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The Year the Music (Games) Died


I don't know why The Beatles broke up.

But I don't think it was Yoko.

My theory is the Beatles splintered into nothingness because they had completed everything and fully defined the bounds of rock 'n' roll, and they wanted out. The bickering, the egos, the wives and girlfriends, the drugs, the money -- all that was just what happened when the Fab Four realized that there wasn't anything new to do in rock 'n' roll.

So, while they probably missed out on some pretty neat things that would happen in metal and electronica, the Beatles imploded at exactly the right time to signal the End of Rock.

Which makes it somehow appropriate that "The Beatles: Rock Band" signaled the end of music games.

Of course, I am speaking metaphorically. There was lots of rock after The Beatles, and there will certainly be endless lines of "Hero" and "Band" games to come. Probably not until every last sonic utterance or tonal blip has been turned into a downloadable TRACK PACK will we actually see the end of the music game.

But short of that cataclysmic heat death of the musical universe, we have to admit that our love affair with music games has peaked. We've seen what they can do, partied like rock stars in our living rooms, pretended our little hearts out that we actually had musical talent, and finally come to the conclusion there wasn't anything left to look forward to. Not more Tom Petty tracks. Not the entire Sub Pop catalog. Not all the unsigned indie music in the world.

Suddenly, the game genre that would save games -- the music game -- started sliding back down from its proud moment into its seat with the rest of the class.

Which is The Beatles argument again. Rock just didn't seem to matter quite as much once The Beatles climbed down off that roof in London. That was the high-water mark, and even through there have been notable moments, to be sure, nothing has quite been the same since.

The run up to "The Beatles: Rock Band" included a raft of new music games -- "Guitar Hero World Tour," "Band Hero," "DJ Hero" and all manner of derivative music games on every platform imaginable, including the iPhone. We also saw "Brutal Legend," a game that was actually about music, but arrived on stage just as the monsters of "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" were thundering out their final chords.

"Brutal Legend" had so much spirit and wit, and it loved music so much, that it almost seemed for a minute like Tim Schafer could single-handedly save the rock 'n' roll game. In the end, though, this was just the ultimate fan love letter -- too tortured and wrapped up in its own psychological drama to really revive the music-game genre. Rather than save the music game, "Brutal Legend" was one more clear indication that show was almost over.

The fact is, music games may get an encore -- what the Plastic Ono Band and Wings were to The Beatles -- but the main act is off the stage.

This might all sound like a conspiracy theory, but it's not. Games have always wallowed in excessive trends. It was only a few years ago that I picked "Wii Bowling" as the game of the year. I simply could not believe that something so simple could be so much fun. In retrospect, it turns out that "Wii Bowling" was so right, so well done, so brilliant, that no other Wii game would make such good use of the Wii controller, ever again.

Instead, we got Wiimotisized.

"Wii Bowling" was the pop musical version of a one-hit wonder. Something that just hit at the right time and was done with all the energy there was to put toward that one idea. So, music gets "The Purple People Eater" and "Achy Breaky Heart" and -- I don't know, I don't listen to this crap -- Lady Gaga. Videogames get "Wii Bowling" and "Canabalt." And fans get a short period of enjoyment with something really great, only to face a flood of knocked-off effluence to come. Remember when "Bejeweled" was a cool game concept and not the unholy mother of 100,000 baby-spider "match-three" games?

Or put it this way: "Wii Bowling" may have put the Nintendo Wii into No. 1. But its success dropped a dirty bomb of knockoff fallout on the platform that made any game with the least bit of life have to fight to survive in the sterile landscape of Wiimote mutants.

Do you remember dancing games?

People used to love dancing games. They used to be everywhere, from the pizza parlor to the family rumpus room. Then, one day, it is as if they disappeared in some sort of dance-pad rapture.

And I can tell you the exact day that "Dance Dance Revolution" fell into irrelevance. It was May 2, 2004. A Sunday night. That's the evening that plucky Fox sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle" aired the episode "Dewey's Special Class." One of the intertwined plots on this live-action "Simpsons" put dad Hal and pal Craig together to try and best a bunch of teens at the local arcade in a "Dance Dance Revolution" contest. Seeing two grown men, dressed in sparkles and spangles, tear it up on a "DDR" machine was classic television.

Of course, for this to work, the whole idea of a dancing game had to have reached far enough into the mass-culture psyche that you could make fun of it. So at its moment of pop-cultural relevance, "DDR" started to disappear from serious game consideration.

It's always been this way. The world of games has a nasty habit and a long history of getting bored with what's popular, and turning its back on any idea that actually becomes mainstream.

Sure, we still have "DDR" games. And we still have Wii games. But those things now just seem like moments of the past. History. Somewhere between a Pet Rocks fad and once-in-a-lifetime Woodstock nostalgia, the games community stashes things like "Wii Bowling" and "DDR" that just don't seem that much fun anymore.

And this is where "The Beatles: Rock Band" shoved music games this year.

When you hear about the 1,000 songs in "Rock Band" or the over $1 billion in revenue these games made last year, the close to 1 million "The Beatles: Rock Band" units sold don't get excitement. This is just all the enthusiasm that comes at the end of a great season. And as sure as the size of a crowd at a burning building grows, the closer that the fire gets to consuming the entire structure, you can bet that all this attention music games are getting now is more like a pop-star funeral than an indication of the next big thing.

In fact, with sales sliding this year, it's already obvious that someone flipped on the house lights and told the crowd to go home.

Fortunately, there's no reason to be sad as we mark the passing of the music-game genre as the driving cultural force in gaming, No, gamers know to just silently note the passing of such things. Much as they did at the passing of fighting games, or sports games or racing games or, thankfully, hunting games, gamers let hot genres cool in the grave without a lot of remorse. These gaming trends lose their luster and just fade back into the daily ebb and flow of products pulsing on and off the game-store shelves.

Take a bow, music games. You were fun while you lasted.


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