The Resurgence of Rhythm Games

This is another article written by Leaf, you can follow her on Twitter at Leafdoggy.


Music is the heartbeat of a game. Whether it’s a cheerful, sunny tune in a platformer or a teeth-grinding drone in a horror game, a game’s soundtrack can be instrumental in its success. Music can tie together disparate pieces, and it can change the tone of a scene in an instant.

Of course, a strong soundtrack isn’t required for a game to be good—a masterful score is rare, but incredible games are made either way. My point, rather, is to draw attention to the impact that music can have on the entirety of a game. Its influence runs through every aspect of the work, intentionally or not.

Past that, music is just plain fun. It’s infectious, it makes you want to move, sing, dance. It can even be fun to make the music yourself. Don’t get me wrong, it can also be incredibly stressful—there’s a reason I turned to writing—but when the stress melts away, you’re left with an incredible, joyful experience.

And you know what else is fun? Video games! What a coincidence. If only you could somehow… combine the fun of video games with the fun of playing music.

Rhythm games, obviously, are what I’m talking about.

Rhythm games filled my life as I grew up. I remember being stuck on easy songs in Guitar Hero because my fingers couldn’t reach the fifth button. I got in trouble at friends’ houses for playing the drums in Rock Band on the second floor of the house. When I moved away, I accidentally stole my friend’s copy of Elite Beat Agents (well, let’s be real, it probably wasn’t an accident). I played Theatrhythm in college while I waited for band practice to start. Rhythm games are in my blood.

Heck, they might be too in my blood. When I got my hands on Theatrhythm, I actually found myself… Disappointed. For all I played the game, it never went far enough for me. It was too easy, it could’ve done more with the concept. I wasn’t fulfilled.

So what? Games are disappointing sometimes. Just move on, get your fulfillment elsewhere. And I tried, but… Where?

Maybe it wasn’t actually so severe, but to me, the dip in the genre was unbelievably sudden. It was like at some point, rhythm games had just stopped coming out. There were still the mainstream games, but they needed expensive peripherals and weren’t exactly evolving much. As much as I love watching a piano roll and hitting buttons, I couldn’t help but want more.

It was around that same time that something interesting was happening in the games industry. As AAA games became more and more homogenous, things kept getting left in the lurch. Where were all the puzzle games? The CRPGs? There was even a period that I felt that platformers were in short supply. Platformers!

People were left wanting, and slowly, want was turning into action. People stopped waiting for AAA developers to deliver what they wanted. If the big companies wouldn’t do it, they decided they’d just make the games themselves.

And so, they did. Indie games started as a trickle, but eventually the dam broke, and life surged back into the gaming scene. Dying genres exploded back into prominence, and even niche genres, like roguelikes or deckbuilders, were rising to greatness.

It was only a matter of time until the wave hit rhythm games, right?

…Right?

There were blips. Audiosurf, Beat Hazard, Crypt of the Necrodancer. Games cropped up, but it wasn’t the same. They felt less like a comeback and more like an echo of things long dead. Aside from those blips, the genre largely stayed dormant for a long, long time. It was starting to feel like they might never come back.

Maybe I was more cynical than I needed to be, but that’s how it was. I’d started moving on. So, it was all the more surprising, more joyful, when I realized recently…

Rhythm games are back.

I suppose the uptick started some time ago, and I did notice it, to an extent. Beat Saber became popular, but I couldn’t play VR games. Clone Hero got big, but I didn’t have a guitar. Friday Night Funkin seemed to take parts of the internet by storm, but I never really liked DDR to begin with, so I wasn’t exactly poised to enjoy it in Newgrounds flash game format. I tried it, sure, but… well, frankly, I was inclined to dislike it from the start. I wasn’t really a fair judge.

So, yes, there were swells, but for the most part, they passed me by.

I don’t quite remember what sent me down this path, but earlier this month, I stumbled across Rhythm Doctor. It hit early access in February, but it’s not at all unpolished. The only way it’s incomplete is that it only has four chapters, but with a handful of songs in each chapter and harder remixes of most tracks, there’s a lot to play. It’s well worth picking up now.

Rhythm Doctor is being developed by 7th Beat Games, and the simple studio name is apt. It’s a one-button game where you hit the button on the seventh beat. That’s it, pretty much. The game throws some curveballs at you—a lot of curveballs, actually—but the base premise generally sticks.

It’s very reminiscent of Rhythm Heaven, and I mean that in the best way possible. The game shines through its manipulation of its simple controls. Every track is fresh and unique, constantly throwing new challenges your way, and each evolution feels natural. I never felt like I was fighting the mechanics of the game. I was working through them, an extension of my body as natural as clicking my mouse to shoot a gun.

On top of all of that is the presentation, which is just… Wow. Since the concept is so simple, Rhythm Doctor has a lot of room to play around with the visuals it shows you, and play around it does. It’s hard to describe just how intense it can get. The trailer for the game can give you an idea, but I can at least give you an anecdote: When I first finished the game’s second ‘boss,’ I—well, first I took a moment to recover, but then I jumped straight into a voice call and started streaming the game for my friends. I couldn’t even share the audio I was hearing, but I didn’t care. I just needed them to see what I had just seen.

I devoured Rhythm Doctor, and it left me ravenous for more. Luckily for me, the game wasn’t done. It had one more surprise up its sleeve—a track editor. A powerful one, too, if the fan-made tracks I’ve played are any indication. I’ve seen them mess around with the visuals at least as much as the main game, and it was just as much fun. I was consistently surprised not only with the creativity on display, but the ability to display it at all.

So, I was in the throes of bloodlust, having torn my way through one game, when a friend said something to me:

“Have you played Unbeatable?”

I hadn’t even heard of it, so I looked it up.

Unbeatable is an upcoming rhythm adventure game by D-Cell Games that I am, now, very excited for. Unbeatable [white label] is a side story that acts as a demo, with its first episode currently available for free on steam and itch.io.

As much as I like to see deviations from the Guitar Hero formula, I can’t deny the appeal of the old school, and Unbeatable really scratched that itch for me. It’s not quite the same, but it has the same kind of feeling. The music is high energy, and the gameplay is fast and tight and wonderfully difficult. It filled me with that feeling of working my mind and hands to their breaking point, trying to hold back the onslaught of notes.

Really, my only ‘complaint’ with the game is that the adventure part of the rhythm adventure didn’t really stand out at all. The snippets of dialogue were fine, but it could’ve used… more. It’s just not substantial, although it’s possible that issue is only because this is just episode 1 of a side story, and not the full game. That’s my hope.

Well, my complaints are that, and the fact that I played it in June. The way it flooded me with adrenaline didn’t pair very well with the summer heat.

There’s not much else to say about Unbeatable. It’s much more of a ‘traditional’ rhythm game, but that’s not at all a bad thing. Guitar Hero and Rock Band were the backbone of the genre, and games like Unbeatable are more than capable of taking up their space to help the genre stand tall and strong. You need a foundation to build on, and Unbeatable seems strong enough to be foundational.

I’m excited to see the kinds of games that are built from the foundations of rhythm games. Indie games have done more than revive genres; they’ve helped them grow, expand, evolve past what they were, and rhythm games have already begun evolving.

The music is hardly the be-all and end-all of what makes a rhythm game good. People can get full, complete experiences out of these games, even if they can’t hear the music. They have the visuals, the gameplay, the beat of the game itself to feel the rhythm that I and others draw from the music. No two people will ever experience a work of art in exactly the same way, and no aspect of art can ever be compulsory.

Stepping back in time a bit to 2019, Annapurna Interactive published a game by developer Simogo called Sayonara Wild Hearts. That may seem like an eternity ago, but hear me out, because this game deserves to be talked about for years to come.

At first blush, Sayonara Wild Hearts may not look like anything special. It’s an arcadey, infinite runner-esque rhythm game, like a 3D Bit.Trip Runner. That’s a fine concept, but I agree, it’s nothing incredible on its own. I barely even replayed any of the songs.

The beauty of Sayonara Wild Hearts, though, isn’t found in just the gameplay, or the art, or the music. It’s all of it, together, because this game is a work of art in the truest sense. It’s beautiful. This story of love and loss and life as conveyed through a rhythm game format struck a chord in my heart that has long since reverberated.

That’s special to me. Plenty of games have hit upon that feeling of being a real, substantial piece of art, but this is the only time I can think of that a rhythm game has done it. Rhythm games have always just been games. You play for fun, for exhilaration, you chase high scores and challenge your friends. They’re not an experience. They’re art, in the way that any game is art, but they didn’t set out to be that.

Sayonara Wild Hearts shows the amazing potential for rhythm games to be more than they have been in the past. It knows the power of music to make you feel, and it knows the power of the genre to let you feel the music, and it uses that power to shatter the boundaries of what a rhythm game can be.

I can only imagine what else a rhythm game could do.

I was going to end this by talking about a fourth game, one that blended the lines between a rhythm game and some other genre. I wanted to show the capacity the genre has for growth. I would have pointed at roguelikes, with games like Slay the Spire, to show how indie games can take the best parts of differing genres and make them feel like they belong together.

I was going to compare the game to Crypt of the Necrodancer, because that’s what comes to mind when thinking of the idea. Necrodancer is a fine game, don’t get me wrong, but looking at it from the angle of mixing genres, it feels lacking. The rhythm elements don’t feel natural, they feel like a hurdle you have to overcome before addressing the hurdles of the roguelike. I wanted to find a game that overcame that boundary, that made two genres feel like one.

That’s what I wanted to do, but… I couldn’t find one. The one I had my eye on hit the same barrier as Necrodancer, and I came up blank trying to think of a replacement. Maybe I’m overlooking something, maybe I’m just too critical, but it looks to me like maybe it just hasn’t been done.

Does that mean it’s impossible, then? No, of course not. That’s ludicrous. Who even asked me that? Get that strawman outta my class.

No, it just means that nobody’s managed it yet. Indie games grow every day. As the well of games overflows, so too does knowledge about making them. Sure, rhythm games were slow to make an appearance, and so they’ll be slower to grow, but they will grow. I have a feeling that this wave is only the beginning of a coming golden age for rhythm games.

I can’t wait.

2 comments

  1. As someone who devoured the current content in both Rhythm Doctor and Unbeatable [white label] on release, and recently completed Sayonara Wild Hearts (in fact, I think I’ve played every game you named other than Theatrhythm and Beat Saber), I really enjoyed this article. (Also, hard same on not liking DDR/Friday Night Funkin.) In case you’re looking for other rhythm game recommendations, I’ve got a few:

    Taiko no Tatsujin: You compared Unbeatable to Guitar Hero / Rock Band, but really the gameplay is closest to the Taiko no Tatsujin (Taiko Drum Master) series: notes come in only two varieties, scroll horizontally, and are graded based on timing accuracy. It doesn’t have as fun of a presentation as Unbeatable, no juicy camera zooms/tilts or screenshake, but it does have a much higher skill ceiling than any of the current Unbeatable beatmaps, and they’ve got a bunch of songs from anime and video games.

    A Dance of Fire and Ice: Another one-button rhythm game from 7th Beat Games, though it’s much more abstract than Rhythm Doctor. It’s got this whole spatial/musical synesthetic thing going on where you’re on a path whose geometry is tied to the rhythm of the song (you go in a straight line by hitting quarter notes, 90 degree turns are either an eighth note or a dotted quarter note depending on direction, and so on). It can be pretty brutal because missing a single beat sends you back to your last checkpoint (assuming the level has any), and it only gets harder if you try the speed challenges (no checkpoints and tempo is multiplied by 1.1x, 1.2x, etc.), but it does some fun stuff with zooms and spinning the camera in circles and having bits of the track fly in and out, and learning to read its alternative to the usual scrolling note charts is a lot of fun.

    VOEZ: Imagine Guitar Hero, except you play it by tapping the note lanes directly on a touch screen instead of pressing fret buttons on a controller, oh, and those note lanes might change size, number, and position as you play. That’s basically VOEZ. It feels a bit like a light show at times, with the lanes sometimes changing colors and dancing around in time with the music before the first playable note even appears, and when they do appear, you might have to react to lanes suddenly shifting or follow held notes as they wiggle back and forth. I haven’t played much of it lately (my fingers always felt too clumsy to get very good at the game, and a lot of the music unfortunately isn’t really to my tastes) but I had a lot of fun with it when I first discovered it, and I still like to log back in every April Fools, when they add a couple impossibly difficult and just generally really trolly beatmaps (as in, quintuple notes when the game is normally playable with just your thumbs, overlapping notes, lanes that don’t appear on screen until their notes are already more than halfway to the bottom, etc) to existing songs, with difficulty ratings that break the usual scale (insanely high numbers, deceptively low numbers, straight-up negative numbers) and notes arranged to spell out secret Easter egg messages.

    Starstruck: As with Unbeatable and Unbeatable [white label], the only part of Starstruck: Hands of Time that you can play right now is its demo Starstruck: Prologue, but it’s a very good demo. The rhythm game parts are literally just Guitar Hero, albeit with a couple extra buttons you hold to shift up or down an octave, and the rest of the game consists of either walking around talking to NPCs in typical RPG fashion, or smashing your way through town as a massive disembodied hand (it’s as weird as it sounds). I’ve seen those other sections compared to Earthbound and Katamari Damacy, but I haven’t played either of those games so I can’t say if that’s an accurate comparison or not. The game also has this handcrafted diorama look to it, it’s really charming.

    Rayman Legends: Ok, so the vast majority of Rayman Legends is just a standard (albeit very good) 2D platformer, but at the end of each world, there’s a level that places its obstacles (and subtly cheats your movement to keep you in sync) so that you have to jump and attack to the beat of the music (either an original song or an extremely silly cover of a licensed track, such as a mariachi rendition of Eye of the Tiger that also has a kazoo solo for some reason). It’s a pretty small part of the game overall, but I absolutely adore those levels, and they’re probably the strongest example I can think of that blends rhythm games with some other genre.

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    • Oh wow, thanks for such an in-depth comment! I’m glad you liked the article, and I appreciate the recommendations! I actually have played Ice & Fire. It’s a pretty solid game, although like you said a bit unforgiving-kind of the opposite of rhythm doctor in that way, tbh. I played it after Rhythm Doctor so the major impression I got was “Yeah, this feels like a game where the devs went on to make Rhythm Doctor.”

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