Dan Taipua’s Save State series presents five gaming relics that every collector needs in their shrine/garage, from the essential basics to the very rare and frustratingly pointless. In this the fourth installment, Dan investigates the discordant world of music gaming.
5. Game Boy Camera
Cameras are mostly famous for their ability to take photographs and mostly not famous for their musical qualities, but the Game Boy Camera reversed that trend in 1998. The camera function had a resolution of 264×224 pixels drawn with a 4-colour palette, which is roughly the image quality offered by licking a nightclub stamp and rubbing it on your mate’s wrist. It wasn’t all bad news: the Nintendo device won a Guinness Book of Record’s entry for the world’s smallest digital camera. On reflection, that probably is bad news.
To compensate for the limited function of the Game Boy Camera, Nintendo added a few quirky games and apps to the embedded cartridge – including a music programme called “Trippy-H” that allowed players access to compose loops using the onboard sound chip. Considering the package it came in, Trippy-H is a pretty solid software sequencer with a range of functions that match entry level hardware from a decade or two earlier. If you’re a music nerd, you can check the layout here.
The legacy of the Game Boy Camera is the rare chance go behind the curtain of video game music and compose your own, with tools not too far removed from the professionals. It would rank higher in the list if most of the compositions weren’t like this cover version of the Harlem Shake.
4. DK Bongos
Released in 2003, these barrel-shaped beaters came packaged with Donkey Konga – a rhythm game for the Nintendo GameCube that hit shelves a full two years before Guitar Hero. We can all guess how the bongos worked (a song presents key moments that you have to hit the drums in order to keep time) but the controller surprisingly includes a microphone that registers hand claps, adding a cheery dimension to an old arcade format. In dud news, the songs for Donkey Konga were all cover versions – ranging from the dummy percussive level of Blink 182 to the master level of Tito Puente.
The DK Bongos distinguished themselves from other music game controllers by eventually moving away from rhythm games and into other genres. Donkey Kong Jungle Beat was a hectic and high class 2D platformer that had players drum right or left tom move, tandem beat to jump, and clap to perform context-specific moves like punches, swings or flips. Instead of using a controller to play music, they became musical instruments used to play a game – with players beating out a freeform, functional rhythm.
Get some DK Bongos for your lounge, take your shirt off, and burn a two paper with some monkey friends.
3. Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker
Back before MJ’s legal issues reached the public sphere, the combination of Michael Jackson and video games seemed like a divine gift, proving that God truly loves all children. What a dream. Released in 1990 for a range of game systems including Sega Mega Drive, the Moonwalker game loosely followed the plot of the 1988 film the same name – which insanely involves Joe Pesci trying to sell narcotics to every child on earth and Michael physically transforming into a sports car. Game-wise this means throwing a fedora hat at 1930’s gangsters until they die, and freeing enough chimpanzees to allow you transform into a chrome-coated robot. Markedly less insane than the film, then.
Moonwalker isn’t a musical game per se, but it has a special place in video game music history. The relationship between Michael Jackson and Sega of America led to the greatest and longest running urban legend in gaming history; a legend that was recently proven to be true and is covered in an excellent Huffington Post article by Todd Van Luling. The legend involves Jackson’s involvement with the Sonic 3 soundtrack and is one of the best pieces of video game journalism this year, please do read it.
Guitar Hero is bad. The songs are lame and a guitar bears little or no relation to video gaming controls, just like the guitar controller bears little relation to the way a real guitar is played. To make any kind of analogic sense, a play-along music game would have to present a controller that represents the manipulation of existing musical sounds and phrases, instead an ‘instrument’. In 2009, DJ Hero bridged that cognitive and ludological gap by presenting a turntable controller that allowed players to trigger preset musical sequences – in the way that real DJs speed, slow, cut and modify existing songs in real-time. Of course, it’s not the same as real DJing – but it’s much closer to the real thing than the guitar.
Following in the tradition of star collaboration set by Moonwalker above, DJ Hero brought a roster of the world’s best musicians in as both design consultants and digital cast members, including: DJ Shadow, Daft Punk, Grandmaster Flash and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Rather than having players fill in parts of classic songs, the game features mixes and mashups of over 100 tracks sampled from their original master recordings and re-arranged by studio producers in Ableton Live.
DJ Hero was the last in line for the great 2000’s music game frenzy, and is generally overlooked in contrast to the more popular and much more embarrassing Guitar and Band franchises. They even had Old Hov in the house; it’s so necessary.
1. PlayStation CD Soundtracks
The greatest musical achievement in video games was also the easiest. The Sony PlayStation wasn’t the first console to use CD technology, but it was the first to feature A-title games with CD-quality music licensed from major record labels like, oh, global giant Sony Records. Up until the PlayStation, games had to have music designed for, or limited to, their hardware specifications – you could have versions of songs like in Moonwalker, but you couldn’t have the original song.
PlayStation developers went at the opportunity like a shark to a long-limbed surfer, or students to free biscuits and tea, hungrily licensing existing pop music to match the target demographic for games. The Wipeout series featured electronic bangers from The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy and Leftfield – lending the PlayStation what passed for a bleeding edge futuristic cool in the mid-1990s. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 had songs that actual skaters listened to with a mix of alternative rock and rap from Rage Against The Machine, Anthrax and Naughty by Nature.
The CD soundtrack represented a maturing of video game music from adolescent to teenaged, to the extent in 1999 the mother-fucking Wu Tang Clan released their own R18 rated arena fighting game with original tracks by RZA, U-God, Inspectah Deck and Method Man – all of whom were playable characters. Bong bong.
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