Where's 'Hip-Hop Hero'? Plus 'Rock Band,' Wii Zapper & More, In GameFile

Developers explore why music games usually leave rap out of the mix.

Does the "Guitar Hero"-crazed gaming world want "Turntable Hero"? Would the people excited for MTV's upcoming "Rock Band" be equally receptive to "Rap Band"?

Music games are ascendant, riding a crescendo of rock and pop and letting players belt out and riff their music fantasies. "Guitar Hero" continues to tear up sales charts, and "Rock Band" is among the most anticipated games of the year. Sony's SingStar karaoke series, already a hit throughout Europe, is now being pushed as a major pop-music line for American gamers.

But the domain of the Kanyes and 50s and Lil Waynes of the world is all but left out. Why the sparse presence of hip-hop?

"It would seem that nobody has found the perfect package between game, visuals and music to really appeal to the hip-hop crowd," said Denis Lacasse, a producer at the Montreal development studio Artificial Mind and Movement, one of the few outfits to create a full-fledged rap-music game. "It does not mean it is impossible, it has just not happened yet."

In 2004, A2M released "Get on Da Mic," a karaoke game that asked players to rap their way from the virtual bathroom to the virtual concert hall. The game received poor reviews but was lauded for being one of the few to even attempt the genre. How could it be one of the rare music games that lets players try to live out their hip-hop fantasies?

Lacasse shared his theory on why other kinds of music have had more video-game success. "In the early days of arcade dance games, techno was the best music to induce the fast rhythm required by the game and was part of the overall visual package as well," he said. "Rock works because they found ways to bring the guitar controller to the masses at a reasonable cost, allowing this congruence between the game's elements."

The MTV-owned development studio Harmonix went with a techno vibe and only one or two rap tracks for the group's first two PlayStation music games, "Amplitude" and "FreQuency." The company then made karaoke games that focused on pop, with one game branded for Country Music Television. Now the team is finishing "Rock Band," which lets players use guitars, drums and a mic. "We have at several points seriously considered developing a hip-hop-themed game," Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos told GameFile via e-mail. "We've even developed some prototypes, but none of them has made it into full production."

Having studied the possibilities, Rigopulos had some insights that help explain the lack of rap games. "There are some inherent attributes to hip-hop music that pose some unique challenges to game design," he said. "For example, in rock music, there is a lot of structural variation (verses, choruses, bridges, solos, etc.) that keeps things interesting for the players. By contrast, a lot of hip-hop instrumental elements tend to be extremely repetitive — sometimes a single groove in the rhythm section that repeats with little variation for the duration of the tune. If you were simply to cut and paste 'Rock Band'-style gameplay onto hip-hop grooves, it wouldn't work well. The drummer and bassist would get bored playing the same riff 100 times in a row. That's not to say that it's an unsolvable problem, however."

Rigopulos said that figuring out how to get the lyrical part of a hip-hop game experience is the key task to get things right. "I think a successful hip-hop game would have to focus on what makes hip-hop special: the rapping," said Rigopulos. "Perhaps this could be done well as a rhythm-action game on a regular game controller. But in rap, the lyrics are just as important as the rhythmic vocal performance, so I'd personally prefer to see gameplay that's not simple rhythm-action; I'd like to see a game that integrates the lyrical content as well. You could possibly approach this on the game controller in some abstract way, but I also think the most authentic rapping game would be on the mic, a real rapping-simulation game."

It's easier said than done, of course. Lacasse offered a lesson he learned while making "Get on Da Mic" about what makes the lyrical element of hip-hop so vexing for game designers. "The main difficulty was the display of the lyrics onscreen. Rap music tends to have a lot of words per second, a lot more than rock or pop. We needed to display the lyrics quickly enough to follow the beat but also so that the players can read them."

Music games have primarily judged players' performances based on their vocal pitch. A player can score well singing in their natural voice, whether it's deep or high, so long as they hit the right notes. "The pitch tends to be less important in rap than in rock or pop," Lacasse said. "We needed to adjust our scoring system in order to put more emphasis on hitting the beats than hitting the pitch."

Oh, and there's one other wrinkle: "Most people are pretty self-conscious about even trying to rap in front of other people," Rigopulos said. "That's a pretty significant barrier."

All these hardships aside, there will be at least a little bit of hip-hop for gamers this fall. In the closest brush to rap the series has ever made, "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" will feature the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," as will "Rock Band." The makers of "Guitar Hero III" and the London studio behind the "SingStar" series, which has included Run-DMC's "It's Tricky" were unable to comment for this story by press time.

There was once an exception to the rule: The first music game to break out on the scene was 1996's "PaRappa the Rapper." That game required players to press buttons on a PlayStation controller, matching the beats of rapping cartoon characters. There's no audio input, so players don't rap. The game was released in English in the U.S. and Japan. Masaya Matsuura, the Tokyo-based musician and game's lead creator, told GameFile that he didn't pick rap just because he liked it. He was trying to make something educational. "Many [Japanese gamers] were interested in interacting with the English words by using rap," he said. "This was very important and a motivation for me."

So the first major rap game was made, in part, to be educational. The second, "Get on Da Mic," ushered no sequel, and its studio, A2M, is now focusing on an action game called "Wet."

Will there be a charmed third time? "I do think that there will be a successful hip-hop game at some point," Rigopulos said. He just doesn't know when.

More from the world of video games:

Freeing people from the hassle of actually playing games to hear video game music, EMI Classics is planning the October 15 release of "Video Games Live: Greatest Hits — Volume One." Based on the Video Games Live concert tour, the CD was recorded in London, primarily by a classical orchestra. The CD will include songs from the "Legend of Zelda," "Mario," "Halo," "Warcraft," "Sonic," "Myst," "Civilization IV" and "Final Fantasy" series, according to the EMI press release. ...

In other music-game news, EA/MTV announced last week that "Rock Band" will include songs by the Grateful Dead. The two companies also announced tour dates for the game, which will allow gamers to sample the title before its release. A list of dates appears here. For console-free gamers, Aspyr Media announced that it is developing PC and Mac versions of "Guitar Hero III" for the fall. They will mark the series' computer debut. ...

And in an announcement with no musical connections whatsoever, Nintendo revealed Monday that the Wii Zapper, a shell that configures the Wii's remote and nunchuk controllers into a gun, will be released on November 19 in a $20 package that includes a new game, "Link's Crossbow Training." According to a press release, the title will bring players to the world featured in "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" and offer a series of shooting challenges: "Start with stationary bull's-eyes and graduate to moving targets before defending Link against all kinds of enemies." The Zapper is also designed to work with the Wii version of EA's "Medal of Honor: Heroes," Sega's "Ghost Squad" and Capcom's "Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles."

Be sure to check out our Multiplayer blog, which features a few "Lair" secrets and a look back at some vintage entries.