The art of making simple but tough rhythm games

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From the trailer’s opening, with its striking, pastel-colored anime visuals, loud rock guitar riffs, and energetic vocals, Unbeatable looks and sounds incredible.

Wrapped in turn-of-the-millennium influences in both its anime and rock aesthetic, it looks like a game from the Dreamcast era, with its tagline calling it “a game where music is illegal and you do crimes” recalling the youthful rebellious spirit of Jet Set Radio. But as the trailer for its successful Kickstarter shows, it’s also part of a new wave of indie rhythm games, alongside early access title Rhythm Doctor, where accessibility is at the forefront.

Unbeatable may have aesthetics inspired by Japanese rhythm games, where in the arcades they are known either for peripherals or for demanding intimidating dextrous feats, but its inputs are much simpler. As pink-haired protagonist Beat, players use just two buttons to hit oncoming enemies and objects much like notes approaching on top and bottom lanes from either the left and right.

The format, which had one fan dubbing it “street-style Taiko,” went through some iteration since the project first materialized with a public demo at 2019’s MAGFest, as the developer D-Cell Games explained to me over Discord.

“That version was four buttons, and what we actually found was, ironically, that made the game too easy for the people who were really into rhythm games but too hard for anyone who was coming in new,” explains RJ Lake, Unbeatable’s writer and music supervisor. “Cutting it to two buttons made it way more approachable if you have no idea what a rhythm game is or how rhythm games are supposed to play. But then because there’s only two buttons to pay attention to, we can throw a lot more at the player without them feeling overwhelmed, which means our songs can be mapped in a much more complex way.”

Even though Unbeatable’s songs are played to note charts typical of the genre, the team actually took their cue from action games, which can be seen with how the buttons correspond to the visuals as Beat attacks, dodges, or combos different notes. “We wanted to draft a rhythm system that felt like playing an action combat game akin to a PlatinumGames title,” says Jeffrey Chiao, the game’s producer and level designer. “I think what was the initial accepted draft that we built with was something along the lines of One Finger Death Punch, which is not actually a rhythm game.”

That approach has, incidentally, thrown some players for a loop. Instead of just watching oncoming notes to hit on cue, you might also be avoiding others by hitting the opposite button, while more devious are blue notes that need a 1-2 combo follow-up. While the team is aware of the feedback and aims to balance it, those elements are still very much intentional.

“The blue note design is a pretty good example of trying to hit in that action, where the down and up is kind of like in Devil May Cry when you do a launcher and then juggle the enemy that’s thrown up in the air,” adds Chiao.

The team is only too aware of the ridiculously high level of play certain rhythm aficionados can reach, but ultimately accessibility has been an important priority. “I loved Elite Beat Agents and crushed that game in one sitting when it came out,” says Lake. “But for me, rhythm games are also much more of a casual thing. When I’m working on the project, a thing I try to focus on is making sure that people who aren’t going to sit down and endlessly play the same song to full-combo perfection, but want to come in and just enjoy music in an interactive way, will still be invested in it.”

Some accessibility options are already apparent in the demo, such as reducing the visual clutter with various toggles (the aim is for more granular customization for the final product) and even an option to lose the game’s intentionally fuzzy filter, which gives it the vibe of a long-lost bootleg VHS recording of a cult anime. “There’s nothing harder in the world at this point, we’ve realized, than trying to make a game that everyone will like,” says Lake. “But at the very least, we’d like to settle for a game that everyone can play.”

Rhythm Doctor.

Preceding Unbeatable, however, is Rhythm Doctor, which is arguably even more accessible, as it’s all limited to just one button. This mimics your role as a remote medical intern tasked with hitting a defibrillator to treat patients with strange ailments. But anyone who’s played it will also know that the simple premise of smacking the space bar at the seventh beat of a tune is more devilishly difficult than it lets on.

Development has been far from straightforward. The project has been going on for almost a decade; it first started as a college summer project that resulted in a Flash demo. The one-button design was in part due to developer Hafiz Azman’s dislike of the multi-button dexterity demanded by most rhythm games. “After the first few levels were released as a Flash demo, it became a kind of challenge to myself to see how far I could go without ever introducing a second button,” he tells me over email.

Part of why Rhythm Doctor has taken so long to make is also the challenge of keeping within those constraints, where in some cases a boss level might have taken hundreds of hours to iterate and perfect. “There’s tons of concepts and even full levels that we threw away, a lot of times it’s because the level isn’t delightful or surprising enough,” he continues.

“It gets difficult to squeeze out the surprise from a simple mechanic, but I think that struggle is also necessary. I read somewhere that the writing team behind Breaking Bad held to that principle of writing without looking ahead too much — they’d write themselves into a corner that they had no idea how to get their characters out of, and then sit in the writing room and struggle until they figured out something. The end result would be surprising to them, and as a result, surprising to the viewers too. I guess we ended up following that philosophy by sticking so adamantly to our constraints.”

Another reason for sticking to the one-button mechanic was because Rhythm Doctor was designed to be “blind-friendly,” which in theory meant that visuals mattered less. Of course, part of the game’s delight and deviousness is down to its deliberately distortive and distracting visuals designed to throw players off. Indeed, you might have an easier time by shutting your eyes and just focusing on listening to the beat in your head.

“We actually needed to put extra effort in the visuals because, if the visuals are technically redundant, that means we have a lot more flexibility to do anything we want with it, so our ceiling of what to achieve is higher if we want to use everything we could potentially do,” explains Azman.

It’s the simplicity of the design that then allows for more complex layers to be built on top of it, such as the night modes that provide an alternative version of a song with a more difficult twist. “For example, the first level in the game is about counting to seven only with no other mechanics. So for the night shift version, I settled on using dubstep because that genre tends to have bass sounds that change rhythms quickly.”

Arguably, being able to prove these concepts in early stages, whether it’s a demo or early access, has been key to the successful reception these games have so far gotten. Meanwhile, D-Cell Games has already gone above and beyond by not only dropping an “arcade mix” demo at the start of Unbeatable’s Kickstarter campaign, but also following it up with a “white label” demo that tells a side story showcasing the game’s narrative adventure elements (although at time of writing, this hasn’t yet been made available).

Granted, Unbeatable actually achieved its $55,000 funding goal before the demo had even gone live, but its success is a stark contrast to the crowdfunding misfortunes of rhythm game Project Rap Rabbit a few years ago. Even a project with the combined talents of legendary rhythm studios NanaOn-Sha (PaRappa the Rapper, Vib-Ribbon) and iNiS (Gitaroo Man, Elite Beat Agents) couldn’t get funded. While that could be down to the much higher funding goal (its final pledges actually amounted to slightly more than what Unbeatable currently has), it also suffered from failing to present actual gameplay footage that could communicate what kind of rhythm game it was meant to be.

“Messaging is so, so important when you launch your Kickstarter,” says Lake. “If you do not have any external aesthetic sense, and you’re not hiring people or working with people who have the ability to make a project really shine in someone else’s eyes, you’re not going to have people want to even look at it to begin with. It’s so important to present the project well and make sure people aren’t confused or have any of those lingering questions.”

Azman mentions that early in development, he was actually approached by indie publisher Humble based on Rhythm Doctor’s Flash demo, although nothing came of it. “They went silent for weeks, but got back to us saying they couldn’t get anyone else in the team to see how a single-button mechanic where you just press space on the seventh beat could ever support a full game,” he says. “It was clear people much more experienced than us thought it wasn’t wise to stick to a constraint, but we did it anyway.”

Rhythm has always been integral in games, whether showing up as a mini-game or as an underlying mechanic to something as hardcore and mainstream as Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Another recent trend has been to explicitly mash rhythm up with other genres as a hybrid, such as dungeon-crawling roguelike Crypt of the NecroDancer or first-person shooter BPM: Bullets Per Minute, although Azman is less interested by these: “It’s a personal preference, but adding rhythm to an existing genre feels like it inhibits the freedom that was there before, rather than adding something exciting to it.”

But with both Unbeatable and Rhythm Doctor, it’s an exciting time for the genre to go back to basics, finding the joy of rhythm in its pure, distilled form. As Lake puts it, “We want to bring more types of people to get the basic joy of pressing buttons in response to a beat. There’s something just gut-level brain-tingling about doing that.”

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