When people talk of the “rhythm game” genre, they’re probably referencing either Rock Band or Guitar Hero. But over the years, we’ve seen a staggering number of great music games that don’t belong to these two franchises. Whether you’re banging on bongos, spinning a fake turntable, or flailing your arms around in a VR game, the genre has done it all. Many of them are no longer in production — and several require proprietary plastic controllers — but the following 12 titles are among the best rhythm games the industry has ever seen.
In order to prevent this list from being taken over by the Rock Band series, we’ve restricted it to just one game from the franchise. And Rock Band 3 is certainly the best it has to offer. Upping the ante by adding keyboard gameplay alongside the usual drums, vocals, guitar, and bass, Rock Band 3 was a wildly diverse title. Would-be rockers choose from more than 83 songs and play on a variety of difficulties to sate their inner rockstar. Included on the soundtrack are hit songs by famous bands and songwriters, including Avenged Sevenfold, The Cure, Dio, Ozzy Osbourne, Queen, Slipknot, and The Smiths.
As for the best of the Guitar Hero franchise, the second installment is often cited as the finest in its roster. It improved upon the original by bringing massive singles from bands such as AC/DC and Metallica to an already stacked lineup, and the developers worked closely with these artists to get authentic recreations in the game. Guitar Hero 2 also improved the hammer-on and pull-off technique, allowing for a more realistic guitar-strumming experience. On top of that, it was the first time players were introduced to three-note chords, forcing them to learn completely new hand positions — and increasing the difficulty.
While it hasn’t quite reached the level of success of the Rock Band and Guitar Hero titles of yesteryear, Beat Saber is far and away the most popular new rhythm game. You’ll need a VR headset to play the hit title — meaning the cost of entry is a bit high — but besides that it’s one of the best rhythm games around. Players hold a saber in each hand, one red and the other blue. Colored blocks then start moving toward you in tune to the rhythm, and you’re tasked with slicing the blocks with the appropriate saber before they fly past you. It’s a simple concept, but one that proves that the rhythm genre is far from dead — and that VR might be its future.
Combining two genres as disparate as rhythm and roguelike sounds as if it would be a disaster, but it’s one that works surprisingly well. Players must move and attack to the beat of the music — performing any action off-beat results in a penalty. Despite its difficulty, Crypt of the NecroDancer never feels frustrating. Instead, each failure can be seen as practice, as you learn the rhythm of each song and the movement of your foes. You can even choose to upload your own tunes, but the music by Danny Baranowsky is so good you’d be crazy to miss out on it.
While there were a couple of obscure rhythm games before it, PaRappa the Rapper is often cited as the first true rhythm game, and the one that brought the genre to the masses. Players took on the role of PaRappa, a rapping dog who’s attempting to sing and karate kick his way into the heart of his true love, Sunny Funny. The story is a bit off the wall, but the rhythmic blocking, chopping, and kicking were as solid as anything else on the original PlayStation. With several difficulties available — as well as unlockable endings — PaRappa is truly one of the greatest music games around.
If you’re hoping that your Guitar Hero expertise would translate to playing a real guitar — well, that typically didn’t work out too well. Rocksmith, however, did exactly that. Players would plug in a real electric guitar and the game would slowly walk them through the basics of playing a true instrument. It was packed with short lessons — disguised as mini-games — and once guitarists felt comfortable enough, they could tackle full songs by The Black Keys, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Boston, and Pearl Jam. If Guitar Hero was about using guitars to make a video game, Rocksmith was about using video games to make a musician.
Just as the music game craze was coming to an end, DJ Hero stepped in and tried to revitalize the genre. But rather than use plastic guitars and drums, players stepped behind a plastic turntable. It was a solid — if basic — imitation of what a real DJ would use, but did an impressive job replicating the true experience. The falling-notes formula returned from the Guitar Hero games, but instead of tapping and strumming, players were tapping and scratching. With greats such as Daft Punk, DJ AM, and DJ Shadow lending their beats, DJ Hero remains one of the most unique rhythm games of all time.
Since GameCube games missed out on the Guitar Hero and Rock Band craze, Nintendo decided to step in and fix the problem. And its answer had a decidedly Nintendo spin. The company took one of the most popular franchises — Donkey Kong — and created a music game spinoff. Donkey Konga saw players smacking a plastic set of bongos to the beat of “All the Small Things,” “Louie Louie,” and “Whip It.” It certainly stood out of the market — and performed well enough to earn a sequel — but the bongo fever died out almost as quickly as it came.
From the publishers of Journey and Flower, Sayonara Wild Hearts is another abstract adventure that keeps players on their toes until the very end. The title revolves around heartbreak and self-acceptance, using a powerful soundtrack to push the action forward. It’s much more story driven than most other rhythm games, but its tight gameplay and wonderful soundtrack make it a game that’ll stick with you well past the credits.
The most simple game on the list, Super Hexagon isn’t a graphical powerhouse. It has no story, its controls are basic, and you’ll probably quit in frustration dozens of times. But once it clicks, Super Hexagon is an incredible game. The premise is simple — players move around in a circle as they try to avoid incoming obstacles. As the action plays out and the beat intensifies, the levels become more frantic, requiring precise moves to survive. But as far as fast-paced rhythm games are concerned, it’s hard to top Super Hexagon.
This game requires you to upload your own music, so you’ll need seriously good musical taste if you want to optimize your AudioSurf experience. It’s similar to Guitar Hero while still distinguishing itself. The title includes multiple game modes, but in general, you can expect to soar through a psychedelic backdrop as you attempt to collect blocks of an assigned color. The game stacks the blocks behind your character, and you can trade them for points. You can strategize about where you put the blocks—groups of specific colors can get you a huge bonus. For instance, yellow and red blocks score the most points per block. It’s an entertaining and unique variant of the rhythm genre, using puzzle game mechanics in its action.
While it takes some time and effort to set up, Dance Dance Revolution was a true revolution when it first came out. The game requires portable dance mats, which can make people nervous. But the trick is coordination and rhythm, rather than actual dance moves. Even amateurs dancers will start to feel like pros as they see their movements match the game.
With the immense variety of rhythm games to choose from, players have hours of fun at their fingertips. Whether you prefer Rock Band 3, Donkey Konga, DJ Hero, or Dance Dance Revolution, you’re sure to find a new favorite from this list of our top 12.
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