The top 10 music games of all time

"Guitar Hero" is a $2 billion franchise that's sold over 25 million units worldwide.

Story highlights

  • The music memory game "Simon" launched in 1978 with its classic four colored buttons
  • PaRappa brought the "rhythm game" category home to North American shores
  • "Dance Dance Revolution" pioneered active gaming over a decade before motion controls
By the late 2000s, music-themed games had become gaming's fastest-growing genre. Smash hits such as "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" transformed parties, and the face of pop culture, to the tune of $1.7 billion in 2008 alone.
Then came the crash. Despite allowing millions of otherwise tone-deaf players to follow in the footsteps of the Beatles and Metallica, music games slumped 46% a year later. Some critics labeled the genre a one-hit wonder.
But rewind the evolutionary eight-track, and you can see that music and video games aren't just intrinsically linked since the beginning. They're also tailor-made for one another, with popular franchises like "Tap Tap Revenge" and "Dance Central" still dominating the charts. New mobile and social apps, plus game-like listening services such as, are keeping the beat going strong.
So, no, the party's not over. May the following titles -- just a few of the genre's greatest hits over the years -- remind you that this category has more lives left in it than the legendary Keith Richards.
Here's my list of the top 10 digital music games of all time:
1978: "Simon"
Behind the music: Launched on May 15 at Studio 54, this Jurassic forerunner to today's touch-sensitive Nintendo DS featured four colored buttons (red, green, yellow and blue) and three simple variations on its gameplay. A great memory is crucial -- players have to repeat back a randomized or user-created sequence of lights and tones with a simple poke. Named after the child's game "Simon Says" and created by Ralph Baer -- who also invented home console gaming with the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972 -- it quickly became an American institution.
Why it rocks: Besides single-handedly popularizing handheld electronic entertainment and directly influencing every subsequent system from the Game Boy to the PlayStation Portable (PSP), its pattern-based action formed the basis for nearly all music-themed titles to come.
Did you know: Not only is "Simon" still available to buy today, but it makes regular appearances in modern pop culture too. Cartoon shows such as "Dexter's Laboratory," "Family Guy" and "Robot Chicken" have made reference to it, and Blizzard's "World Of Warcraft" even has two quests (in the Blade's Edge Mountains) where you have to play a life-size version of the game.
1997: "PaRappa the Rapper"
Behind the music: A far cry from what was going on with PCs at the time (see: bizarre adventures like Peter Gabriel's "EVE"), this quirky PSOne Japanese import challenged players, as the titular paper doll pooch, to bust a move by pressing buttons in time to featured beats. Do it correctly and you drop mad science on onion-headed martial arts masters, moose driving instructors, Rastafarian frogs and chickens that pass for chefs.
Scott Steinberg's book "Music Games Rock" is free to download online at
Captivating domestic audiences with its sing-song vibe, hypnotic play and psychedelic cardboard-cutout aesthetic, it's still one of the freshest interactive approximations of emceeing hip-hop heads will find.
Why it rocks: PaRappa brought the 'rhythm game' category home to North American shores, which eventually gave birth to countless hip-wiggling rivals from Unison to Bust-A-Groove.
Did you know: PaRappa The Rapper creator Masaya Matsuura was previously the head of a Japanese progressive rock band (or "pop unit" as he labels it) called Psy S. Formed in 1983, it had a number of hit records before disbanding in 1996 (three years after Matsuura had formed his own game development studio, NanaOn-Sha).
1999: "Dance Dance Revolution"
Behind the music: This arcade game inspired a cultural revolution and pioneered active gaming over a decade before motion controls made "Dance Central" or "Just Dance" household names. Standing on a virtual dance stage, the player works up a rhythm and then steps, jumps and twists in time to floating arrow icons and J-Pop hits, hopefully performing something resembling an actual rump-shaking routine. Still a hot property after more than a decade, the game is inspiring new console and arcade versions.
Why it rocks: "DDR" has inspired local and national dance competitions; muscled its way into gyms nationwide; spawned a generation of footloose tweens who could contort like pretzels at the local Dave & Buster's but barely shoulder lean otherwise; spawned over 100 hernia-inducing sequels/spin-offs; inspired numerous rivals like "Pump It Up" and "In the Groove;" and gave us all something to gawk at.
Plus, it was actually adopted by states like West Virginia as part of state PE programs to combat childhood obesity, a marked step up from ego-crushing kickball competitions and those thigh-chafing gym ropes.
Did you know: Playing DDR while holding the rear guard bar (which is there to prevent you from falling of the back of the machine) to improve balance and increase foot speed is known as "bar raping." It's also massively looked down on by experienced players and makes you look like a bit of an idiot.
2005: "Guitar Hero"
Behind the music: It's a $2 billion franchise that's sold over 25 million units worldwide and spawned piles of spin-offs including dedicated tributes to bands like Aerosmith and Metallica, not to mention the likes of "Band Hero."
The series also scored chart-topping adaptations for nearly every platform from Nintendo DS to mobile phones, once enjoyed a cult-like following amongst teens and twenty-somethings and even boasts entire South Park episodes devoted to its charms. That said then, you could be forgiven for forgetting that prior to launch, the dynamo which sparked an entire industry was once just a risky, unproven gamble from Red Octane, a little-known manufacturer of dance pad peripherals and dabbler in online video game rentals.
Why it rocks: "Guitar Hero" turned the nation's youth into drooling vidiots, single-handedly built today's fastest-growing game category and brought classic rock to new listeners through the sale of online music. But the title once hailed as the music industry's possible savior has sadly been placed on temporary hiatus by now-owner Activision.
Did you know: In a March 2011 list of top grossing games published since 1995, "Guitar Hero 3: Legends Of Rock" came out on top with life-to-date sales of $830.9 million -- more than the "Call of Duty" games -- and that's not including revenues earned from additional downloadable content.
2007: "Rock Band"
Behind the music: The first game to combine all aspects of the virtual music-making experience (singing, pounding drums, playing guitar or plucking bass) was also the initial offering to deliver peripherals for all (including microphone, plastic drum set and faux ax) in one kit.
In total, over 100 million digital songs have been downloaded for the "Rock Band" family of games, with more than 2,700 tracks from 900 artists including Metallica, The Ramones and Fleetwood Mac available across all retail and downloadable installments, including digital distribution platform the Rock Band Network. Thousands of masters, re-recordings or alternate tracks (all playable) by artists like Rush and Weezer, not to mention countless fans -- who can perform as cohesive four-man bands online -- should ensure it remains a house-party icebreaker of choice.
Why it rocks: Providing the now-defunct MTV Games a then-marquee entrée into the gaming universe, it also laid the foundations for groundbreaking tributes ("The Beatles: Rock Band"), cutting-edge online innovations ("Rock Band Network") and future motion-controlled games ("Dance Central") to come.
Did you know: The runaway success of "Rock Band" is obviously the downloadable content store, which, at its peak, was estimated to generate one million song downloads every nine days. An example of how popular it is can be seen in Motley Crüe's "Saints of Los Angeles." Released as a single simultaneously on both the Rock Band Store and iTunes, first week sales were 34,000 higher in Rock Band's favor. According to Harmonix, nearly 5 million people have downloaded songs from the Rock Band catalog, and more than a million players still sign in each month to play the game and purchase new music.
2008: "Tap Tap Revenge"
Behind the music: The iPhone Guitar Hero clone that spawned a dynasty, leading to tens of millions of downloads, numerous sequels for iPad and iPod touch (Linkin Park Revenge, Katy Perry Revenge, Riddim Ribbon and more beside) and creator Tapulous' subsequent purchase by Disney.
Why it rocks: Tap Tap may have been the first major beachhead in music gaming's war to become a mobile, online and social gaming staple, and has rapidly become a torchbearer for where the genre will potentially go from here.
Did you know: The very first Tap Tap game, called Tap Tap Revolution, was developed by one person, Nate True, in just two days and was created independently from Apple's iPhone development kit, meaning only people who had jailbroken their phones could play it.
2009: "The Beatles: Rock Band"
Behind the music: A groundbreaking collaboration between music channel MTV, leading developer Harmonix, Apple Corps and surviving members of the Beatles camp (including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison's wife Olivia and hanger-on Yoko Ono), this was to be interactive entertainment's Abbey Road.
Sadly, despite launching to widespread critical acclaim and sporting dizzying production values, family-friendly play and dozens of definitive, career-spanning songs from "A Hard Day's Night" to "Can't Buy Me Love," it struggled to go multiplatinum. Developer Harmonix had hoped to single-handedly grow the size of the music game market with it, but it failed to move both baby boomers and gen x/yers en masse compared with previous titles. That said, it remains a fan favorite and well-respected testament to the best the genre has to offer.
Why it rocks: It's the ultimate tribute, packed full of loving care and attention -- there's previously unheard studio asides of the boys talking before many of the tracks, and each song has its own unique setting that just screams the Beatles style from the time. It was also the first Rock Band title to introduce three-way harmonies on the vocals and, if you were so inclined, you could use the built-in drum trainer to learn just how Ringo managed to do the things he do... er, did.
Did you know: Ringo Starr's unique drumming ability was made possible thank to the fact that he's ambidextrous. If you're not, consider the Expert drums of "The Beatles: Rock Band" of-limits, unless you like failure, of course.
2009: "DJ Hero"
Behind the music: Never has the phrase 'spin-off' been more apt, "DJ Hero" took the foundations laid by "Guitar Hero" and applied them to the art of the disc jockey. Nearly 100 remixes, mash-ups and other tracks brought multiple tunes together, with players having to push buttons, move a cross-fader and scratch the custom-made plastic turntable controller in order to score points.
True, it didn't look as complex as the guitar game (it only had three colored streams instead of five), but then appearances were more than a little deceptive.
Why it rocks: Besides taking a successful formula and doing something interesting with it, you can now pick up a full controller with the original game (or even the sequel) for less than a third of what it originally retailed for. Shame, really, but then we're not complaining.
Did you know: Despite sales falling well short of what Activision expected, the publisher still claimed that "DJ Hero" was the highest grossing new intellectual property of 2009. Of course, when your game's selling for $120 a pop, that's not surprising; even low sales would have meant it made a ton of cash.
2009: "Just Dance"
Behind the music: Family-friendly gameplay, idiot-proof controls and an innocuous 'best of ' style pop/dance soundtrack propelled what's otherwise a critically panned dancing simulation (average Metacritic rating: 49 out of 100) for the Wii's gesture-tracking remote to household name status.
Why it rocks: Shockingly, its 4.3 million-strong sales -- a testament to the power of suburbia's fascination with Top 40 radio and harmless hip-waggling fun -- have made it the second-highest selling Wii game not published by Nintendo. Top honors, naturally, are reserved for its 5 million-selling 2010 sequel, "Just Dance 2," with Ubisoft planning to get its money's worth from the franchise for many years to come. "Just Dance 3" is (non-shocker) set to arrive this holiday season.
Did you know: The game that suffered the utter humiliation of being knocked from the top of the chart by "Just Dance"? That would be "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2," which had previously been at No. 1 for nine weeks. Oh, the humanity.
2010: "Dance Central"
Behind the music: Does for dancing games what "Rock Band" did for music games (which is to say, it totally redefined how we saw them). Of course, much of that's due to Microsoft's Kinect peripheral, for which "Dance Central" was a leading launch title -- the motion-tracking camera meant players could do away with dance mats, waggle controllers and other things, leaving them with just their bodies to do the poppin' with.
As the on-screen character performs moves, you simply replicate the move in time with the music, although as you might suspect, that makes the process sound far easier than it actually is.
Why it rocks: Previously, dancing games didn't actually require much dancing -- the likes of "Dance Dance Revolution" hinged on hitting oversized buttons with your feet, while "Just Dance" could be played from any sofa simply by waving one arm around.
"Dance Central," however, doesn't work unless you actually dance. Granted, that makes the level of challenge slightly higher, although there's a fair amount of leeway allowed on the lower difficulties. That said though, even a few songs played back-to-back leave the average player sweating buckets -- who said playing games wasn't good for you?
Did you know: Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America's president, appears to be a fan of "Dance Central," having cited it as 'the best Kinect game' in his opinion.
Excerpted from "Music Games Rock: Rhythm Gaming's Greatest Hits of All Time" (2011, Power Play Publishing) -- 100% free to download at, also available on iBooks and Kindle ($2.99) and in paperback ($24.99) editions.