Recently, Harmonix has begun chatter about possibly reviving the Rock Band series. One of the most influential rhythm games ever made, Rock Band became an industry leader in the late 2000’s, allowing would be guitarists and drummers the chance to rock out to over 7oo songs, many of which were released as DLC for a record 281 weeks in a row.
An impressive feat, to be sure, but Rock Band, while arguably the pinnacle of the console rhythm game, owes a debt to it’s predecessors. And no, I am not talking about Guitar Hero either, I am talking about a game that never reached American audiences all the way back to the Sony Playstation days. That game, is called Vib-Ribbon, a game that certainly set the pace for how rhythm games would be played in the future.
To understand Vib-Ribbon, you need to first know about its creator, Masaya Matsuura. Formerly an accomplished musician, Matsuura was a member of the experimental J-pop band PSY*S for much of the late 1980’s to early 1990’s. PSY*S was known to have a progressive-pop style in their heyday, releasing fourteen albums between 1985-1996. In the west, PSY*S is best known for the song Lemon No Yuuki, the opening theme for the cult anime To-y, released in 1987.
Not formally trained as a game developer, Matsuura became interested in producing music-based video games after learning how to use computer-based music to help produce songs for PSY*S. His first project was the 1993 The Seven Colors, a CD-ROM game, and the first Japanese musician to ever produce it. He also at this time founded NanaOn-Sha, a development studio that worked on music-based games.
In 1996, Matsuura quit the band PSY*S, and began focusing on new music games. By this time the Sony Playstation was already a popular machine in Japan, and Matsuura took advantage of the system to produce his first major video game, PaRappa the Rapper. Employing the talents of American animator Rodney Greenbalt, PaRappa the Rapper became a massive success on the first Playstation, spawning Matsuura’s career as one of the premier game designers at the time.
Matsuura is often considered the pioneer of the modern rhythm game, but it is not just PaRappa the Rapper that is credited for the beginnings of the genre. While PaRappa cemented his reputation as a rhythm game developer, it was Vib-Ribbon, a minimalist, almost art house game that was the first game to ever combine a musical library with track based gameplay, nearly six years before games like Guitar Hero did the same thing.
Vib-Ribbon would become what is known as a generative rhythm game, combining music with player interaction in some form. Many games in this vein, such as Rez, are often on rail games that have you hit buttons or perform combos to the beat of the music. The game is minimalist to the point where its art-style can only be described as basic, using simple vector lines on a pure black background. In the end, the visuals, while crude, were unique for the time, especially when vector graphics were no longer in vogue. However, Vib-Ribbon was all about how much you can challenge yourself to not mess up during an on rail sequence, all the while having fun while pressing buttons.
Most of the action was guided by the character Vibri, a plucky rabbit who transforms into other animals depending on how well you play the game. Too many mistakes cause Vibri to turn into a frog, then a worm, while a near flawless run on a track can change her into a “princess” form. Unlike the button cues in other rhythm games, Vibri becomes the button as she closes in on obstacles generated by the music beats, being pits, blocks, loops and waves. Different combinations of obstacles become the fret buttons for Vib-Ribbon, perfect timing is necessary to push through.
In many ways, Vib-Ribbon is more of a forefather to Rock Band than PaRappa the Rapper. While both titles require you to do button combinations in sequence to music, Vib-Ribbion, being a generative-style game, was more interactive by playing the game based on your rhythm itself. Vib-Ribbon was also unique because unlike most CD based games at the time, it would load directly into the RAM of the system. This would allow the player to swap in and out their favorite music CD’s, becoming the first rhythm game with de-facto DLC attached to it as Vib-Ribbon would generate a level design based on the rhythm of the CD itself.
Also, unlike PaRappa, Vib-Ribbon technically never ended. Your objectives were based solely on the music you put into the game, so for scoring junkies who flocked to titles like Rock Band in the late 2000’s, it was about the challenge to do better over completing the scenarios given to you in sequential order. This gave Vib-Ribbon enormous replay value, a trait few games had back in 1999.
It’s a shame that Vib-Ribbon never made it to North America at the time of it’s release, although it joins an elite group that received a European release alongside Japan. Vib-Ribbon would also spawn two sequels for the Playstation 2, Mojib-Ribbon and Vib-Ripple, both Japanese only titles. For a long time, Vib-Ribbon looked to be a very obscure, very niche import title, despite Matsuura expressing interest in reviving the franchise.
That all changed in October 2014, when Sony Computer Entertainment America’s CEO Shawn Layden announced that Vib-Ribbon would finally come to North America as a downloadable for the Playstation 3 and PS Vita, with work being done for a Playstation 4 version of the game. According to Layden, The reason given for it’s re-release is due to fan demand. “Vib Ribbon is finally making its way to North America,” he said “And the major catalyst was all of you who wrote, posted, blogged, tweeted that you wished to see this game come back and wanted your voice to be heard by the suits. Well, it has.”
Considering the history behind it though, Vib-Ribbon is certainly a title that should never be overlooked. For the fanatical collectors out there, Vib-Ribbon would no doubt be a crown jewel for your Playstation stash, a rhythm game ahead of its time and providing the groundwork for the future of the genre. For everyone else, being able to experience Vib-Ribbon on more modern consoles would show the innovative gameplay that Matsuura was able to create fifteen years ago. Gameplay that truly defined a genre in more ways than one.
Thank you for reading this episode of Games You Never Heard of. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below, and tune in for our next editorial in the series, posted every two weeks only on TechRaptor!