Anime music thrives in an obscure computer-based rhythm game

Sunday, April 7, 2019 - 6:49pm

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Rhythm games are a unique product of the video game world that combines music with gameplay. If you’ve ever played “Dance Dance Revolution” or “Guitar Hero,” you know the intense satisfaction of correctly dancing or playing an instrument to a sequence of notes on the screen. For being no good at them, I have always been addicted to that satisfaction; countless hours have been spent attempting to master the music (on medium difficulty at best). In 2014, I found my calling.

Imagine “Guitar Hero” but on the computer, and you had to click notes that showed up on the screen. That’s the essence of  “Osu,” a game that challenges your rhythm and hand-eye coordination. Each track you play is called a “beatmap.” Talented beatmappers and other dedicated community members work to provide quality beatmaps that rhythm masters play to perfection, competing for points and a higher position on the leaderboards. “Osu” is still affectionately called an “obscure rhythm game” by its community, but has grown to 14 million registered players in its 12-year lifespan. It’s not so obscure anymore, but still nowhere close to the popularity of “Just Dance.” Part of that is the challenge — it has an enormously high skill ceiling — but much of that might be attributed to the “Osu” community’s music of choice.

The “Osu” competitive community is built on thousands of beatmaps to songs that I collectively call “anime music.” Anime music consists of opening and ending themes to popular anime series, visual novels, JRPGs and other media connected to anime. I myself found “Osu” at the tail end of my middle school anime phase, attracted to both the challenge and the cute, enigmatic vocals — enigmatic for an English speaker, at least. I never got sick of those songs, spending countless hours mastering beatmaps deep into the night, thrilled to finally find a rhythm game I was good at.

I want to write that “at first glance, ‘Osu’ seems like a normal rhythm game,” but it’s crystal clear right away that it’s not an ordinary rhythm game. The game is deeply entrenched in anime culture and it wants you to know it. The name itself is a Japanese word, “押す” (pronounced like “oss”), an expression tied to Japanese martial arts (i.e. karate). The game has a pink-haired anime girl for a mascot. For a time, one of the default beatmaps was “Tear Rain” by cYsmix, an electro-pop song with Japanese vocals that comes from “Touhou Project,” a Japanese bullet-hell shoot-em-up game. The default songs have since changed to be more culturally-neutral electronic cuts, but the vast majority of ranked, playable beatmaps are anime music. The game’s ties to anime culture are so strong that it almost seems like they’re inseparable — like “Osu” could not be played over a song that wasn’t at least tangentially connected to anime culture.

It actually takes a closer look to see that “Osu” has no features limiting it to anime music. There’s nothing stopping the community from making beatmaps for American pop music, or any other genre of music that lends itself to a rhythm game. So how did “Osu” end up becoming a haven for anime music?

Some might guess that “Osu” is a Japanese game marketed in its own country, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s actually developed in Australia, and Japan is only the sixth-most popular country for “Osu” players — America holds the number-one spot. Part of it is in the aforementioned branding: The game is clearly marketed towards a target audience of anime fans and Japanese culture enthusiasts (which are nearly synonymous at this point in the Western world). “Osu” takes a lot of stamina, so songs on the shorter end tend to be more popular. Most anime openings and endings are cut to 90 seconds, perfect for the competitive player. Another clue is in the origins and popularity of rhythm games. They first took off in Japanese arcades in the late ’90s. They weren’t actively marketed towards Western audiences until the early ’00s with games like “Guitar Hero.” Rhythm games are still huge in Japan, and only few find homes in American arcades. The cultural ties between rhythm games and Japan lend towards an audience for “Osu” that appreciates Japanese music.

At first, it looks like “Osu” is supported by anime music — without it, “Osu” is nothing. But time has passed, the community has grown and its fanbase has become dedicated. The popularity and playtime that a song gets by becoming a ranked beatmap is undeniable. If a beatmap becomes popular, the song takes off within the “Osu” community, quickly spreading through anime fan-sites, game-based Discord channels and Steam group chats. Nowadays, without “Osu,” anime music is nothing.

Over the years, “Osu” has turned into an archive of anime music, a historical collection of 90-second opening themes that might have otherwise faded into obscurity. “Osu” is a home for them now. In my two-year stint playing “Osu” — I’ve since quit due to the hand strain and the game’s addictive nature — I memorized countless anthems to anime series I have never watched, never will watch and have long since lost an audience after finishing airing.

Spending a lot of time with the same music over a video game is a sure-fire recipe for nostalgia. Part of what makes Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s hip-hop classic “T.R.O.Y.” so iconic is the generation of children raised on “NBA Street Vol. 2” and its accompanying soundtrack. “Osu” is building nostalgia for an entire subgenre. I always know that if I’m ever longing to listen to the groovy ending theme for an awful 2012 anime series that got canceled after one season, I’ll be able to find it on “Osu.”