Rock Stars in Video Games: The Complete History
The arcade video game boom of the late ’70s and early ’80s might have made household names of Space Invaders, Donkey Kong and Asteroids, but the rock ’n’ roll world was dubious about this new-fangled form of entertainment. As Pac-Man got his own novelty song and the Pretenders employed game sounds on the instrumental “Space Invader,” other musicians seemed to consider video games as a quirky fad with the staying power of the pet rock.
On 1983’s “Space Age Whiz Kids,” Joe Walsh gently mocked the game-obsessed -- contrasting his childhood (“I used to go outside”) with the new breed, rampantly popping quarters into machines. The cover of Lou Reed’s 1984 album, New Sensations, pictured him with a video game controller and contained the song “Down at the Arcade,” which seemed to regard a game obsession as foolish. Meanwhile, the Who nodded to their “Pinball Wizard” past on the front of 1982’s It’s Hard -- a photo that suggested Tommy for the video game era and showed the band standing awkwardly out-of-place in a video arcade.
Aging rockers may have been feeling self-conscious or dismissive of the computerized bleeps, blurts and bloops of this new era, but they didn’t realize how the music of the ’60s and ’70s would have a pronounced effect on video games as they steadily became a permanent fixture of the entertainment landscape. As gaming transitioned from the arcade to the home, the Japanese composers who soundtracked some of the earliest -- and most enduring -- games for the Nintendo Entertainment System drew on their love of rock music.
Although the music for ’80s Nintendo releases such as Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy would present as deceptively simple, synthetic-sounding melodies, the men who wrote those tunes played real instruments and listened to good, old analog rock ’n’ roll. Koji Kondo, who wrote the famous Mario theme, pointed to progressive rock as a huge influence, citing the impact of the likes of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. His more lyrical and intricate work on Zelda has drawn comparisons to Deep Purple, another band he has claimed as a major inspiration. (Many fans have heard an homage to Purple’s “April” in the game’s dungeon theme.)
While Kondo was rocking out to ELP and Deep Purple, his fellow game composer Nobuo Uematsu was drawn to playing the piano after listening to Elton John. But soon he, too, became fascinated by the more expansive sounds of prog rock.
“There was a progressive rock movement from the U.K., and I was totally into that and wanted to be there in person and feel it, too. The great thing about that was to have rock as the basis but then to apply that to other genres, and that was what I wanted to achieve at some point,” Uematsu recalled, years later. “Some of the bands and artists that I looked up to at that time… Pink Floyd and King Crimson. Having listened to their music, it was like there was no way outside of what they had created. It was an obligation that I create my own music having heard their music.”
The composer drew on his passion for pop, prog and symphonic music to create the score for the 1987 role-playing game Final Fantasy (and its many sequels, which number in the teens). In creating all these scores, growing and changing with the limitations of technology, Uematsu became known as the “Beethoven of video games music,” his compositions released on stand-alone albums and being performed by musicians in concert halls around the world.
Respect between video game developers and rock stars might not have been a two-way street back in the ’80s, but that didn’t mean that the music industry didn’t attempt to cash in on the latest craze. You might have expected that the first rock/game crossover would have involved an act interested in electronic music (like Brian Eno or Kraftwerk) or in fantastical concepts (like Rush or Yes), but no. In 1982, the first rock ’n’ roll video game was centered on the very non-experimental, but extraordinarily popular, Journey.
Journey Escape was developed by Data Age and released for the Atari 2600 in 1982, a year following the band’s Escape album. It took inspiration from the scarab spaceship on the album cover, but not much else that was Journey-related.
In the single-player game, players would help the members of Journey “escape” the arena, dodging “hordes of love-crazed groupies, sneaky photographers, and shifty-eyed promoters,” as described in the game’s manual. Roadies and the band’s manager -- looking curiously like the Kool-Aid Man -- would help you get to safety, in the form of Journey’s scarab vehicle. The game had more in common with Frogger than Journey, with the exception of an electronic rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin’” that played as an introduction.
So Journey were the first rock act to land their own video game, and the second rock game featured… also Journey. Yes, before any other rockers got in the game, there was a second Journey video game, this one produced by Bally Midway for arcades in 1983.
This game, simply titled Journey, also took its visual cues from the Escape album cover, going so far as to set the band’s mission in space. Players controlled the quintet as they flew around in their scarab transport attempting to recover their instruments (plus Steve Perry’s microphone). Like the poorly received Atari title, Journey was derivative and simplistic, although it had more to offer Journey die-hards.
For one, each member of the band was recognizable, with black-and-white headshots having been digitized and stuck on cartoon bodies. Secondly, Journey featured a bunch of Journey melodies, including “Wheel in the Sky” and “Lights,” delivered in blooping and bleeping renditions as the members endeavored to reclaim their gear in mini-games.
Plus, in a relatively strange, but significant, innovation, the arcade game featured a true Journey recording. While 1983 game technology wasn’t up to the task of reproducing a rock track, the developers figured out a way to allow the game to trigger a taped version of “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” to start on a cassette player that was installed in the game cabinet. So, if the player was lucky enough to corral all of Journey’s instruments, they would hear the band’s then-current hit played on a loop, while a pixelated version of the band performed on stage and the player acted as security for the show.
This primitive use of “Separate Ways” was a big moment. Game experts consider it to be the first implementation of a licensed recording in a video game, a practice that became commonplace -- with the advance of technology -- in the modern gaming industry (something we’ll focus on a little later).
Regardless of Bally Midway’s cassette tape innovation, Journey didn't have gamers lining up at their local arcade for a chance to control Neal Schon. If the game had been a major success, who knows? There might have been a slew of joystick-sporting cabinets featuring the likenesses of REO Speedwagon, Foreigner and Styx. Instead, rock-related video games remained a relative rarity for the next decade.
With the rise of (often-shoddy) movie-inspired games or titles based on already well-known comic book or cartoon characters, it still proved tempting for the industry to make rock stars the focus of their own games. That’s why you could play as Paul McCartney in 1985’s Give My Regards to Broad Street, a Commodore 64 game loosely based on Macca’s 1984 movie. The game -- which allowed you to drive around an unrecognizably empty London collecting bits of “No More Lonely Nights” to an interminable, tinny version of “Band on the Run” -- was about a poorly received as the film.
Similarly, the games Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (first released in 1989) and The Blues Brothers (first released in 1991) had both a movie and music hook for game developers, starring iconic figures in their title characters and including computerized versions of well-known songs. Jackson’s game was a hit, the Blues Brothers one was not. (Yet that didn’t stop Nintendo’s N64 from featuring an ill-advised Blues Brothers 2000 tie-in game a decade later.)
If the King of Pop could become a video game action hero, then why couldn’t Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister do the same? 1992’s Motörhead allowed owners of the Commodore Amiga console to control the hard rock legend as he laid waste to other genres of music, slamming country cowboys with his guitar or demolishing goth kids with his bad breath. The “reward” at game’s end was a computerized performance by the band playing (a video game version of) their namesake song.
Lemmy gave his approval for that title, but not all games were sanctioned by the artists. Some Japanese developers teamed up on the very-unlicensed Holy Diver, which was created not only to honor Ronnie James Dio, but featured a ton of hard rock and metal references -- from the Crimson Kingdom to the Black Slayer to characters named for Ozzy Osbourne, Randy Rhoads and Zakk Wylde. The fantasy game, which featured no music from any of the referenced musicians, hit the Japanese version of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989, but didn’t get a North American release until 2018.
Motörhead and Holy Diver may have been loving, if quirky, tributes to developers’ favorite musicians, but other games appeared to be mere cash-ins. Crüe Ball was a 1992 video pinball game for the Sega Genesis that was approved by Mötley Crüe at the last minute and only featured three of the band’s songs, along with some bare-bones Crüe-related theming. The 1994 arcade rail shooter Revolution X had been designed by Midway with Jurassic Park in mind. But when the company lost out on the rights to the movie, the game was refashioned to exist in a dystopian war zone that -- for reasons that are never explained -- involved Aerosmith as part of the resistance to the New Order Nation.
Just because Revolution X wasn’t built, originally, with Steven Tyler and company in mind didn’t mean it couldn’t be an entertaining game. The two- or three-player shooter performed well in arcades and featured mounted guns that appeared to fire both bullets and exploding CDs. The game featured somewhat realistic, but still sort of herky-jerky, appearances from band members along with some running commentary from Tyler -- who would yelp, “Don’t give up!” to encourage players to pop in more quarters after their life meters had dwindled.
“It’s really cool. It’s neat to be part of the wave of progress that’s going on, using this type of imagery in games,” Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton said while preparing to film his parts for the game. “I suppose if we had done this years ago, they would have made little Mario versions of us… now it’s really, it looks like us in there. Kind of scary, actually.”
Not only did Aerosmith look like Aerosmith in Revolution X, Aerosmith sounded like Aerosmith. In just more than a decade, arcade games had gone from relying on a cassette tape to play a Journey song to being able to deliver decent-sounding Aerosmith studio recordings, including “Eat the Rich,” “Sweet Emotion” and “Walk This Way,” while the game was happening. Perhaps, partly due to the arcade version’s sound system, the experience didn’t translate when Revolution X was adapted (or ported, in game parlance) to home gaming systems such as Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo in 1995, and a planned sequel was scrapped.
But that didn’t prevent Aerosmith and its members from becoming involved in numerous video game projects during the next couple of decades. Frontman Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry appeared as the villainous Toxic Twins in the Robert DeNiro-produced computer adventure game 9: The Last Resort, drummer Joey Kramer had his own mobile game (Hit Hard) and the band’s music appeared in games including Grand Theft Auto IV and Dead or Alive: Ultimate. Not only did Aerosmith allow many of their songs to be playable in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series (they also appeared in their own stand-alone version of Hero in 2008), they starred in one of the precursors to the music game craze: 1995’s Quest for Fame, which could be played with the Virtual Guitar.
The '90s would see a whole range of artists embrace more sophisticated computing technology to become involved in the video game world. In the first half of the decade, Peter Gabriel, Prince and Bob Dylan all released CD-ROMs that simultaneously provided games, behind-the-scenes information and as much music as a disc could hold. Xplora 1: Peter Gabriel’s Secret World (1993) unlocked rare backstage footage while both Prince Interactive (1994) and Bob Dylan: Highway 61 -- Interactive (1995) featured unreleased recordings -- a boon to fans of these artists.
“Dylan and his people had an incredible amount of input,” Chuck Cortright, president of Graphix Zone, told Rolling Stone in 1995, while acknowledging that the rock legend chose the title and cover image for the CD-ROM, as well as the videos and recordings featured within it.
In the late ’90s and early ’00s, other rock legends would become even more immersed in the gaming world. Queen: The eYe (1998) wasn’t a blockbuster action/adventure game, but it became prized by the band’s fans for its extensively remixed soundtrack loaded with instrumental versions from Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. Kiss tapped into their band’s costumes, catalog and new album to deliver the 2000 shoot-em-up Kiss: Psycho Circus: The Nightmare Child. As part of a 1999 hits collection, Iron Maiden released the Doom-esque Ed Hunter, which featured levels based on the band’s different album covers (and career-spanning hits on the soundtrack).
But no one comes close to David Bowie’s involvement in 1999’s Omikron: The Nomad Soul, for which he consulted on the storyline, created an array of new music and put on a motion-capture suit in order to act as two different characters within the game. Most of the original songs in Eidos Interactive’s sci-fi game (which was a hybrid of the adventure, shooter and puzzle genres) made up Bowie’s album, Hours -- which was originally thought of as a video game soundtrack.
Bowie saw his work as an opportunity to do something new. “I moved right away from the stereotypical industrial game-music sound,” he said at a 1999 press conference, via Billboard. “My priority in writing music for Omikron was to give it an emotional subtext.”
But game developers saw the involvement of Bowie (like Aerosmith, Dylan and others before him) as an affirmation of gaming culture. “David Bowie’s involvement endorses the quality of the game and the fact that worldwide entertainment stars realize the value of the computer games market as an essential ingredient of the entertainment mix,” said Eidos’s then-CEO Charles Cornwall.
The Thin White Duke wasn’t the only one making new, original music for video games as the ’90s wound down and the 21st century began. Bowie’s one-time tourmate Trent Reznor scratched out an industrial soundtrack for 1996’s Quake, while Police drummer Stewart Copeland went in a more whimsical direction in crafting music for Sony PlayStation’s Spyro the Dragon franchise (1998-2000). Subsequent years saw themes and soundtrack work from Peter Gabriel (on a couple of Myst sequels), Steve Vai (Halo 2), Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh (The Sims 2 and Boom Blox), Paul McCartney (Destiny) and Slash (MX vs. ATV All Out).
While those musicians might have been more comfortable working behind the scenes on the latest games, hard rock/metal stars aligned for 2009’s Brütal Legend, which starred Jack Black as the game’s roadie-turned-mythic hero Eddie Riggs and featured voice work from Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Halford, Lemmy and Lita Ford. What’s more, Double Fine Productions’ action-adventure game for PlayStation 3, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and home computers included an incredible heavy metal soundtrack that numbered 107 separate, licensed tracks -- many from titans such as Black Sabbath, Def Leppard and Judas Priest. Most of the song cues were chosen specifically for moments in Brütal Legend.
By that point in gaming history, licensed recordings had become an industry standard. Just as movies and television series had employed existing rock tracks to set a particular tone or signify a particular era, video games began to do the same -- due equally to advancements in technology and many games’ increasingly cinematic nature.
Where the decidedly un-cinematic puzzle game Rock ’n’ Roll featured chintzy-sounding pastiches of rock music when released in 1989, by 1993, Rock ’n’ Roll Racing included digitized reinterpretations of actual rock classics such as Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.” Only a year later, band’s actual studio recordings were beginning to be heard more regularly in games, from the aforementioned Revolution X to Way of the Warrior (featuring songs by White Zombie) to Road Rash (which featured three Soundgarden tunes, among tracks from other bands).
As gaming prepared to enter a new century, there were a handful of games that pushed the use of licensed music to a more prominent position. Many of them were sport titles. EA Sports’ professional soccer game series began using licensed, original recordings starting with FIFA 98, while the smash-hit pro football series Madden began doing the same in 2003. It has since become something of an honor for acts of many genres to have their songs featured in annual Madden editions.
Around the same time that pro sports games were incorporating the same kinds of music you might hear blasting over loudspeakers in an arena, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series began to develop a reputation for how it matched high-energy tracks with skateboarding tricks. Pro Skater 3 (2001) featured music by the Ramones and Motörhead, the fourth installment (2002) included classics from Iron Maiden and AC/DC and Tony Hawk’s Underground (2003) showcased songs by the Clash and Kiss -- and featured Gene Simmons as a playable skater.
While the Tony Hawk games were amping up the tempo with well-known rock tracks, an even more celebrated game series was beginning to use licensed music to enhance both the cinematic and real-word qualities of gameplay. The appropriately named Rockstar Games began using licensed music in their Grand Theft Auto titles as early as 1999 -- for GTA London ’69 -- with songs being heard on car radios as players drove through the game. The early GTA installments also would allow players to pop their own CDs into their computers or PlayStations in order for random tracks to be heard in-game.
But the big jump forward came with 2002’s GTA: Vice City, which leaned heavily on licensed music to establish the game’s '80s setting. As players flipped around the fictional city’s radio stations, they could choose to hear a wealth of ’80s rock (along with metal, new wave, pop, R&B or rap) with contributions from Electric Light Orchestra, David Lee Roth, Twisted Sister and Blondie, among dozens of others. A virtual Phil Collins even guest-starred in one of the game’s missions. The GTA game’s soundtrack was such a big deal, Rockstar teamed with Epic to release a seven-CD boxed set of Vice City’s songs, organized according to the game’s radio stations.
“Rockstar has always been known for the music in its games, dating back to the beginning of the company,” Rockstar Games’ music supervisor Ivan Pavlovich told The Hollywood Reporter in 2013. “So we're all trying to build on what we've done in previous games. GTA was the first game to incorporate this idea of radio stations into the video game. So with every game we want to develop it even more.”
GTA soundtracks only grew bigger and more intricate from there, using both big hits and deep cuts from legendary bands to create the illusion of fully functioning classic rock radio stations. In 2008, GTA IV included “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks, “Thug” by ZZ Top and “Rocky Mountain Way” by Joe Walsh, along with Iggy Pop as the DJ of Liberty Rock Radio. While players completed missions or just drove around Liberty City, they could scan the radio for the song that most suited their mood. The tried-and-true rock tunes of GTA provided a shot of reality. Plus, considering that the franchise is one of the top five best-selling game franchises ever, they were also a means for veteran musicians to be heard by millions of younger fans that they might not otherwise reach.
The music industry, watching as CD sales declined, was only too happy to play along with Rockstar’s audio concepts for the GTA games. Other big-name game series featured similar arrangements, such as when the Vietnam War-set Call of Duty: Black Ops made use of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter” in 2010. Of course, rock music’s use in war or crime games was dwarfed by the industry’s eventual embrace of another, very different, gaming genre.
Although Guitar Hero and Rock Band quickly turned into video game blockbusters for a time in the late ’00s, these rock-oriented games were only the latest installments in a genre that had existed for decades: the rhythm game. There are Japanese arcade games with a rhythm concept going back to the ’70s, and 1978’s Simon (although an electronic, not a video, game) featured a similar idea. While rhythm video games in the ’80s and ’90s focused on dancing (Dance Aerobics for the NES, Dance Dance Revolution in the arcade), rapping (PlayStation’s PaRappa the Rapper) or electronic music (Japan’s Beatmania), rock music took a back seat.
However, in the mid-’90s, along came the Virtual Guitar -- which could be seen as a forefather to Guitar Hero. Three computer games allowed players to strum a fake plastic guitar along with music on screen. Most of the tunes were chintzy-sounding covers of rock and blues numbers, with the exception of some of the tracks in 1995’s Quest for Fame, which were actual Aerosmith recordings that provided an opportunity to “jam” with the band’s members. With cartoon graphics, abrupt editing and a silly plot, Quest for Fame wasn’t perfect, but it still made more sense as an Aerosmith-centric game than Revolution X. But, between the cost of the hardware and some technical issues, the Virtual Guitar was a short-lived dud.
A decade later, in 2005, game developer Harmonix premiered a better, cheaper and altogether more entertaining take on the Virtual Guitar concept with Guitar Hero. The game, which employed sized-down plastic guitar-shaped controllers with buttons on the frets and a clicker on the body, was more intuitive (for gamers, if not guitarists), less stuffy and sounded better than just about any rock ’n’ roll-related title in video game history. And that was despite the fact that the first game featured solely cover versions of well-known guitar songs.
As the game began to grow in popularity, the Guitar Hero series began getting permission (and forking over fees) to use the artists’ actual recordings, presenting a more authentic experience -- or at least as authentic an experience as a plastic guitar allows. The 2006 sequel featured a few master recordings and by 2007, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock included a majority of the original versions of songs including “Paint it Black,” “Black Magic Woman” and “Even Flow,” in addition to in-game appearances from Slash, Tom Morello and Bret Michaels.
Yet, by the time the third Guitar Hero was being created, Harmonix had jumped ship to evolve the rhythm game into something larger with the first edition of Rock Band, which included the ability to pretend to play guitar or bass, but also pound away on drums and sing vocals. The recordings, nearly all originals at this point, sounded better, the song lists got bigger (Nirvana, the Who, Deep Purple) and the game became a pop culture phenomenon.
Between 2007 and 2009, you couldn’t go into a big box store and not see a Rock Band or Guitar Hero game set up for shoppers to try. Soon, Guitar Hero added drums and vocals too, and the games became fixtures at parties, often bringing together people who hadn’t played a video game in decades, if ever.
Although some rockers sneered at the notion that anyone would take these games seriously, many others embraced the games, even allowing for playable versions of themselves to appear in games (as Ozzy Osbourne, Sting and Ted Nugent did in the Guitar Hero series, and Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Queen did in the Lego installment of Rock Band). Steven Van Zandt consulted on which new songs could be added to games via the purchase of downloadable content. Rock Band did extensive collaborations with music by the Who and AC/DC, while Guitar Hero released stand-alone games devoted to Aerosmith, Metallica and Van Halen.
But the big acquisition was when Harmonix brought together Rock Band and the Beatles. The 2009 game arguably represented the height of artistry in the rhythm game, a full-blown re-imagination of the Fab Four’s ’60s run with animated segments that recreated the Cavern and Shea Stadium or created psychedelic landscapes for the band’s more experimental recordings. You could even play the game on plastic replica Beatle instruments, from Paul McCartney’s Hofner bass and Ringo Starr’s Ludwig drums to John Lennon’s Rickenbacker and George Harrison’s Gretsch guitars (the latter two sold separately).
But The Beatles: Rock Band also marked a turning point for these series. Harmonix had overestimated the game’s popularity and, following the holiday season of 2009, many of the Beatles editions could be picked up at a steep discount. What some gamers and industry insiders had thought would be a long-running trend turned out to be a fad with a cult-like following. The addition of keyboards and actual, real guitars for Rock Band 3 in 2010 might have pleased a few musical purists, but didn’t do much to turn things around. Meanwhile, 2011’s Rocksmith scored a small victory in employing Guitar Hero-like methods to help teach new guitarists how to play their instruments.
After a flurry of releases between 2005 and 2010, the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series each went on hiatus. Both have been rebooted in recent years, with a level of success that runs from moderate to disappointing. Rock Band continues to present new downloadable tracks for Rock Band 4 due to the game’s cult following, but its present popularity is a far cry from the rhythm game mania of 2007.
If video games outlived their “fad” phase, rock-oriented rhythm games did not. But is that surprising given how rock ’n’ roll has taken a back seat, popularity-wise, to hip-hop, country and electronic pop? If today’s “Space Age Whiz Kids” don’t care much about playing actual guitars, why would they want to mess around with fake ones?
But rock’s declining influence in the video game isn’t only due to the number of guitar controllers for sale at secondhand shops. The Madden series hasn’t put a classic rock song on one of its game soundtracks since 2014, favoring mostly hip-hop. Rockstar Games’ more recent titles (the Red Dead Redemption series, L.A. Noire) have taken place in time periods that predate rock ’n’ roll, meaning that the developer’s last game with any sort of classic rock element was 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V.
There’s no telling when and how the next hybrid of video games and rock ’n’ roll might occur. Maybe never. But, given the band’s history with gaming, it might be worthwhile to see what Aerosmith is up to these days…