuitarFreaks arcade cabinets) that became the core of the first Guitar Hero game.

Notice: only 3 colors... and mandatory guitar tilting.

Hardware and publishing concerns for that first game were handled by RedOctane, previously known for producing DDR pads for home use. Harmonix Music Systems were the game's developers, with past experience working on Karaoke Revolution and the FreQuency / Amplitude rhythm games, all of which featured selections from mainstream popular music. This partnership lasted through Guitar Hero II  and Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80's, until Activision purchased RedOctane and the subsequent franchise rights while opting to leave Harmonix to its own devices.

Activision delegated Neversoft, best known before as the Tony Hawk series developers, to create entries in the Guitar Hero series from Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock onward. Harmonix would again prove to have a collective gift for new syntheses of existing ideas, rolling inspiration from DrumMania and Karaoke Revolution in with the skyrocketing popularity of their old intellectual property and creating the Rock Band franchise. Activision countered shortly thereafter by adding vocal, drums, and bass gameplay into Guitar Hero: World Tour and all titles since, while Rock Band would go on to include multiple vocal inputs for harmonies and then keyboards before reaching the present day.

Theoretically, they could actually do a listenable cover of this song.

In what could be seen as an "aftershock" to the claim that these "band games" were discouraging people from taking up real instruments, a resultant wave of activity in "real guitar" video games has been seen in the last two years. Upstart Seven45 Studios faltered memorably with PowerGig: Rise of the Six String, but fret-position tracking technology from the most recent Rock Band title (billed primarily as a game) and audio analysis from Ubisoft's Rocksmith (billed primarily as a learning tool) have both proven solid.

Early in this evolution, the subgenre resonated well enough with audiences that the games acquired public awareness well into the general cultural consciousness; with recognizable music as a comforting and familiar element, plastic peripherals found their way into countless homes. Unfortunately, while the software and song selections grew and diversified, resentment for the hardware began to grow. This was compounded with consumer confusion thanks to the tangled history of its top competitors, complexities in managing libraries of playable songs, and a glut of often similarly-titled full-disc iterations and/or expansions, but more on that in the next segment.

Watch this and see if you can make out what exactly is going on.

Asking someone with however many broken fake guitars and drums to tell apart Rock Revolution, Rock Band, Band Hero, and Guitar Hero while replacing their damaged peripherals proved too much for consumers in a rapidly-declining economy to bear. Bemani failed to so much as make a dent in the market its arcade roots helped birth. Seven45 has rebranded itself as an iOS app developer, no longer even acknowledging the existence of PowerGig on its site. Even Activision has retired both the Guitar Hero franchise and its promising sister DJ Hero series indefinitely. This now leaves Ubisoft as the relative upstart to the subgenre and Harmonix the de facto "elder statesman", but both companies have other properties which are serving as their primary sources of profit. While not by any means dead as of today, it is clear that these kinds of games are well into their collective maturity; with the apex past, one only wonders how long the tail runs until either a resurgence or extinction.

Fads come and go, in all things, and video game trends are no different. The advent of body-tracking and motion controls have lead to a memorable array of music games that center on dancing instead of mimicking musicians, as well as more pop-oriented and genre-diverse soundtracks. The failure of band games in the field of public attention was merely an inevitability; for better or worse, all things eventually fall out of fashion. That said, how quickly that happens, how long lifespan beyond then, and how fondly we can look back are very much in our collective power to affect. But that's for next time, in Part 2.

No comments:

Post a Comment