The year was 1997, home consoles and PC’s were on the rise, arcades were still rather popular and in Japan a little company by the name of Konami was about to release one of the most influential games in the history of Japanese arcade gaming.

That game was Beatmania, released as HipHopmania in the west, Konami’s first release in what would become a hugely successful line of arcade rhythm games spanning multiple series and hundreds of games.

The concept was simple, you play as a DJ in a club and it’s your job to mix to the best of your ability. You did this by pressing 1 of 5 buttons arranged in a piano key layout or “scratching” the large turntable to the right of the buttons when a note reached the bottom of the screen in a corresponding column to the tunes of a number of very 90s hip hop style songs all produced by in house artists.

It was a simple concept, yet little did people know how far this simple concept would take Konami and how much of an impact it would make on the future of arcade gaming in Japan as a whole.

Upon release, Beatmania made quite a splash gaining popularity among arcade goers quite quickly for its simple gameplay and surprisingly high quality music tracks. It was clear Konami was onto something.

Beatmania would be the first of many series to be marketed under Konami’s “Bemani” brand which they used for their series of generally arcade targeted rhythm games. The Bemani name quickly expanded with new series being kickstarted off the back of Beatmania’s success like Pop’n Music and perhaps Konami’s most successful Bemani title in the west, Dance Dance Revolution.

Over the next few years, other new series bearing the Bemani label would see the light of day but a majority of them only lasted a few games before Konami dropped them entirely (Some examples being Keyboardmania which played similar to Beatmania but made use of a whole piano keyboard, ParaParaParadise, another dancing focused game which put more of a focus on full body movement in a way similar to a form of Japanese dancing called ParaPara, and Dance Maniax, yet another dancing game, this time focused more on hand movements).

At the same time, Konami continued to support existing Bemani series releasing upgrade kits for new versions of Beatmania, Pop’n music and DDR over regular half yearly to yearly intervals. These upgrade kits not only refined the games themselves but also added new songs and charts to keep players coming back.

Then, on February 22nd, 1999, Konami released Beatmania II (now more commonly known as Beatmania IIDX) into arcades across Japan. IIDX differed from its older brother thanks to upgraded hardware, support for full motion video for background animations, higher overall sound quality and the addition of 2 extra buttons for each player bringing the total to 7 keys on each side.

IIDX later on went to replace the original 5 key Beatmania games entirely with the last 5 Key game being Beatmania The Final released in 2001.

Meanwhile, Pop’n Music and DDR were joined by 2 new games, GuitarFreaks and Drummania, two games designed to tap into the currently nonexistent market of Guitar and Drum games, a concept later mirrored in the West with the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

Across the pond, South Korea was wanting in on the rhythm action too and released the locally made Pump it Up and EZ2DJ to tide themselves over. While both of these games suffered from a lawsuit being filed by Konami, only EZ2DJ had legal action taken against it with Pump it Up being allowed to coexist.

Back in Japan, Konami continued its releases of new and improved versions of their games on a regular basis. The release of Beatmania IIDX 9th style marked Konami’s transition to a new hardware platform, fittingly called “Bemani PC”. Sadly, the new hardware didn’t quite have all its kinks ironed out and IIDX 9th style became known for its numerous timing bugs and glitches caused by the new hardware.

Then, around the release of IIDX Happy Sky (the 12th game) Konami started to slowly lay the brickwork for IIDX to start growing an identity. They introduced a new level rating system ranging from 1 through 12 and started to put more focus on chart design and challenge. As new styles came out yearly, the series started to establish its identity as a hardcore Japanese arcade rhythm game. Konami expanded this approach to their other games in different ways with Pop’n Music further adopting its unique art style and song list while DDR got a large number of licenses from compilation album series, DanceMania.

Today, rhythm games are a common fixture in Japanese arcades. Bemani games continue to be popular while other companies like SEGA have also thrown their hats into the ring with their own arcade rhythm game offerings. Beatmania left a legacy that changed the landscape of Japanese arcade culture and I and many others wouldn’t have it any other way.

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