Don’t get me wrong — the whole Tofugu team worked hard while we were in Japan last month. We spent hours filming in sub-freezing temperatures, hauled around giant backpacks full of camera equipment, and spent countless hours traveling to see and film cool things in Japan just for you guys.
But while we worked hard, we also visited a lot of arcades in Japan. Sometimes you have to take a break, you know?
And while Japanese game centers offer a ton of different games, I spent pretty much all of my time with rhythm games. I’ve had a soft spot for Japanese rhythm games ever since discovering Dance Dance Revolution as a kid.
What Are Rhythm Games?
Rhythm games, at their simplest, are games where you play along with music. In most cases, that means hitting buttons on the game in sync with a song, but there are a lot of variations.
Some rhythm games (like Guitar Hero) let you use an instrument to play along, others use motion-capture to allow you to use your whole body to dance along to the music.
They’re a ton of fun. Rhythm games let you really get into the music, even if you look like a complete idiot while doing so.
What Rhythm Games Do Japanese People Play?
I hadn’t been to Japan for 13 years, so I had no idea what rhythm games were popular in Japan. I still half-expected to see Dance Dance Revolution everywhere.
Fortunately for you, I blew a ton of money on Japanese rhythm games while visiting, so I got some idea of what kind are popular.
Here are some of the more popular rhythm games in Japanese arcades right now, and videos of superhumans playing those games:
The game I played most while I was in Japan was MaiMai, a rhythm game that looks like a giant, colorful, front-loading washing machine. It’s a pretty new game, and I was able to find a MaiMai machine in a lot of arcades.
Here’s a quick video describing how the game works:
I got pretty decent at MaiMai and was able to play songs at some of the higher difficulty levels; but, as every video in this post will show you, no matter how good you think you are at a rhythm game, there’s always somebody who’s completely memorized every song and has the hand-eye coordination of a Chinese ping-pong player.
I was really surprised to see Pop’n Music in as many Japanese arcades as I did. The game originally came out in 1998, and is one of the most simple, straight-forward rhythm games in a genre full of gimmicks and novelty.
Despite its simple gameplay and old age, Pop’n Music is still getting new songs and updates from its developers. It just goes to show that you can’t go wrong with a solid, basic rhythm game.
Taiko: Drum Master
Taiko: Drum Master is one of the few, current rhythm games that uses an actual musical instrument instead of colorful buttons, and one of the few that actually made it over to the US.
It’s been a staple in Japanese arcades for over a decade, and shows no signs of letting up. Taiko: Drum Master is still being released for new platforms (like the Nintendo 3DS, the Playstation Vita, and Android).
I’m glad that Taiko: Drum Master has had such a long and healthy life. It’s a uniquely Japanese take on the already extremely Japanese rhythm game genre, and it’s cool to see modern songs turned into taiko tunes.
Jubeat is a simple game with sixteen buttons, each with its own screen. It looks like a giant, light-up Rubick’s cube, but ten times harder.
I played Jubeat a bit while I was in Japan, but didn’t get too into it. Jubeat just looks cool and has a decent song selection, so I’m kind of bummed that I didn’t get to play more.
Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA
It should be no surprise that there’s a Japanese rhythm game prominently featuring Hatsune Miku, the world’s most popular Vocaloid.
I never got the chance to play it, but some of the mechanics in Project DIVA looked interesting and if you’re Hatsune Miku and rhythm games, then you’re going to go nuts for this game.
Why Don’t We See More Rhythm Games in the US?
Rhythm games have had a long and healthy life in Japan, but have never really crossed over into the US. Why is that?
In my opinion, there’s one main reason we’ll never see rhythm games become as popular in the US: the arcade scene here in America is sadly pretty much non-existent.
There was a time when arcades were growing popular in America and couples went out to play Pong or Space Invaders together, but arcades have been pretty much dead for the last couple of decades.
Americans have shown that they’re open to play rhythm games: just take a look at the Guitar Hero craze a few years back.
But people can’t keep buying fake, plastic instruments forever. Arcades give people a good way to play rhythm games without investing heavily in equipment, but without any arcades in America, it’s impossible to do.