Finding rhythm in VR

Daniel Lim

It was not long ago during the sixth and seventh generation console eras – think PS2, Original Xbox, along with PS3 and Xbox 360 – that with every accompanying console sold, there was a peripheral that was just as likely to be found alongside it, and that was the humble plastic guitar for use in rhythm games such as Guitar Hero or Rock Band.

Yet, times have changed and these plastic guitars as well as drum kits and even keyboards, are now relegated to being a nostalgic paper weight at best, to collect dust in one’s closet.

Even with trends rising and falling, the rhythm game genre is still here to stay as it continues to evolve with the advent of new technologies.

One particular platform that has garnered some traction in the rhythm game genre is Virtual Reality (VR). Where previously one would use the plastic peripheral to translate control input into the game, VR takes a step closer in making one in sync with the music and the rhythm.

While many rhythm games now populate the platform, I will touch on three titles that I have played and assessed over the past few months which caught my attention and time.

In Synth Rider, players are equipped with orbs for hands and are tasked to hit orbs on a track, in the vein of ‘Simon Says’ or ‘Bop It!’. PHOTOS: DANIEL LIM
Audica has players shoot targets, in a manner akin to skeet shooting, but to the rhythm of music
Synth Rider features Multiplayer, Solo and Party modes

One of the earliest and well-known rhythm games on the VR platform is Beat Saber. Created by Beat Games back in November of 2018, the simple premise of slicing coloured blocks using the lightsaber in your hands was captivating from the start.

Even with its simplicity, several other mechanics such as directional blocks that need to be sliced in a certain direction to walls and bombs which require the dodging of the head and saber respectively means that it is a game which is difficult to master, especially on the higher tiers.

As this was the first rhythm game that many, myself included, experienced in VR, the premise itself sold the platform, as not only was slicing blocks to the sound of thumping electro music a joy, but it also served as a great workout as the game takes note of full wide swings, awarding more points for them.

Despite this, Beat Saber still has its downsides, especially on the Oculus Quest – which is the platform I chose to play it on – as limited song choices are quite a burden and custom songs require additional steps that only keen and willing players are able to go through for the trouble.

This is not the case for the next two rhythm games in VR, one of which was Synth Rider. I bought the game shortly after it was released and not too long after I grew accustomed to the VR environment.

Synth Rider was released back in late October of 2019 to much fanfare, as there was finally some competition in the rhythm genre in VR. In it, players are equipped with orbs for hands and are tasked to hit orbs on a track, in the vein of Simon Says or Bop It!.

While Beat Saber had the player stationary, Synth Rider takes its name literally by having the player ride on a moving platform towards the orb that the player has to touch and follow, as some orbs leave trails.

This different take on how to make rhythm game on the platform meant Synth Rider expressed the song-list differently, taking cues from 90s synth tracks.

While Beat Saber is limited in its mapping with cardinal direction slices, Synth Rider has tracks that mimic a more choreographed dance routine, which further gives the player an edge into the flow of the music and rhythm.

Not to be outdone, Harmonix, who are well known for Rock Band, also took a stab at introducing a rhythm game onto the budding platform and what they came up with was nothing short of amazing.

Audica was first released in 2019 but only recently made it to the Oculus Quest this year. Instead of hitting blocks or orbs, Audica has players shoot targets instead, in a manner akin to skeet shooting, but to the rhythm of music.

The game has a greater emphasis on its futuristic looks and the song-list reflects this as many of the tracks are based on the Future-Bass genre.

While some might not be keen to listen to such genre of music, it did not bother me.

For those who are bothered by it, the list of official songs from expansion packs as well as custom songs is quite plentiful, with official songs covering several hits while custom songs cover the rest, ranging from lesser known but catchy songs to those solely based around memes. Out of all the three, Audica has captured my attention as its mechanics of not only shooting targets but also following along with matching the correct coloured targets according to the colour of the pistol. It is also quite a complex game to master as the speed ramps up.

This along with the fact that you can gun-sling, ie twirl as well as toss and retrieve or “force pull” the pistol, means you could also be stylish while shooting targets.

While I certainly do spend most of my VR time nowadays in Audica due to it being the most creative out of the bunch, I still take some time to go back to Beat Saber and Synth Rider for their more physically demanding requirements for my daily workouts.

With other rhythm games that have since released, from the award-winning Pistol Whip to the Japanese Game Show inspired OhShapes, VR will continue to become a platform for the genre to flourish.