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Is there a more quintessentially millennial arcade game than Dance Dance Revolution? Since its release in 1999, machines of the rhythm gaming progenitor have become a staple of amusement complexes and arcades the world over, filling the halls with groovy, danceable techno-pop. Synonymous with its fluorescent pink-and-blue colour scheme and watching your mate try and show off for their crush, DDR is a stalwart of the rhythm genre that's very much an institution all its own, hugely successful yet distinct from what many think of in mainstream gaming.
Developed by Konami, the original DDR was preceded by BeatMania, a rudimentary attempt at simulating DJ-ing, in 1997. A major hit, the publisher immediately got to work on a more involved follow-up, moving the action from the DJ booth to the dance-floor for Dance Dance Revolution, or Dancing Stage in European countries. Rather than using the player's hands, emphasis was moved to the feet using a four-arrow dancepad, making players move in dance-like formation to play. Machines came with two pads, providing enough space for two people to play comfortably side-by-side, each with a fastened safety bar at the back for leverage and support, and a small selection of electro-tinged tracks. Suddenly, the rhythm genre as we know it was born, creating a wave of music games, of which DDR remains one of the most popular and long-lasting.
The shift from hands to feet, though perhaps simple in retrospect, was the magic ingredient that made Dance Dance feel like such a, well, revolution. Previous attempts at rhythm-centric gameplay had tightened up the basic idea of matching symbols to on-screen cues, but they were limited by the lack of mobility they asked of the player. You were still, really, just pushing buttons on a controller, so there was only so far one could get into the pocket. In DDR, you were actually dancing, whether you were any good at it or not, and that made all the difference in broadening the possibilities of rhythm games and widening the appeal of the genre.
DDR was distinctly accessible because of its simplicity and unconventional design. The slightly garish, late-'90s rave-inspired aesthetic set it apart from other games, not to mention there was no gun, joystick or steering wheel in sight. It wasn't violent or immediately competitive and while playing required your whole body, there wasn't a lot to figure out. Match the symbols with your feet – if you think you won't be any good, choose the lowest difficulty and you can see out the song regardless of performance. It's just dancing, as simple as that.
Once dedicated to the home console market, Konami have gradually strayed away, choosing to focus on DDR in arcades, where it's most lucrative on a global level. Others have worked more intensely on filling the gap on consoles, the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises forming a cultural boon of their own in the late noughties and early '10s with peripheral plastic instruments. More recently, Ubisoft's Just Dance series has dominated the space, using motion controllers and mobile apps for their simulated dancing experience. None have managed quite the same level of integration and longevity, always sacrificing some element of Dance Dance's complete package.
The game is positioned right at the intersection between the pleasurable aspects of both gaming and dancing. The mesmeric nature of maintaining a flow in a game, of any kind, is an ideal match for the raw freedom of moving one's body to a piece of music. If you can move, you can dance, and we're all prone to the uncomplicated joy of busting a groove in the kitchen while the coffee's being made. Pair that with the dopamine rush of mastering a tough level or boss and you have something that transcends many of the typical boundaries of either activity. There's enough challenge that playing distracts from being self-conscious and the interface doesn't require learning too many controls or commands.
DDR got it so right that it and various other dance machine franchises have had annual competitions in Japan for years. It's so straightforward yet so intricate, and top-level play is dazzling in much the same way as any other professional dancing. It's all about knowledge of one's own body, learning how to manipulate our ungraceful four-limbed flesh-suits into smooth shapes and movements. Rhythm games aren't as intense as ballet or what have you, putting a foot wrong is never going to be the difference between going to the Olympics or not, but they're still capable of drawing the same amazed reactions from the audience and they draw on the same kind of introversion. Playing well requires similar concentration and elegance, fine-tuning the connection between body and mind. The opponent's play almost doesn't matter, because you can't interfere to begin with - you only have power over your own performance.
Competitive DDR is a battle of mental and physical fortitude. It's a battle of wills using four buttons, anachronistic disco remixes and the hope you don't trip over your own leg. Victory isn't so much beating the other person as releasing a version of yourself that's unencumbered by self-doubt and isn't phased by people seeing you move your body. DDR is about the act of dancing like nobody's watching while giving everyone something to look at. It's about being brave enough to give it a go in the first place. Whatever you were before you stepped up doesn't matter - now it's just you and the rhythm.