Put the plastic instruments down, these are the music games of the future

Music and rhythm-based games have been around forever, letting players cut a rug on the virtual dance floor, embark on an adventure with a rapping dog, or fulfill their greatest rock star fantasies with plastic instruments. But other than offering newer and fancier ways to let music fans play their favorite tunes, what those players do with those tunes hasn't really changed all that much over the years.

At PAX East this year, I noticed that there are quite a few developers out there trying to do different things with the well-worn genre. These games aren't just about pushing buttons to make music happen - they're about moving rhythm gaming forward by finding new and exciting ways to let players experience the joy of interacting with music. Here are only a few of the virtuosos defying genre conventions and making rhythm gaming exciting again.

Klang

Klang looks like if Tron was set inside a mythical boombox, a visual representation of a world where music reigns supreme, where sound waves crash around you as you fend off streams of enemies in time with the music. It's also the work of two people: Tom-Ivar Arntzen, who created the game's art and designed its levels, and electronic music composer bLiNd, who provided the game's tunes. Klang combines these two elements, forming a symbiotic relationship between its platforming and rhythm-based action, and the result is incredibly impressive.

Klang starts out simple, easing you into the controls over its first few stages. Essentially, you use the face buttons and right analog stick on your controller to fend off enemies as they fly at you in time with with the four-on-the-floor beat of its rave party dance music. After the first few waves, though, things start to get much, much trickier - like a brief section where I had to wall-jump up a tall shaft while avoiding lasers that fired along to the rhythm of the song's kick drum. The final area of the demo puts a lot of your learned skills to the test, where you not only have to defeat enemies while they're attacking you, but continue to move while the elevated platforms you're standing on light on fire at set intervals. Once you get the hang of it, it's easy to find yourself locked into a groove, bobbing your head to the music and pulling off wild strings of combos, and later levels will add even more moves into the mix. This music/platforming hybrid will hit PCs in 2016, with a console release to follow afterward. 

Thumper

Thumper is a demonic Space Mountain; a twisted roller-coaster ride starring a silver beetle as it races down a track to do battle with a giant nightmarish hovering face with bulging eyeballs. A dark, brooding industrial soundtrack fills your ears as you luge down this track, and in order to survive, you need to pull off combinations with the X button and analog stick depending on the obstacle rushing your way. While you're not quite crafting a song, there's a rhythm to your actions, whether you're holding the button down to break through a series of gates, or moving the stick to glide along the curved wall of the track. 

I played this sucker in PS VR, and the combination of the rhythmic sounds and music, the particle effects that fly off at a rapid-fire pace, and having your sense of sight and sound enveloped in this sinister atmosphere is probably one of the most intense experiences of my life. It's like if a VR game in a John Carpenter movie came to life, a kaleidoscope of spindly abstract shapes accompanied by the feeling that you're losing a part of yourself every time you play it, but you can't help but stay plugged in. I can't wait to play the final version later this year. 

The Metronomicon

The Metronomicon is a cross between Dance Dance Revolution and Amplitude, with a twist: it's also a fully-featured RPG. There are all sorts of monsters to fight, elemental spells to cast, an entire team of dancing warriors and mages, and loot to earn and equip as you play. There's even a story that carries you through the game's 50-odd stages, as it follows a team of students as they study the magical tome that gives the game its name.

A typical battle will run the full length of the song that you've chosen, and you have to take out as many monsters as possible in the hopes of reaching a larger boss near the end, as defeating those give you way better loot. Each character in your party has a lane filled with arrows running down them, and you have to tap the buttons on your controller in time with the music. The trick is to know when to switch lanes to a different character, as that determines what spell or ability gets cast. Each party member can have up to three levels of abilities equipped, and knowing when to shift over after completing one measure to perform an attack, or to stick around for stronger buffs or spells, is the key to victory. It can get really tricky, too, especially on harder difficulties, where enemies can cast debuffs on your party, causing individual notes to wiggle around in their lane, making it much harder to press the right button on the controller. With a ton of catchy songs from the likes of YACHT, Perturbator, Shiny Toy Guns, and even Johnny Urine from Mindless Self-Indulgence, and a surprising amount of depth, The Metronomicon seems like it has a lot to offer rhythm game fans when it releases by the end of the year on PC and PlayStation 4. 

Just Shapes and Beats

This was my surprise hit of PAX East. The title gives away the core concept: you've got shapes, and you've got beats. Each player is a different colored shape, and you're just trying to survive each stage's bullet and obstacle-filled stages and make it to the end of the song. The only move you have at your disposal is a dash, which grants you a few frames of invincibility to get you out of harm's way, and you can revive teammates who take too much damage if you can reach them before they scroll off the left side of the screen. If everyone dies, it's back to the checkpoint with you. That's… pretty much it.

What makes Just Shapes and Beats so great, though, is how it takes such a simple concept and puts so much personality into it. The four songs I got to play are all catchy, foot-tapping tunes, and the obstacles that appear are perfectly synchronized along with the music. The final boss in particular (a goofy-looking face made out of disconnected shapes of various sizes) punches the screen in time with the beat, and fires lasers out of his mouth while moving down the screen when the bass wobbles. And the bonus stage was set to the Mortal Kombat theme by the Immortals. Yes. That Mortal Kombat theme. And each hit of the synthesizer is accompanied by the flying silhouette of a dude sidekicking the air. I can't wait to see what else the game does with just a handful of shapes and some beats when it hits PC and an undisclosed next-gen console later this year. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Roberts lives in Everett, WA with his wife and two kids. He once had to sell his full copy of EarthBound (complete with box and guide) to some dude in Austria for rent money. And no, he doesn't have an amiibo 'problem', thank you very much.
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