One of the most popular arcade games in Japan at the moment is Konami's Dance Dance Revolution. There's no shooting, driving or punching - instead, players stand in the middle of four pressure sensitive direction pads and when the music starts they follow on-screen instructions to step on the correct pads in time with the rhythm. In other words, they dance.
This is no gimmick. The role of music as a central component in videogames has a lengthy history, closely tied to the relationship between musicians and technology. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Japan. Three years ago Masaya Matsuura, a musician working for Sony Computer Entertainment, tired of using other people's software to compose, created his own idiosyncratic audio program. He developed the idea into a game, mixing elements of cutesy comic art, tacky chart rap and the sort of teen love theme beloved of anime. The result was PaRappa the Rappa (1997), hugely successful not just with the usual gamers, but with an elusive market of girls and adult technophobes. Um Jammer Lammy, the soon-to-be-released follow up, boasts a two-player mode and a female lead character - in recognition of the genre's popularity with women. Designers had worked on music-based games before this (Denshai Media developed the music sequencer Techno-Motor for the Sega Saturn), but the popularity of PaRappa opened the doors and the 'rhythm action' genre was born.
Since then, interest in interactive music titles has grown and moved in new directions as club culture - and the 'DJ as superstar' detritus that goes with it - has hit Japan hard: Japanese dance outfits like Boom Boom Satellites, Denki Groove and DJ Krush can fill stadiums let alone club venues. This explosion has fed the next wave of music titles: Metro's Bust A Groove (1998) started out as an adult stripping game, but publishers Enix - noting the success of PaRappa - demanded that it take a more musical direction. The designers keyed into the popularity of clubbing and came up with a huge success - the world's first dancing game. Another dancing simulation unambiguously titled Dance Dance Dance is also on the way.
Last year, Konami recognised the emerging DJ cult and produced Beatmania, an arcade mixing sim. Using an interface comprising a stainless steel turntable and five sample buttons, players scratch and cut in time with various dub, techno and house rhythms. Beatmania is popular - there's roughly one machine per arcade in Tokyo - not simply because the participants are into dance music. The game has become a chic spectator event, drawing crowds of clubbers (especially in Tokyo's hip Harajuku district) and bringing kudos to the most skilled virtual DJs, who even attract groupies. Beatmania 3rd Mix is already out, featuring a competitive two-player mode, and a PlayStation conversion - sporting a custom-built turntable controller - sold so well that a batch of new instalments are planned. There's even a handheld LCD version which has proved immensely popular with mixers on the move.
In the West too, club culture has infused videogaming, but in a less interactive sense. In the early 80s, Ocean published a Frankie Goes to Hollywood game on the Commodore 64, with its influential SID sound chip; Vince Clark of Yazoo used a BBC Micro to sequence his analogue synthesisers; and Ian Dury contributed heavily to a weird videogame/movie named Deus Ex Machina. Later in the decade, the Atari ST with its built in MIDI-ports became a vital tool to early dance music pioneers, as did the Amiga: Tim Simenon of Bomb The Bass produced a fantastic soundtrack to Xenon 2 on it, just after completing his first album using sequencing software on the same machine.
In the 90s, technology is both the tool and the inspiration, and the distinctions between instrument and toy are blurring. The UK PlayStation launch in September 1995 brought with it a whole new attitude to the games console - mostly thanks to SCEE's marketing team. Instead of directing the machine towards 8-14 year olds - the key market of the Megadrive age - they aimed higher, spotting a new demographic of vast armies of unmarried 20-somethings. The idea was to market the console like a record: handing it out free to DJs, getting it installed in clubs and letting the coolness of the project filter down to high-street level by word of mouth. By creating a PlayStation room at the Ministry of Sound and by sponsoring music events like Glastonbury and Tribal Gathering, Sony was saying that, for the first time, videogames were a legitimate part of youth culture. Subsequently, the machine has become something of a lifestyle icon. Dance music artists still sample classic game music, and when they've finished working, they'll go and spend a few hours on the PlayStation - as Dave Angel admitted, 'I work in my studio until midnight, go to the game room and play until dawn, get tired, go to bed, wake up, and do this routine again'.
As a consequence of this marketing strategy, DJs and dance music artists are lining up to endorse games or have their music used in background scores. Dave Angel and Derrick May recently contributed toward the excellent Ghost in the Shell soundtrack; Norman 'Fatboy Slim' Cook handed over a track to Psygnosis for its new racing game Rollcage; and Roger Sanchez waxed lyrical about Sony's strange videogame/ mixing desk hybrid Fluid at last year's DJ Culture exhibition in Manchester. (British developer, Jester Interactive, has jumped on the interactive music bandwagon, recently producing a powerful sequencer for the PlayStation named Music. Published by Codemasters, this brave and ingenious product allows users to create dance tracks out of over 700 samples which can then be saved to memory card and shown off on other people's machines.) This liaison has given birth to a new understanding of how pop culture can accentuate the videogame experience: in the same way that Reservoir Dogs wouldn't have worked with a John Williams score, Wipeout wouldn't be quite the adrenaline pumping head-fuck it is without Prodigy's 'Firestarter' pummelling away in the background. If artists aren't getting in on games, they're producing their own multimedia: Unkle, James and Coldcut have all included CD-ROM material on recent audio releases. Everyone is nerdy nowadays.
Music excepted, it is on the PC that domestic music software has begun to take hold in the West. UK multimedia company Modified's two main titles, Frequency and Chillas, are powerful, user-friendly sequencers offering hundreds of loops and samples for wannabee musicians to crunch into multi-track dance toons. Similarly, German multimedia outfit Magix Entertainment publishes the 'Music Maker' series, a set of semi-professional arrangement programs, again featuring hundreds of .wav files ready for manipulation. The Internet too has proved a fertile womb for interactive music concepts - the Ninjatune site (www.ninjatune.net) is an interactive music toy in itself. None of these are as approachable as Japanese music titles, but they're getting there.
Entertainment software is now inextricably intertwined with music. More importantly, the music/game crossover has produced a burgeoning new style of entertainment, characterised by Pa-Rappa, Beatmania and Dance Dance Revolution in the East and the more serious creations of Modified and Magix in the West. As Tim Wright at Jester points out, 'People like music - it's a universal medium. And in most people there's a desire to create music. [...] I think that, given the tools to harness that creativity, most people can knock out a reasonable melody and when they do, it's a great sense of achievement'. There is something intrinsically healthier about dancing along to a game or writing a good tune than blasting things - the day when the Street Fighter characters stop fighting and form a band could be just around the corner.