I don't know what the first rhythm game was I heard of. Maybe I knew about PaRappa the Rapper first, it could have been one of the Dance Dance Revolution games in an arcade. But I do know the first rhythm game that I played and loved. And that was Guitar Hero which hit the world by storm in 2005. It seems weird now to think just how big that game was - but it was huge. Everyone was playing and it and if you didn't own it, you were round at a friend's house who did. Sadly it's success would lead to many, many games being made (including Rock Band) which really, was just the same game with different songs. And, once the novelty of the brightly coloured buttons on a toy guitar wore off, the series would never make it back to it's former glory. But this isn't about those games, nearly every gamer knows the story of Guitar Hero - this is about much, much better games.
Back in 2002 Gitaroo Man came out on the PS2. I had no idea, I had never heard of it, and have never played it on the PS2. No one I knew at the time owned it, had mentioned it - it flew completely under the radar. But, Guitar Hero had made rhythm games cool again and, rather surprisingly, the PSP was graced with Gitaroo Man Lives (which, by it's Japanese title really should have been 'Live' - but oh well) in 2006. And oh man did I LOVE this game. It was great. Now, my reason for buying it was because, yes, rhythm games were popular again, but also - well the PSP wasn't really known for it's fountain of lots of releases. Regardless, this obscure, unheard of game was now mine. I played the hell out of it.
Did my Guitar Hero playing friends love the game? Did they balls. I mean this game was about a small dog which which turned into a robot, shot a guitar (well, gitaroo) out of his back and transformed a normal boy into Gitaroo Man as he did musical battle against U.F.Os, a man dressed like a bee and skeletons. It wasn't mainstream - but it was brilliant. And to be honest, that was the last great rhythm game I played for a long time (I really sucked at Patapon before anyone brings that up).
For a long time, rhythm games remained mainstream with Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but once they were gone, that was it. The genre once racking in millions seemed to be gone. And I think it needed that break. Guitar Hero tried coming back with new guitars and slightly different way to play, but the people were done.
And then, then Thumper came out. It looked cool, but I was hesitant, and it wasn't until it went on sale that I made the plunge - and boy was I glad I did. It was bloody brilliant!
Thumper is described as a Rhythm Violence game - I couldn't think of a better description myself. It's difficulty is brutal and playing it is intense. The simple mechanics of hitting glowy dots, grinding against corners and leaping over spikes may look completely mystifying from videos - but playing it is an absolute joy and it is surely one of the greatest rhythm games of all time.
I thought this would be it really, but then - also out of nowhere (to me anyway) Aaero enters the fray. Many people have compared it to Rez, and I can see why - but really it's like a 3D Gitarro Man. You follow a line, and hit buttons to defend yourself against enemies. And it's also, extremely brilliant.
Again, another game that was never going to make it mainstream. But again, a fantastic game. Gitaroo Man, Thumper, Aaero - none of them were about trying to replicate using an instrument, dancing or required the purchase of any form of special controller to play. They were all about the rhythm, all about the music and all about the game. Rhythm games work best when they aren't trying to 'real' when they get creative giving us new exciting, and impossible to do in real life, ways of enjoying music. Hopefully this is the start of something. I would love to see what crazy rhythm games await us in the future.
(Bonus games not mentioned: Just Dance - because it sucked. Elite Beat Agents - it was a good game, but I almost feel like the touch screen gameplay was seen as more important than being an actual rhythm game. DJ Max - again, good game, but it was pretty much Guitar Hero without the guitars)