Though they hit their highest point in the mid-’00s, recent music games like Just Dance 2023 prove that there is still potential in the genre. By integrating rhythm and musicality into the gameplay, music-based games present a more engrossing and artful experience that engages the player’s body as well as their mind.
From action hits like Brütal Legend to classic arcade games like Dance Dance Revolution, the music-based video game genre is as diverse as the music industry itself. Though plenty of music games have come and gone, only the very best struck a chord with audiences and racked up high scores on Metacritic.
Brütal Legend (2009) – 83
While most music games opted to focus on pop and dance hits, the underrated action game Brütal Legend was a gift from the heavy metal gods. The game follows a roadie who is transported to a magical realm inspired by the artwork and imagery of heavy metal albums who must use his epic guitar to protect the land from evil invaders.
Mixing in real-time strategy elements along with the typical third-person action was a unique touch, and a game about music wouldn’t be complete without rhythm-based mini-games as well. With an all-star cast including Jack Black and an assortment of music legends like Ozzy Osbourne, Brütal Legend finally put a heavy metal twist on the music video game genre.
Elite Beat Agents (2006) – 87
Nothing can touch someone’s soul quite like music, and the quirky rhythm game Elite Beat Agents based its entire premise around that idea. Playing as members of a secret government agency, the player is dispatched to help those going through tough times by cheering them up in the form of elaborate dances.
Often recognized as one of the best rhythm games of all time, Elite Beat Agents found a clever way to work the mechanics into the story, and it utilized the Nintendo DS touchscreen to perfection. While it is addicting and humorous, the real power of the game comes from its heartwarming energy and the way it embraces music as a form of healing.
DJ Hero 2 (2010) – 88
Spinning off from the highly successful Guitar Hero series, DJ Hero 2 improved upon its predecessor and brought players closer to realizing their disc-scratching dreams. With a proprietary controller that resembled a turntable, the player must complete rhythm challenges and mix tunes.
Though the actual gameplay was not changed from the first entry in the series, DJ Hero 2 was expanded with new modes that gave the player even more creative freedom. A new “Freestyle” mode allowed players to create their own mixes, and the game’s music library was expandable through downloadable content.
Rocksmith (2011) – 89
While other music games presented a facsimile of playing music, Rocksmith went to the source and was played by using an actual electric guitar. Teaching players the basics while also sharpening their skills, the game is as much a teaching tool as it is entertainment.
With a similar layout as games like Guitar Hero, the developers of Rocksmith wanted to actually put the power of music in players’ hands and used popular songs to get their point across. The game is understandably challenging, but much more rewarding because the player comes away with a skill they didn’t have before. Often regarded as one of Ubisoft’s best games, Rocksmith devised an ingenious way to make learning an instrument fun.
Dance Dance Revolution (1998) – 90
Making waves immediately upon its release in the late-’90s, Dance Dance Revolution is largely responsible for kicking off the rhythm gaming trend in the 2000s, and few have been able to top it. The player stands on a game board and must tap on the designated spaces with their feet in rhythm with what is presented onscreen.
Video games had always been a physically passive experience, and though some games had tried to rectify that, DDR was really the first to fully integrate motion. Not only is it challenging because of its test of reflexes, but it also offered an endurance challenge for players who had to keep up with the increasingly difficult levels.
Guitar Hero (2006) – 91
It is difficult to overstate the impact that Guitar Hero had on the video game landscape of the mid-’00s, and the game’s signature guitar controller can still be found in gaming stores across the globe. Using a proprietary guitar controller, the player is tasked with completing rhythm challenges that allowed them to rock along with their favorite tunes.
Not only was Guitar Hero a great rhythm game for beginners, but it had its own signature style that was appealing to non-gamers as well as seasoned veterans. Inspiring a host of knock-offs and spin-offs, the game brought the relative niche genre of rhythm games to the masses and helped to make living room co-op popular again.
Crypt Of The NecroDancer (2015) – 92
Despite their popularity, music-based games are usually pretty simplistic, but the indie sensation Crypt of the NecroDancer aimed to rectify that. Set within a series of procedurally generated dungeons, the player moves and attacks to the rhythm of the game’s amazing original soundtrack.
Despite being a mix of genres, Crypt is still one of the best dungeon crawlers in recent memory, and the integration of rhythm mechanics makes it totally unlike anything that has come before. The game’s musical nature adds to the challenge, and the procedurally generated levels mean that no two playthroughs are ever the same.
PaRappa The Rapper (1996) – 92
Though later games like DDR made the genre more popular, PaRappa the Rapper is generally considered to be the very first true rhythm game. Playing as the titular bar-spitting dog, the player must navigate a series of levels that require them to complete a rap that involves precise timing.
The rapping may be corny, but the game’s style was eye-catching and the gameplay mechanics helped launch an entirely new genre. Despite being a primordial version of the rhythm games that would follow, PaRappa the Rapper is a fully formed title that is just as fun to play now as it was in the ’90s.
Beat Saber (2019) – 93
Proving that music-based games can make the leap into the next generation of gaming technology, Beat Saber is the musical VR experience that gamers have been waiting for. In the VR realm, the player wields two sabers which they must use to cut through blocks at precise moments to match the rhythm of the song.
Incorporating popular modern acts like Lizzo and Billie Eilish, the game is much more hip than its predecessors were, and the VR experience is simplistic but engaging. Many other music-based games focus on instruments like the guitar, but Beat Saber turned to percussion as its muse, and it has translated perfectly to the VR gaming sphere.
Rock Band 3 (2010) – 93
If Guitar Hero introduced the idea of a rocking rhythm game with proprietary controllers, Rock Band took the concept and ran with it. On top of the typical guitar gameplay style, Rock Band 3 featured drums, bass, vocals, and even keyboards to get more players in on the action.
Kicking things up a notch even further, Rock Band 3 introduced “Pro Mode” which brought players closer to the experience of playing real instruments with new controllers that were additionally complex. The game is considered the best of the series because it simulated playing instruments without ever losing the simple fun of the classic video game experience.
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