The Rhythm of the Boogie the Beat…
Games can be like time capsules for games. For those who have spent years’ worth of time watching pixels on a screen, every game has a heavy past. It can be hard to not compare your most recent game to the overbearing list of previous games. For better or for worse, a game can remind you of all the things you wish you had back then, or things you missed from back then. In this vein, during my recent dive into Greg Lobanov’s Wandersong, I was reminded of my love for rhythm games. During the ’90s and early 2000s, rhythm games were everywhere and I ate them up.
So, in honor of rekindled obsession, I want to look to go back to those funky fresh times. Using my recent playthrough as a sort of guide, I want to explore what makes music games, what they are, and how Wandersong relates to them. I want a kind of retrospective that is relative to how games are now. A retro-relative, if you will.
As the label on the can said, rhythm games are all about following or complementing the rhythm. Thus, most of the classics involved completing patterns in one way or another. Most games fall into two categories I call “timeline” and “call and response.” Both categories make the player hit the right buttons in the right time within the song to get the right result. The difference between the two is in the structure and where the difficulty lies.
Timeline games, such as PaRappa the Rapper and Guitar Hero, sit your incoming button commands on a timeline that scrolls across the screen. Because you can see what you need to do, the challenge is usually a case of speed and precise button mashing. These games reward good motor skills and reaction time, making you feel like the baddest mama jama at the end of each stage. This category is the most gamer-centric of the two because, much like fighters and shooters, it demands mastery and precision. If you have ever seen a true Dance Dance Revolution maverick, you know timeline games can become a true sport in every sense of the word. However, because your commands are stuck to a program, there isn’t much wiggle room or exploration to be had.
Call and Response Games
Call and response games, such as Patapon and Space Channel 5, plays a rhythm and asks the player to play it back correctly within a time limit. Though there is a speed element, these games focus more on memory skills. This means that most of the difficulty comes in form of complex strings of patterns and randomness. It is like a musical version of Simon or Bop It, wherein the game tries to confuse more than outrun you. Because of their structure, call and response games are more welcoming to people who are new to games and may not be as quick to button precision.
Either way, a rhythm game is going to have you follow a pattern in an interesting way, which gets me to the next section….
Mechanics were an essential part of a rhythm game. Rhythm games lived or died on how deeply and well they represented their theme through the gameplay. How the mechanics succeeded in portraying a theme was also often what made the game stand out from the rest.
Time Line Mechanics
PaRappa the Rapper and Bust-a-Groove are both timeline types and very similar at face value. However, because PaRappa the Rapper is about rapping, the actions are in short bursts and the buttons work like syllables. This makes the player feel they are working with speech. In contrast, because it is about dancing, each action in Bust-a-Groove can contain combinations of buttons, imitating multiple limbs at the same time. One of my all-time favorites, Gitaroo Man, is an awesome example of this as well. Gitaroo Man had a mix of short and long bursts on a moving timeline. This imitates riffing on a guitar in a creative way and it felt AMAZING when you got it right.
Call and Response Mechanics
The idea of theme gets even crazier when you get into call and response games. Many call and response games tend to be hybrids. Patapon is not only a rhythm game but also a god simulator. In Patapon, you learn and memorize patterns to command your tribe. Each of your buttons represents a different drum and getting the pattern right determines if your tribe will go forward (and chime along) or become confused. The feedback makes it feel like you’re really communicating with your little batch of kiddos. Space Channel 5 structured its levels in a way that made it feel like a growing flash mob as you follow along with the aliens. Though these games seem more freeform, the mechanics still follow through with the theme and are what blends everything together.
A good rhythm game uses its mechanics to make you feel like you’re interacting with the music and that interaction is important to the game’s world.
A good rhythm game has good, catchy music. There isn’t much I can say past that. It’s been years and I can still recite Chop Chop Master Onion Rap word for word. (Yes, I linked that twice in this article. If I must live with that brain worm, you do too.) I still have 2 Bad on my mp3 player, and don’t get me started on Butterfly. Whether it is lyrical or instrumental, a good rhythm game keeps you grooving. End of story.
Finally, we come to the present with Wandersong and my first impressions. Wandersong is a musical adventure wherein you use singing to solve puzzles and interact with characters. Off the bat, I would put this game in the “call and response” category in a very literal sense. A lot of its puzzles involve you learning patterns and singing them back to things in different ways. The music is relaxing and almost meditative in most cases, making this game a good one to play when you need some time to yourself. However, does Wandersong bind these parts together with its mechanics as seamlessly as the strong rhythm games of the past? Well…
Mechanics-wise, “singing” is very similar to Gitaroo Man’s set up. The player rotates around a wheel to hit different notes and colors. Pulling the stick to one direction or the other is representative of stretching your vocal cords. In some puzzles, the length, movement, and even shape of the patterns in Wandersong can vary according to the character’s voice or the instrument that being played. Wandersong plays around with what it has in interesting ways and makes each tone feel unique.
However, it pains me to say that I did not enjoy singing as much as I wanted to. I am not sure if this is a programming issue or just how the Nintendo Switch joystick is, but I never felt like I had good control of singing. Though I do think I improved over time, the joystick doesn’t have the stability and snap that other music wheel setups have had. Wandersong is very forgiving to players and has a chill atmosphere, so it is possible that the game does not expect you to be perfect at any time. Yet, I do feel that the lack of control plus forgiveness lessens the singing. Solving the puzzles was more satisfying to me than the singing itself, which is a small but kind of important criticism for a music-based game.
All in all, Wandersong is delightful as a hybrid adventure game. It has a lot of charm in its visual music, humor, and pretty everything else. It’s a great game that folks should be playing. However, It just shy of hitting the mark for me as a satisfying music game.
Do you guys have any favorite rhythm games? What do you think of Wandersong? Let us know in the comments!