One of my favourite summer memories from the last decade is of spending hour upon hour at the house of our news editor, doing kick jumps off of the sofa, powersliding around on the floor and headbanging until I gave myself a massive crick in the neck. Taken out of context, such actions might seem a little odd, even verging on exuberant vandalism, but seen with a plastic guitar placed firmly within my hands, suddenly these freeze-framed memories take on a new meaning.
In short, Guitar Hero gave me one of the best summers of my life.
It was such a simple idea in retrospect - combining the awesome psychitude of rock and metal with an interface that didn't require years of practice, but still made you feel like a rock god. Living rooms were transformed into arena stages, bedrooms spawned open mic nights. Sure, there'd been music games before, god only knows how many karaoke titles and cult oddities had gone parading past, but suddenly they were cool.
Cashing in was always going to happen, particularly when Activision decided to jettison Harmonix and combine Red Octane with Neversoft for future iterations. In stepped EA and Rock Band was born. We've seen spin-offs, phone apps and seriously poor imitations. You can now sing, wield the axe, take the bassline for a walk, bang the drums and have you fingers dance across those ivory keys. There's now a dedicated karaoke and freestyle rap community. There's a series where you spin fake plastic decks to play specially-designed mash-ups. I can't listen to Flo Rida or David Guetta, or Stevie Wonder or Edwin Starr, separately any more...because the originals just don't seem as good now!
But you've got to wonder, where the hell does it go from here? Innovation is a word that gets bandied around a lot, and we've seen plenty of it in the last few years. But there's surely a limit that you can reach.
You look at Rock Band 3 and its Pro instruments and its keyboard. The drums are set up like real drums, the guitar is oeprable just like a 'real' guitar. The line between 'game' and 'teaching tool' is completely blurred. But if the simulacrum has in actual fact become the real thing, what comes next? Community involvement? Sure. But the crossover potential in the face of existing websites, talent shows and TV enterprises seems slim. Def Jam Rapstar took a niche that was relatively untapped, and fairly inexpensive to fulfil (by comparison), and reinvented the karaoke sub-genre to suit its needs. As the first 'real life' competition gets underway, we'll start to see if that innovation in terms of subcultural community involvement pays off.
But for the big hitters it might well be the end of the road. What more can be done apart from more songs being made available, more DLC, subtle tweaks and the odd system update? Guitar Hero has been plunging into stagnation for a little while. All Activision have to do is add a keytar into the mix and some funky-named 'real' instruments and they'll be back up there. But then where? A plastic zither? USB laser harp? That'd be awesome...but...
And then there's the money. Accessorising costs money, particularly when you consider that the vast majority of these games are designed with multiplayer in mind. But money isn't just a consideration on the part of the consumer. Look at the sales figures since 2008 and they'll tell you all that you need to know. When EA's John Riccitello turned around the other week and suggested that investing in Harmonix was like catching a falling knife, he wasn't suggesting that the development studio were bad (something his Activision counterpart Mr. Kotick stated...and then rescinded once Rock Band started selling more), but rather that he wasn't certain investing in the music genre at this stage would be a safe bet.
But will it be the end for the music/rhythm game completely? Doubtful. We're already seeing it branch out into a more physical form, aided by motion control. You look at the phenomenal success of Just Dance on the Wii and Dance Central - arguably the finest Kinect-based game out there. And the existing models are still sustainable, albeit in a vastly reduced form. Setlists and hit packs get released every week, and they'll continue to get released. These games do foster an interest in music and musical instruments and more and more artists are looking towards these platforms as a way of demoing new material.
But I want to know where the true creativity has gone. The reason people got so excited about Def Jam Rapstar is that for the first time in a while, a music game emerged that challenged its audience to create something. Look at Rez - it's different every time you play through it, Frequency was a masterpiece, and I still believe that there's nothing out there to rival the humour, irrepressible originality and defiant quirkiness of PaRappa the Rapper. Sure, we have Child of Eden on the horizon, but that's about all that excites me...and that's what's changed. There's no excitement any more, there are few surprises to be had. In a time of recession, it'll take a brave studio to pitch something radically new and no, it probably won't sell hugely at first. But the genre will be treading water until somebody does.