Eyeing up the complete saga of the rhythm action genre is very much like analysing the trajectory of a rollercoaster track. Beginning its life as an ultra-niche, arcade-only Japanese pursuit known as ‘bemani’, the genre made its Western breakthrough with the localised version Parappa The Rapper in 1998, and moved onto all-conquering, world-beating form with Guitar Hero III in 2007, rhythm action games have had one hell of a tumultuous history. Although the heyday of peripheral-led band games appears to have now passed us by completely, the freshly niche-again genre simply refuses to die, with Harmonix’s momentous Rock Band 3 and a whole host of superior XBLA, WiiWare and PSN titles steadfastly keeping the dream alive.
There are more inarguable classics in this little gaming sub-genre than most people actually realise, and here is a list of our six favourites…..
6. Beatmania (1997)
One of the most terrifyingly hardcore games ever made, rhythm action or otherwise. Even battling through Beatmania on the Medium difficulty setting felt about as punishing as Guitar Hero III initially did on Hard, but when everything clicked, it was difficult not to celebrate every 100% score with a triumphant fist in the air. As with most un-localised Japanese bemani releases, it was the simultaneously baffling and amusing nature of much of the music that served to make this so much more memorable than the Westernised remakes that came in its immediate wake.
5. Samba De Amigo (2000)
Last year’s stellar Wii port did retain some (if not all) of the original Dreamcast version’s magic, but for those in the know, it was at its best when played with the Dreamcast pad. The maracas (and mat) that came bundled with it were as robust and well-made as any that have arrived since, but the precision of pad-based play made competitive Super Hard Mode a frenzied, palm-sweating challenge of the most uproarious kind. Throw in an amazingly camp set of tracks and the constant entertainment of watching grinning monkeys partying, and you’ve got an evergreen winner. Fantastic mini-games too.
4. Guitar Hero 5 (2009)
Easily the most underrated game in the series, Guitar Hero 5 stands as the most violent shake-up in the entire history of the franchise, and was a stunning response to everyone who accused it of refusing to evolve. It featured a much broader spectrum of music, the ingenious (and seriously addictive) addition of Career Challenges, and was generally lighter and more accessible in its presentation. The hardcore fans of the first two games may have celebrated the recent return to a focus on classic rock and relentless difficulty, but for us, this is the very finest Guitar Hero of them all.
3. Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! (2005)
Although the heavily Westernised remake Elite Beat Agents was certainly not without its charms, it didn’t come anywhere close to matching the absurd game that spawned it. The gameplay and overall tone were both so delightful that the whole thing could easily have been completely bereft of a plot, but the ludicrous little stories that accompanied each song were both gut-bustingly hilarious and oddly touching in equal measure. If anything though, it was the bananas J-Pop soundtrack that really made this soar.
2. Rock Band 3 (2010)
In the interests of balance, Rock Band 3’s two predecessors have been stricken from this list, despite the fact that both of them clearly belong. Harmonix got almost everything just right with the first Rock Band game, but the oh-so-subtle refinements of the first sequel eventually led to this, which is quite simply the best game of its kind, ever. Even if you thought that you’d seen everything that this once universally beloved genre had to offer, there is absolutely no reason not to check this out. If you haven’t already, of course.
1. Frequency (2002)
Despite being almost a decade old, and despite being so perfectly mapped to the button structure of the original Dualshock controller that a remake is either impossible or destined to be drastically inferior, Frequency is still Harmonix’s finest ever moment, and our pick for the best rhythm action game of all time. The ultra-hip track listing was simply faultless, spanning the entire spectrum of 2001’s impossibly broad dance music universe, the difficulty tiers were all expertly pitched, and the gameplay was both gratifying and intravenously thrilling. It’s still a masterpiece, and just because it’d surely play second fiddle, we still want that remake.
Watch the original Japanese trailer for Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! here: