Swapping Plastic for a Real Guitar

Music games are not a new thing. They existed before plastic peripherals became widespread. However, they haven’t always been as popular as they are now, and they haven’t always been as fun.

Though proto-music rhythm-type games such as “Simon” have been available since the ’70s, music video games didn’t really debut until the release of the Sony PlayStation.

“PaRappa the Rapper,” originally released in 1996 on the PlayStation, was the first video game that focused on gameplay driven directly by music. Though the gameplay was fairly simplistic, requiring players to hit the correct button in time with the beat of the music, the game was a hit, with over 1.4 million copies sold and spawning a sequel as well as a spin-off.

While rhythm games continued to prove popular in Japan, they began to stagnate in the West. By the early 2000s, the U.S. video game market was so saturated in “Dance Dance Revolution” sequels and spin-offs that sales dropped.

Though games such as “GuitarFreaks” and “DrumMania” were increasingly popular in Japan, with their instrument shaped controllers, their J-pop-centric set lists held them back in the West. There was no effort from Japanese development studios to promote their games outside Japan. Thus, the rhythm games genre spent the first part of the 2000s quietly in the U.S., with few notable releases.

It was not until 2005 that music video games saw a resurgence with the release of the original “Guitar Hero,” developed by Harmonix. Heavily inspired by GuitarFreaks, developed by Konami – who also developed “DDR,” “Beatmania” and “DrumMania,” what “Guitar Hero” lacked in originality it made up with a rock-based song list.

Its success was explosive, filling living rooms across the country with multiple sets of fake plastic instruments and defining a second generation of rhythm games. “Guitar Hero,” its sequels, spin-offs and competitors cracked $1 billion in sales and became the second most popular video game genre, only behind action games.

It wasn’t before long, however, before the meteoric rise of the genre became unsustainable. Once again, due to oversaturation, music video games saw a general decline in the late 2000s. Consumers were no longer buying peripherals, leading to a sharp decline in profits.

Music video games, a genre whose gameplay has largely remained unchanged for the past few years, awaits evolution. The current trend, apart from motion control-based dancing games, is the integration of real musical instruments. “Rocksmith,” developed by Ubisoft and being released on Oct. 18, develops the genre further by using real guitars.

Though earlier games have made small steps toward realism, “Rocksmith” is the first to dive in headfirst. “Rock Band 3” included a “Pro Mode” that allowed players to play actual guitar or keyboard notes rather than just pressing one of five buttons. The necessary controllers, however, were very expensive, costing anywhere from $80 to $200.

Pro Mode, while critically acclaimed and a fun idea, required a large investment to enjoy, leaving many players without a chance to experience this neat opportunity. Without the ability to play Pro mode, “Rock Band 3” became largely identical to “Rock Band 2.”

“Rocksmith,” on the other hand, does not come with a plastic controller. Rather, it is compatible with any guitar with a quarter-inch audio plug — namely nearly every electric guitar or acoustic guitar equipped with a pick-up.

“Rocksmith” is also taking a different approach to the music video game genre, appearing more to be a teaching game than anything else. Promotional material from Ubisoft focuses on the game’s ability to determine the player’s skill level and adjusting difficulty on the fly, starting at simple barebones notes and eventually reaching the actual fingering of the songs.

Whether this type of gameplay will be successful has still to be seen. One thing is for sure, however: The music video game genre is in dire need of evolution and right now, any new ideas are good ones.