The PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 might soon usher in a renaissance of video game graphics. Nintendo’s Wii might incite a revolution in video game controls.
But never mind the future. When it comes to video game golden ages, the medium is in one now — when it comes to music. In the last year, video game music has flourished more than any other time in the history of gaming.
Consider the success of 2005 sleeper hit “Guitar Hero,” which didn’t just quickly sell out during the holidays last year but has ranked in or near the top 10 video games sold every month this year, according to the NPD Group, which tracks American software sales. Or look outside of games to the Billboard ringtones chart, where Bubba Sparxxx, Daddy Yankee and the “Mission: Impossible” theme are all being outperformed by current chart-topper, the “Super Mario Bros.” theme.
This summer, there are two concerts devoted to game music: Video Games Live and Play! A Video Game Symphony.
Later this year, 50 Cent and G-Unit return to gaming with a PSP action game. And Square-Enix will release a spinoff to the much-loved “Final Fantasy VII” called “Dirge of Cerebus,” which features a cameo by Japanese rocker Gackt.
Coming in the fall is a new installment of Konami’s successful “Karaoke Revolution” series, this next one based on “American Idol.”
It wasn’t always like this. Just three years ago, “Guitar Hero” and “Karaoke Revolution” developer Harmonix was releasing a PS2 rhythm game “Amplitude,” a follow-up to the company’s 2001 “Frequency.” Those games scored well with the critics but were both commercial flops. The first PlayStation had a signature music game, “PaRappa the Rapper,” as did the Sega Dreamcast in “Space Channel 5.” Neither came close to topping the charts.
In 1995 Sony introduced the PlayStation, which became the first console to play CDs. Did a widespread gaming music revolution come next? Not exactly.
A year later came the Nintendo 64, which not only still used cartridges that could hold negligible amounts of high-quality music but didn’t even include a chip tasked solely with processing audio for the machine — an omission that seemed to indicate a de-emphasis on the musical experience of the company’s games.
Eleven years later at the 2006 Electronics Entertainment Expo, Nintendo showed the Wii in action by having the company’s top designer use the controller to conduct a virtual symphony. Just a year before, the company had unveiled an alternate controller for the GameCube shaped like bongos.
And this fall, the company’s premiere original title for its Nintendo DS will be “Elite Beat Agents,” a music game that involves making animated characters’ lives better by tapping and tracing the DS stylus to the beats and strums of licensed music. “EBA” presents an experience that might best be described as hand-dancing. It’s also proof that for the Nintendo of today, the combination of music and gaming definitely matters.
Nintendo isn’t the only console-maker showing an improved commitment to gaming’s musical movement. The pet project of Sony’s head of worldwide game studios, Phil Harrison, is “SingStar,” a karaoke gaming series that has done well in Europe. At the Game Developers Conference and E3 this year, Harrison demonstrated a next-gen version of “SingStar” as a centerpiece of an iTunes-style digital PlayStation 3 marketplace. The idea is for people to download songs to sing to and have rival karaoke matches from one PS3 to another, all around the world.
Microsoft has a musical agenda as well, not simply in its musician-versus-average-player “Game With Fame” program on Xbox Live, but with “Lumines Live,” a remix of last year’s popular “Tetris”-style PSP game. Downloadable through the Xbox 360′s Live Arcade setup, the game will be enhanced with new music videos and songs that play in the background as the player deals with the blocks that fall in the foreground. At E3, Microsoft showed the game with a Madonna video playing in the rear. The company has not announced which artists and videos will be synced to the game when it is officially released later this year.
There’s plenty more going on in this scene. Another cult music-game favorite, 2002′s “Gitaroo Man,” is getting a PSP re-release this year. LucasArts is publishing the PSP game “Traxion,” which adapts its gameplay to fit the digital music stored on a player’s memory stick. The announcement of the “Madden” soundtrack is an event each year, as is the reveal of the “Grand Theft Auto” soundtrack whenever one of those games comes out.
Japanese gaming expert Tim Rogers recently reported that Namco-Bandai is developing an Xbox 360 game that focuses on the dream life of classical music composer Frédéric Chopin. And, of course, “Guitar Hero II” is coming out later this year.
The gaming-music combo seems to be hitting most of the right notes like never before. It’s not hitting every note, though. Look back at that ringtone chart. The game featured there isn’t “Halo” or “Kingdom Hearts —” It’s a game that came out in the 1980s. Games need a few new musical jingles. But aside from that, the interactive arts are just about as musical as they’ve ever been. If that sounds great, then that new wave of graphics and controllers can wait.
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New York may be a major-league city when it comes to baseball, Broadway shows and bagels but not so much when it comes to video games. San Francisco, Seattle and even Austin, Texas, boast more vibrant video game scenes and are rife with more top game development studios than the Big Apple. But for its sheer size, New York can’t help but have a little bit of interactive credibility. New Yorker Matt Hawkins filed a 6,800-word report on New York’s oddball gaming scene last week on the blog GameSetWatch.com. Wonder at an arcade with a chicken that plays tic-tac-toe. Gasp at a game shop that has no name. And marvel that an arcade couldn’t stay in business because its female proprietors had a thing for pouring champagne all over themselves in public. One hopes GameSetWatch follows through with features on other gaming metropolises. …
Every Friday a man named Frankie O’Connor, content manager at “Halo” developer Bungie, pulls back the curtain on his company’s hit franchise just a little bit with an update at Bungie.net. Two Fridays ago, he revealed that single-player sessions of “Halo 3″ are now being tested. He raved about the Xbox 360′s processing power, not for its graphical benefits but for what it does for the enemy characters’ artificial intelligence. “Today, I swear I saw some Grunts do a classic pincer-movement to trap me in a narrow canyon. I was battling, um, something bigger than a Grunt, and suddenly, I’m being peppered by a second group of jerks, mostly Grunts, who’d been sent in around my flanks to take me out. Grunts are still grunts though, and once I showed some serious opposition, a couple of them panicked and fled, but they nearly had me and it was quite a shock.” On Friday, his update addressed the “Halo 3″ graphic novel that is shipping this week from Marvel Comics. Featuring a completely Bungie-authorized series of stories, the graphic novel fills in a gap or two between the first two “Halo” games. Whether it reveals anything about “Halo 3,” O’Connor is not saying.
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