Video games have evolved beyond just personal entertainment. With Let’s Plays, esports and Twitch livestreams, games are now often performed for a huge audience. But in the late ’90s, if you wanted to put on a show with a video game, one of the only — and best — ways to do it was in the arcade on a Dance Dance Revolution machine.
Whether you furiously stomped to the rhythm for the perfect score or performed actual dance routines, Dance Dance Revolution’s tenure in the arcades at the height of its popularity was a unique one. It was a literal stage for high-skilled players and performers alike. By inserting a few coins into the glowing arcade cabinet, players could entertain scores of onlookers, one song at a time.
It’s been 20 years since Dance Dance Revolution took over arcades, living rooms, gymnasiums and more. Its unique mixture of infectious dance tracks and the clublike atmosphere that came with playing the game turned it into a phenomenon in its prime — something we haven’t seen since.
The birth of Bemani
In the early arcade days, no one dominated the scene like Konami. Its stable of original cabinets, like Gradius and Contra, plus licensed games like X-Men and The Simpsons, were moneymaking machines. Then, in 1997, an internal group came up with a new concept that would add even more hits to the company’s lineup.
That team, the Games & Music Division, changed its title after its first project, Beatmania, became a huge success, achieving sales of 1 million units. Now going by the name Bemani, its new creation traded joysticks for turntables. The unmistakable look of a Beatmania cabinet mimicked the appearance of a DJ booth, and it had the soundtrack to match.
Beatmania was Konami’s first foray into making rhythm games for arcades. It had a high skill ceiling, requiring players to tap out multiple rhythms on the game’s musical keys while simultaneously scratching on a faux-turntable. The series has gone on to leave its mark on the rhythm game genre, with new versions still coming to Japanese arcades in 2018. But it was with another concept from Bemani that things changed for the rhythm games division.
On Sept. 26, 1998, Dance Dance Revolution was released in Japan. Unlike Beatmania — which required players to perform actions similar to creating live music — Dance Dance Revolution turned players into dancers.
To play, you stepped on flashing plastic panels printed with arrows molded into a metal stage, complete with pulsing lights, a booming sound system and even a guard rail to separate you from everyone else. On screen, a series of arrows would scroll from the bottom to a fixed zone at the top. Your goal was to step on each corresponding arrow with your feet to the beat of the music. Depending on the difficulty and speed of the song, your feet could be marching along at over 300 beats per minute — or you could dance at a smooth pace and add some swagger to your steps.
Styles of play
For the technical player, there was the ever-growing desire to master each song with pinpoint accuracy. Dance Dance Revolution grades each of your steps based on your timing. The more on tempo your steps, the better your score. Completing songs with perfect accuracy on every step with a full combo was an ever-elusive target. Skilled players would draw crowds of their friends and rivals to see who could complete the most difficult songs with a perfect score first. Seeing this feat performed live was a sight to behold. Since personal video cameras weren’t as ubiquitous then as they are now, these perfect scores became well-traveled legends.
Future updates to the arcade cabinets had internet connectivity that introduced leaderboards, where you could see how well you performed against players from all over the world. From that point forward, it was easy to verify who was the best and whose score you needed to beat.
Dance Dance Revolution wasn’t just a game for perfectionists. Because of its design, it understandably also caught the eye of actual and wannabe performers.
Dancing while playing the game was natural fit. It had the right music, flashing lights, a thumping speaker system and a stage. It was common for tournaments to not only feature a technical competition, but also a tournament for “freestylers” — or those who played the game while performing dance routines.
Freestyle tournaments usually took place after the technical tournaments and were the highlight of each competition. Players would take the stage and perform a routine along with a song of their choice. Typically, players would memorize each step of the song so they could actually turn away from the screen and face their audience. They paired their memorization with dance moves that fit within the confines of the song’s predetermined steps. From there, a group of judges would score the routine based on categories like originality, difficulty and crowd reaction.
The community changed the game
The introduction of freestyle play — and performance — wouldn’t have been possible if Dance Dance Revolution had existed in a vacuum.
Despite savvy arcade operators importing machines from Japan, it was hard to know that the game existed if you didn’t see it in your local arcade. With little more than local news coverage, Dance Dance Revolution’s popularity grew via word of mouth. But on March 12, 2000, DDR Freak, a website and forum created to connect Dance Dance Revolution players, was born.
While DDR Freak acted as a central location to learn about where to find machines across the U.S and more, it was also an instrumental tool for kickstarting Dance Dance Revolution’s online community. The website’s original goal was to serve local players in the San Francisco Bay area, but within months, the website was getting over 100,000 visits a month from all over the world.
DDR Freak helped players learn tips and techniques to become better at the technical aspects of the game, but its forums also became a place to discuss and share clips of gameplay from all over the world. Despite these conversations happening during the nascent era of online video sharing, clips of players engaging in freestyle play helped advance what was possible on a Dance Dance Revolution machine.
One such group that helped players see the game in a new light was Korea’s A-Team. It changed the expectations of what freestyle routines would look like, from stylish choreography to pop star levels of performance. A-Team’s matching outfits and acrobatics stunts were dazzling to see at the time. They didn’t look like average players, let alone other freestylers. Watching their clips was like seeing a stage show from a K-pop act.
Games as performance
While you’re less likely to find players breakdancing on a Dance Dance Revolution machine at your local arcade, that hasn’t stopped the unison of games and performance.
Streamers can now broadcast their gameplay to viewers all over the world, playing the hottest games in front of huge audiences for hours. Depending on how good you are, you could find yourself entertaining a chatroom of hundreds of thousands, and with millions of subscribers under your belt. It’s a version of performance art that may seem to have little in common with the community-focused Dance Dance Revolution phase; in fact, streaming is just a modern upgrade on what was once a local pastime.
Others take a more creative approach when using games in their performances, like drumming along to their favorite video game soundtracks. Games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero encouraged people to feel like rock stars in their own home, performing for their friends; sometimes, they even took the plastic instruments on stage for a bigger crowd. And dancing is still alive and well in the video game world, with people now filming themselves grooving to Just Dance.
Konami’s Bemani group helped usher in a genre of games that have spawned wholly unique experiences like Thumper and Crypt of the Necrodancer. While we may not see another game like Dance Dance Revolution in the next 20 years, the last two decades were certainly more fun because of it.