Rhythm Games

Rhythm games are one of those genres that comes and goes in popularity, in my experience. It got popular, and then got tired out, and then got popular again, and so forth until we're here now.

Rhythm games occupy the same popularity classification as shoot-em-ups and bullet hell games, in my head at least. There's a baseline amount of knowledge amongst a lot of the population, but then there's a group of dedicated fans who know so much about these games that it honestly concerns me.

Also, this blog post will contain a lot of research. I would like to thank RemyWiki for their wealth of info on matters concerning Konami rhythm games, as well as thanking Namuwiki for the information regarding Korean games such as DJMAX and EZ2DJ. I'd also like to thank caldenza for helping proofread and fact check this post, without that I wouldn't feel comfortable publishing it.

Parappa the Rapper

I'm pretty sure Parappa was "the first". Maybe not the first "music based game", but probably the first contemporary "rhythm game". It's not really a Genre-defining super-game, though. The game itself suffers from me going "what the hell was that" whenever it determines that my gameplay was "bad". It's to be expected of a game from late 1996.

Speaking to gameplay, that itself is simple: Press the correct buttons in time to the rhythm, by following a horizontally moving line across a "chart" at the top of the screen. You are scored based on your accuracy in following this "chart", but you may also gain points for going above-and-beyond and freestyling. The scoring system of Parappa is, however, very strange, which can lead to frustration if you do actually want to freestyle it.

The things it does define became a hallmark of rhythm games; that is to say, that it defined "pressing the specifically illustrated buttons to the rhythm as determined by a pre-created chart". Almost all rhythm games base themselves off that template, although latter games made this concept more concrete and well-defined.


Beatmania is an arcade game released by Konami in very late 1997. Released to high praise and roaring reception, this game grandfathered the soon-to-be near-standard "Vertically Scrolling Rhythm Game" style. In this way, it's usually considered one of the pioneers of the genre.

Instead of following a line moving from left to right, the line at which a note must be "hit" (its corresponding button pressed) remains static on the screen, and is spread along the bottom of the "play field". Notes move down from the top of the screen towards the line, and the corresponding button must be pressed when the note touches the line. This corresponds to the rhythm of the song, and points are awarded on how exact the player's input is, in respect to the rhythm.

That input is delivered via a special control panel; with 5 rectangular keys (coloured like, and representative of, piano keys), with a turntable off to the right side of that. You have 5 lanes for notes to be hit with the keys, and an extra wide lane specifically for the turntable. This is designed to represent something of a DJ control deck.

This is more in line with the current expectations of the genre. It's what everyone (or nearly everyone) soon took to be the gold standard. Obviously, vertically-scrolling wasn't so much a necessity for that standard, but the idea of being scored purely on your accuracy, and being given the representation of an "instrument" on which to perform the songs presented; it's these ideas that define what we consider now as "rhythm games".

Beatmania was so popular, that the division of Konami that made it, called "Konami G.M.D." (standing for "Game Machine Division"), was renamed in the 2000s to simply "Bemani" (Be-at Mani-a).


So how do you follow up "THE rhythm game"? Make sequels faster than you can breathe? Well, yes, but also go off and do something different as well. Beatmania was the spark to light the long burning fire that is Konami's dominating arcade rhythm game presence, but that doesn't come from just one game. They already made a game you play with your hands, so how about a game you play with your feet?

DanceDanceRevolution is a game that, to my readers of a particular age, probably needs very little introduction. The worldwide phenomenon that this game caused is somewhat insane in its sheer strength. Instead of a game where you press buttons with your fingers, you press 4 panels with your feet instead. This is simple, but the thing is that it worked well. It worked so well that it spawned imitation and competition, like something not right.

One competitor of particular importance is In The Groove, which was released in 2004. This sparked a little bit of competition between fans of these two games. In The Groove got a sequel in 2005, but was subsequently killed when Konami sued the developer of ITG, RoXoR Games, due to them releasing an upgrade kit that converted a DDR cabinet into an ITG cabinet. This resulted in Konami acquiring the rights to ITG after the case settled, and thus killing it.

DDR pioneered the "dance rhythm game", a subgenre so varied now that it actually makes the 4-panel game seem quaint. It also introduced a lot of western audiences to rhythm games, when arcade operators got their hands on DDR cabinets one way or another. This same treatment never really came of other rhythm games from Konami, except Beatmania, which saw a few released in the US as "hiphopmania". Now, at least in the US, you can walk into Round1 and see various Japanese import machines from Konami, with full server connectivity, but even then, only in Round1 and D&B (as far as I'm aware).

Beatmania (again)

Well, okay, let's go forward to 1999. What does Konami offer us this year? It's Beatmania II; or, well, it would be if Konami actually went through with having 2 cabinets. It ended up being that they skipped Beatmania II for the most part and went straight to Beatmania IIDX (where the DX stands for "Deluxe").

Despite the humour in that, it's actually fairly important to note that Beatmania II cabinets did/do exist, but were exported to Korea, apparently for their release of Beatmania IIDX 2nd Style. These cabinets are now incredibly rare because of this.

So, what changed? Beatmania IIDX added 2 more keys to each player's control deck (totalling 7 keys), and made the control deck symmetrical by placing the turntable on the outer side of the control deck relative to each player (Left for Player 1, right for Player 2). The screen was upgraded to be a larger format screen, and in that same vein the hardware was upgraded to a Playstation-based board with full motion video backgrounds. This cabinet and control-deck design is timeless, of course, and really never saw any changes, even after the "DJ" theme had been well and truly dropped.

IIDX has the benefit of being considered "hard". Not hard as in Dark Souls, more so hard as in "insane". The tight timing windows mixed with years of development and growing skill-ceiling made IIDX undeniably "hard".

Now, I've got these 4 games explained in detail, but it's important to understand that these were across less than 3 years. In comparison to that leap, the following segment will hopefully give you an appropriate chain-gun feeling, as if these games are flying out non-stop in such short time-frames.

New Millenium

The 2000s began the true Cambrian explosion of rhythm games as a genre. Harmonix, a company formed in 1995, began developing rhythm games in 1998, and released their first game in 2001, "Frequency". This game was then followed up by "Amplitude" in 2003.

Harmonix then released a game called "Guitar Hero" in 2005, inspired by GuitarFreaks, a Konami arcade game. This lit the genre on fire, so to speak, to the point that nearly burnt down. This was to the west what Beatmania was to Japan, and as such, invariably needs no explanation to my readership. Due to this, Konami had lost its opportunity to stake a larger claim in the rhythm games market in the west, and any attempts to do so either backfired, or never took off in the way they wanted it to.

Harmonix gained more foot-hold with Rock Band in 2007, a similarly popular game with a similar (yet greatly expanded) concept, after Guitar Hero was handed to Neversoft (well known for Tony Hawk's Pro Skater). Harmonix, up until this point, had been pumping out games regularly, intent on keeping their series well-and-truly alive, and Neversoft (having picked up Guitar Hero by way of Activision buying it) began continuing this in parallel.

This makes up for 5-6 Guitar Hero games, and 5-8 Rock Band games in the span of a decade, where the pace from publishers prior to the 2000s had been rather slow.


Of course, this resulted in a large amount of market saturation, and in 2009, the genre's market had taken unsustainable damage. It is at this point that Activision and Harmonix had no real option, and both Guitar Hero and Rock Band went on hiatus.

It's hard to blame the developers here, who were undoubtably doing what the publishers asked of them.

In these conditions, games such as Just Dance, by Ubisoft, gained popularity for their casual appeal, but the market had (in the west) been killed by overzealous spin-offs and corporate greed. 2010 thus marked the year that Harmonix was being sold off by its parent, Viacom. The genre was not "dead" in the traditional sense, games were being made, but the current state of the market combined with recession had all but ensured that the genre would not receive any significant light in the west for a long time.

Thankfully, much like the video game market crash, Japan was less affected, and sought to move quickly into the western market that they had been pushed out of during the 2000s. Now, I say that, but most of this was probably coincidental. Whether rhythm games lived or died probably had very little impact on the coming wave of interest in Japanese stuff, and this was probably more spurred by internet culture at the time.

New Strategies

Of course, in that same vein, just like Nintendo had engineered their marketing carefully to push past the skeletons of a dead market, so too would Japanese developers and publishers. Companies at this time began leaning on a new crutch that had come with the 2010s; an increased interest in Anime (and all things like it). Idol-based games were sort of popular at this time in Japan, so it's also just what the developers already had. This is undoubtedly part of the reasoning why Sega decided to officially ship their Project DIVA series (a game centring on Vocaloid) to the west in 2012; since westerners with an interest in this sort of stuff had been importing the games.

Now that I think about it, that crutch kind of resulted in a big chunk of 2010s Internet culture; how wild.

In this slump period, imports in general were a large part of the market in the west. Alongside games with the more wide appeal gained by targeting a relatively fresh period of interest in Japanese media, people began to import titles from Korea, such as DJMAX; which is an interesting case.

DJMAX started as a series in 2004 with DJMAX Online by Pentavision, which takes concepts (mostly concerning online multiplayer) from O2Jam, another Korean game. It's creation was due to EZ2DJ's development team leaving to start Pentavision in 2003 due to poor treatment, and management at Amuse World (the company behind EZ2DJ) being unwilling to let them take EZ2DJ online, mostly due to a series of troubles with Konami that had left Amuse World mostly broke and dwindling.

Due to the success of DJMAX Online, a single player version for the PSP was released in 2006, aptly titled "DJMAX Portable". This game itself was incredibly successful and thus gained sequels in the form of DJMAX Portable 2 (in 2007) and DJMAX Portable 3 (in 2010). These did, in fact, get North American releases, and thus a fanbase for these games formed in the period between the late 2000s and early 2010s. This is what I would probably like to call "Very good timing".

After this period, DJMAX TECHNIKA (a spinoff series of sorts) was the only part of DJMAX really sticking around, with a major chunk of staff leaving Pentavision prior to 2013 due to Neowiz's meddling and restructuring.

This import market, combined with PC based rhythm games, began a decade's long build-up of interest. After all, the market was not out of ideas, and interest in rhythm games still remained stalwart in a dedicated group of people, myself included.

New Age

Simulators of previous games became popular, allowing people a way of playing these sorts of games with new content. Simulators such as Stepmania, BMS, Osu!, and Frets on Fire, as well as simulators like them, remained popular due in part to their ease of access (having no entry cost or purchase, nor a need to pay licence costs). This market state had gone from "heated" to "relatively cosy" over the course of 5 years, thanks to this, but also in part thanks to Indie games, such as AudioSurf and Crypt of the Necrodancer.

In 2015, Harmonix was able to release Rock Band 4, which came 5 years after Rock Band 3. The model used here switched, going from "Annual Release" format (seen in sports games) to a more long-term strategy of releasing regular content updates for a single game. I think this is to bring it in line with simulators, where the content is user generated (and thus downloaded as wanted) and the client is patched independently of its content.

2016 saw the return of interest in releasing arcade rhythm games in the west, with Konami making moves to release DanceDanceRevolution in the US. This in particular may have been a core reasoning in the release of further Konami games in the US, even from franchises that had barely graced Western shores officially. However, in true Konami Monkey-paw fashion, these are limited to Round1 and Dave & Busters, which is parts smart and painful all at once (not that I benefit anyway, given I'm not an American).

2017 saw the release of StepManiaX, another dance game with steadily increasing popularity even now. StepManiaX is made by Step Revolution, a company run by Kyle Ward, who was the in-house musician for In The Groove's developer. One could (fairly easily) argue that StepManiaX is thus a spiritual successor to In The Groove. I've been playing this for a fair amount now, so understand my bias in saying that it's worth playing if possible. Sadly, the game costs a fair amount per play, usually; a result of arcades becoming fairly unpopular in the 2010s, mixed with arcade operators not mirroring the pricing model of similar games prior.

Also in 2017 saw the release of DJMAX Respect on PS4, a revival of DJMAX as a series. In 2019, this was ported to PC as "DJMAX Respect V", which saw large success, more so than DJMAX Portable and its sequels.

2018 saw the release of Beat Saber, a very popular rhythm game using VR, which was a relatively new platform at the time. It's probably a decent way to get a workout, considering that you need to strap a brick to your face to play it. I can't play it, rooms are just too small where I live, and I'll end up breaking a lightbulb or something.

EZ2ON REBOOT: R, part of a sister franchise of EZ2AC/EZ2DJ, was released into early access in 2021, and has been met with a good amount of success.

Present Day

The rhythm game market now exists in a state of both niche games and more general-consumer oriented titles. This has been the way of a good number of game genres for a while, such as RPGs. It's probably the most optimal model, considering that many genres have moved towards it.

Will the market reach its late 2000s peak ever again? Not really, or at least, I very much doubt so. It's important to understand that these games are easy to write off as difficult, especially for the casual player, and that most of the games from this genre that I like are probably unlikely to appeal to the general consumer. Have I successfully convinced people to try these games? Sure, quite often actually, but I don't think that most people are ever going to decide that it's suddenly the game genre they want to spend inordinate amounts of cash on.

I, however, am a very big idiot, with enough money to spend on these games, and enough free time to write about them.