Seeing as how we lost two of the people in this feature very recently, it seemed like a good time to do it. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and while we did do a few cameos that we found to be noteworthy, for the most part it’s a list of games that aren’t “music games” (Guitar Hero et al) but prominently feature musicians in some way. Feel free to tell us any big ones that we missed!
Journey Escape (1982, Atari 2600)
Journey (1983, arcade)
Apparently one video game wasn’t enough to contain the epic stadium rock band Journey. First, there was Journey Escape for the 2600, the title of which served double-meaning as a reference to their album – “Escape” – of the previous year and also the objective of the game: to escape from (and I’m not making this up, this is all in the manual) shifty-eyed promoters and love-crazed groupies. Unlike that game, in which it is impossible to discern which member of the band your generic stick-figure avatar is supposed to be, the following year’s simply-titled Journey for arcades (pictured above) featured actual digitized photos of the band members’ faces, which was pretty revolutionary for its time. In that game, you had to guide each band member back to their respective instruments, which are located on other planets because why not? Another interesting technical feature of the Journey arcade cabinet was that it played an excerpt of the band’s song “Separate Ways (World’s Apart)” – ah, so that’s the reason for the planet-hopping – via an actual cassette player housed within the cabinet.
Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (1989-1990, various)
Starring: Michael Jackson
There were a few games based on the 1988 “film” Moonwalker – which was basically just some of the videos from the “Bad” album with a crazy narrative linking them together. The first was the version that was released on various gaming computers in 1989, featuring four levels each with completely different gameplay: top-down maze, top-down motorcycle racing, side-scrolling action, and on-rails shooter. The more famous Moonwalker games, however, were the ones done by Sega for the arcade, Master System, and Genesis. The arcade game was an isometric action game with MJ attacking with magic rather than kicks and punches. It also features three-player simultaneously play, with all three players being MJ, of course. The Master System and Genesis game basically takes the side-scrolling “Smooth Criminal” portion of the home computer games and expands it into its own full adventure, with MJ’s primary attack being his signature dance kick move. He can also spin and do all kinds of acrobatic maneuvers, including the moonwalk, as he dance battles his way to the end boss fight against Mr. Big. No, not the band Mr. Big, although that would’ve been way awesome.
Crüe Ball (1992, Genesis)
Starring: Mötley Crüe (kind of)
1992 is often seen as the year that the hair/glam metal scene ended and gave way to the rise of grunge music, with the departure of Mötley Crüe lead singer Vince Neil considered one of the events of the year that signified the shift. So what better time to release a video game with the Mötley Crüe license? What is even stranger is that the game that would eventually become Crüe Ball actually spent the bulk of its development cycle as an overall metal-themed pinball game without any particular band attached to it. The’s game designers actually wanted to call the game, rather cleverly, “Headbanger’s Ball,” but MTV wasn’t interested in licensing the name of their show. But the developer seemed insistent on getting some kind of license for the game, and somehow landed on Mötley Crüe late in the game’s development. Other than the Genesis renditions of three of the band’s songs, the game’s ties to Mötley Crüe are pretty weak. I would say that it’s too bad that people were probably actually put off by the presence of a then-dying band instead of drawn to it, but under any title Crüe Ball is a pretty sub-par game and avoidable anyway.
Motörhead (1992, Atari ST and Amiga)
Starring: Lemmy Kilmister
Brutal Legend (which – spoiler alert – we just may cover later) wasn’t Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister’s first appearance in a video game. Famously a lifelong gaming fan, the legendary rocker also lent his name and cartoonish likeness to this side-scrolling beat-em-up. Surprised you never heard of this game? Well look at the platforms it was for – how many people were still actively playing those in 1992? And if you were, save the angry comments…you should’ve moved onto SNES and/or Genesis by then and you damn well know it. The game is extremely simple even by genre standards: There is only one attack button, and each level only has a whopping two enemy types. Making up for that shallowness, there are some amusing minigames in between the levels (one of which fittingly parodies the arcade classic Tapper), and Lemmy’s sprite has a lot of personality. I have trouble being as hard on this game as it probably deserves since Lemmy was, in fact, a legitimate gamer and obviously wouldn’t have only lent his name to a video game for the payday. He genuinely loved the idea that he was going to be the star of a video game, and for 17 years this was the best he was going to get. Although, of course, he was also immortalized by having one of the Koopa Kids named after him…
Revolution X (1994, various)
Apparently, Midway had such fond memories of working with Journey for their 1983 arcade game that they wanted to do another action game starring a rock band. This time, they aimed for rock legends Aerosmith, who in 1994 were still in the middle of their major commercial revival that had began with 1987’s Permanent Vacation. Midway was also still one of the biggest arcade makers on the planet, so you had one of the biggest game companies teaming up with one of the biggest bands. What could go wrong? Revolution X tells the story of an alternate 1996 – yep, just two years into the future – where an oppressive regime is looking to take on youth culture by banning both music and video games! Among the actions of the group are the kidnapping of Aerosmith, which is where you – the player – comes in. The tagline of the game is “Music is the Weapon,” which is taken rather literally as you are armed with a gun that shoots CDs at enemies. As strange as all of this is, Midway supposedly had plans to turn Revolution X into a series, with each installment featuring a different band, and Public Enemy was on tap to be the stars of part 2. Midway abandoned this idea after Revolution X wasn’t particularly well-received, most notably its abysmal – and lacking light gun support – home versions.
Rap Jam: Volume One (1995, SNES)
Starring: LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Coolio, Naughty by Nature, House of Pain, Onyx, Queen Latifah, Warren G, and Yo-Yo
True story: I fell asleep one night with the TV on, and I woke up in the middle of the night and saw the commercial for Rap Jam through one bloodshot eye, went back to sleep, and seriously wondered if I had just dreamed it up when I woke up the next morning. That’s how bizarre it seemed even to my 14 year old self. Perhaps inspired by the Fresh Prince and Beastie Boys cameos in NBA Jam, Motown Software – yep, as in the Motown – decided to build an entire game around rappers playing two-on-two basketball. The quality and number of rappers they got to be in a video game in 1995 was actually pretty impressive; the gameplay, not so much. There were a lot of me-too NBA Jam clones in the 90’s, and this may be the absolute worst. The rappers themselves are barely even a selling point, as beyond their weak caricatures on the player select screen, its impossible to pick anyone out during the game itself. There also isn’t a single track from any of the artists to be found on the game’s soundtrack, not even in watered-down 16-bit chiptune form. Perhaps all of these issues were going to be ironed out with Volume 2, but the follow-up never happened. As for Motown Software, this was actually their second game, the first being the SNES game based on the movie Bebe’s Kids. It was also their last: the company folded in 1996 after only two years of operation. Is it too late to revive it for an LMFAO game?
Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style (1999, PlayStation)
Starring: the Wu-Tang Clan
This is probably the first time that a non-music game based on a musical group actually made some sense, as the Wu-Tang Clan have always had a focus on martial arts in their lyrics and persona. So a fighting game starring the band really wasn’t that crazy of a stretch. Shaolin Style was developed by Paradox Development, who at the time was most well-known for their controversial – and cancelled – fighting game Thrill Kill. They took the Thrill Kill engine and its focus on four-player arena fighting and used it for Shaolin Style, which featured all nine members of Wu-Tang and even featured some original songs by the group (though most of the lyrical heavy-lifting is done by perhaps the least-known member, U-God). Activision apparently had pretty high hopes for this game as it actually released a special edition that came with a special W-shaped controller. Unfortunately, it featured no analog sticks, no vibration, and was not at all comfortable to hold, so it was never destined to be anything more than a curious collector’s item, not a useful controller.
Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1999, PC; 2000, Dreamcast)
Starring: David Bowie
This is where the ever-divisive David Cage got his start, and where the groundwork for most of his future titles would be laid (albeit in very, very rough form). Cage was apparently a master at selling his creative vision even before he had a finished game under his belt, as he managed to convince music icon David Bowie to be involved. And involved he was, not only playing two different characters but also consulting on the game’s design and story as well as contributing instrumental music and several then-unreleased songs, with Omikron-specific lyrics to boot (that were of course changed when those songs eventually made their way to a later Bowie album). Bowie even got his wife Iman in on the act, also making a cameo in the game. Omikron was always something of a cult classic and hasn’t been the easiest game to come by (cheaply) in recent years, but since Bowie’s passing the price of the game is said to have skyrocketed online.
Def Jam Vendetta (2003, PS2 and GC)
Def Jam: Fight for NY (2004, PS2, GC, and XBX)
Def Jam: Icon (2007, PS3 and X360)
Starring: Pretty much every rapper you can think of
Once the secret sauce was discovered that rappers are best-suited for fighting games, EA set about at making a wrestling-focused one with the Def Jam brand that eventually morphed into a more traditional – though still somewhat grapple-based – fighting game. It’s this writer’s personal opinion that Fight for NY in particular is very underrated as a fighting game and wish more people would’ve looked past what seemed like a cheap cash-in to find a very well-made fighting game. The Def Jam games also wisely use many of the songs of the rappers in the games, and not just second-rate B-sides but some of the best rap singles of the decade. Unfortunately, the series lost its way a bit with Icon, which tried too hard to bring music into the gameplay itself with weird pulsating environments and “on the beat” fighting mechanics, and we’ve never seen a Def Jam game since.
Brütal Legend (2009, PS3 and X360)
Starring: Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy Kilmister, Lita Ford, and Rob Halford
Tim Schafer’s love letter to 70’s and 80’s metal is like playing a video game that takes place inside of a heavy metal album cover, and not only is the soundtrack a who’s who of the genre’s best, but so is the voice cast. And the aforementioned metal icons aren’t just there for a quick stunt-casting cameo; they each voice a unique and major character – in particular, Ozzy plays frequently-visited item shop proprietor and advice giver and Halford plays one of the game’s main villains. All of the musicians involved seemed to be as passionate about and committed to the project as star Jack Black (who you are probably aware is something of a musician himself). Bringing it all full circle, Halford’s character General Lionwhyte is said to be based on David Bowie, meaning Brütal Legend is something of the ultimate tribute to both him and rock’s other recently lost icon Lemmy Kilmister. It’s also just a damn fun game that’s worth playing with or without its double duty as a musical In Memoriam.