The overlooked beat-juggling music workout that scratched a unique itch
Freestyle Games has never seemed particularly interested in the easy life. For its first game, the 2006 release B-Boy, the UK studio had to work out how to tool a breakdancing game around PSP’s D-pad and buttons. For its most recent release, Guitar
Hero Live, it redesigned the series’ classic five-button controller, then used robot cameras and hundreds of actors to film a live-action game where your crowd and bandmates responded to your performance. Game development is, ultimately, a matter of solving problems, but few studios have gone so far out of their way to create so many headaches for themselves as Freestyle.
DJ Hero was the most problematic of them all, and it feels like little coincidence that it’s also Freestyle’s finest work to date. While B-Boy’s control system was difficult to design, at least the project began with something to work from in Sony’s PSP. And while Guitar Hero Live involved making a new guitar controller, Freestyle at least had a decade’s worth of plastic-guitar games to work from when designing both the peripheral and the way that songs would be played on it. But with DJ Hero, it had nothing. First, it would have to define how two turntables and a mixer could be meaningfully, plausibly condensed to a single peripheral of reasonable size. Then it would have to work out how the game would be played; how the music would be mapped onto the controller’s various inputs, then how the genre-standard descending note chart could be adapted to convey this new information. It would have to feel right, both to the experienced beatmatcher and to the novice whose only prior interaction with a DJ booth had been a drunkenly barked request for their party banger of choice.
It would have to go further than that, too, but let’s start with the basics. DJ Hero’s controller is a single turntable – a spinnable platter with three buttons on the left-hand side, coloured green, red and blue. To the side sits a crossfader, an effects dial, a button to trigger Euphoria mode, and a panel that flips up to reveal a D-pad and set of face buttons, used for navigating menus. As the note chart descends, you’ll tap the platter buttons to trigger samples, flicking the crossfader to the left, right or neutral position in time with abrupt doglegs in the chart, parts of the mix cutting out and back in accordingly. Successful inputs raise a multiplier, which can be doubled by triggering Euphoria (acquired, as in other music games, by perfecting specific song sections) or with a rewind, a backwards spin of the platter letting you replay the past few bars. Judicious use of both is essential in reaching a high score and five-star rating; Euphoria automates the crossfader, making it vital for passing tricky sections, while rewinds are best used to replay busy song sections to maximise the score bonus.
Well, we call it a ‘song’, but it’s the wrong word. These are called ‘mixes’, and are mashups of famous and not-so-famous tunes from across the decades. Every music game is a reflection of its creator’s musical taste: Rez showcases Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s love of repetitive beats, while the original
Guitar Hero is a reflection of Harmonix staffers’ affection for buzzing, crunching, wailing guitars. DJ Hero shows that hip-hop runs deep in Freestyle Games’ veins, but it goes further than that. It shows that the studio understands what makes a mashup – blending two recognisable tunes in smart, surprising, often funny ways – and what makes good turntablism, where DJ-ing stops being just about a party and starts to resemble a sport. So hip-hop gets mashed up with pop, funk, soul, rock, techno – anything that shares, or can be sped up or slowed down to share, a hip-hop tempo – and is played back in a way that requires an escalating amount of flicking switches and pressing buttons in time to the beat.
It meant adding an additional layer of complexity to what was already a very difficult project. Not only did Freestyle have to design a controller from scratch, and work out how music could be played on it; it had to design the music itself, too, taking sets of two well-known tunes and making something new out of them – something that would be fun to play, sure, but also designed to get a dancefloor moving. Freestyle Games was the hardware designer, the software designer and now, on top of that, the DJ and producer as well.
The solution involved outsourcing to some of the biggest names in the game –
both figuratively and, later, through the addition of in-game avatars, literally. Eminem and Jay-Z were consultants; the likes of DJ Shadow, Jazzy Jeff and Cut Chemist contributed mixes to the game, as did Grandmaster Flash, the turntablism pioneer who also voices the introductory tutorial. Work began with a straight mashup, typically computer programmed but which could plausibly be played on two decks and a mixer. Then the ‘gameplay’ version would be created, the real-world stars or Freestyle’s designers adding rapid crossfader cuts, implausible scratches and volleys of overlaid effects. When making a
Guitar Hero game, a designer can only ever approximate the real thing, condensing six strings and 22 frets onto a six-button control scheme. By the time a DJ Hero mix was complete, it let the player perform something no turntablist on the planet could ever do with their bare hands in a live setting. Famous guitarists everywhere used to line up to criticise Guitar Hero for its simplification of the instrument; DJ Hero, by contrast, was like an Action Replay cartridge for beat-jugglers.
The results can be astonishing, thoroughly danceable and often truly surprising. Load up the mix of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine, for instance, and you’ll be faced with a 130bpm UK-garage bass workout. No good DJ fears the odd bit of low-hanging fruit, mind you, and the blend of Ice, Ice Baby and U Can’t Touch This works exactly as you’d expect, and is all the better for it. Elsewhere, you’ll find playful lyrical combinations – Queen and Daft Punk hook up for a refrain of ‘We will, we will robot rock’, while a repurposed Foreigner chorus now speaks of a DJ hero, instead of a jukebox one – and all manner of cross-genre soundclashes: Dizzee Rascal over Justice, Young MC atop Daft Punk, The Beastie Boys on Blondie. The result isn’t just a fine soundtrack for a music game, but a rump-shaking party playlist to boot.
And one, mercifully it turns out, with no fail state. Missing notes simply means part of the mix is absent for a few beats, and impacts your score and star rating. No one ever calls for a rewind when the DJ’s just dropped a clanger, after all. But you’ll want to get better, not least because to hear the ‘true’ version of a mix you’ll need to play on the highest difficulty, Expert. When playing
Guitar Hero, you’ll be strumming along to the same song regardless of the difficulty level; the number of notes you have to hit simply scales down as you lower the difficulty. Yet in DJ Hero, removing a note, cut or scratch also means removing the effect it produces from the mix itself; this is a game whose soundtrack improves along with your skill level, providing not just a new challenge, but also a new result.
That assumes, of course, that you can get to Expert without your hand dropping off. In the final third of the game Freestyle
DJ Jazzy Jeff and Daft Punk are among the acts to feature as playable characters, as well as contributing mixes to the game
As well as licensed stars, DJHero features a selection of standard avatars, and arenas to play in – from jumping block parties to neon-lit festivals