The Best Rhythm Action Games Ever Made

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There are few feelings in gaming more satisfying than losing yourself in a song and mashing buttons to the beat to defeat an enemy or complete a stage. It just feels right, you know?

Slashing an enemy when the vocalist hits that high note, jumping over an obstacle during a soaring guitar solo, expertly parrying a blow as the high-hat hits. It's exhilarating, and it's one of my favorite genres of gaming. 

In that spirit, here are our favorite rhythm action games of all time. As a note, however, we're disqualifying games like Guitar Hero, Beatmania, and even Parappa the Rapper and Elite Beat Agents, given the fact that those games are more purely rhythm titles.

We love them too, so don't feel slighted if you don't see them on this list!

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Beat Saber

It would be irresponsible not to lead off with Beat Saber. Even if it weren't a VR title, its slick visuals and amazing tracklist would be enough to land a spot on this list. But once you put on a headset, Beat Saber is an expert at inducing a deep sense of flow.

Your brain turns off, and you enter a trance-like state as you slash an endless stream of boxes. It's not until after you take the headset off an hour later that you realize you're drenched in sweat and your arms feel like they're on fire. 

It's worth it, though. Trust me. 

Just Shapes & Beats

In quickplay mode, Just Shapes & Beats is a joy to play given how it flips the rhythm genre on its head. Instead of pressing buttons to the beat of a song, the stage itself is what reacts to the music that is playing, as hazards pop up and dance around the stage.

Every single song in the game has a custom-created stage, with hazards that are thematically appropriate for the song's genre and mood. It's clear that a lot of effort was put into curating these stages.

The developers really didn't have to include a story mode here, but they did, and for a rhythm game with no dialogue, there are some amazing, emotional moments to be found here. Plus, the game recently got a pretty major update, adding a few songs from the Shovel Knight soundtrack (remixed, naturally) for free!

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Rhythm Thief & The Emperor's Treasure

Rhythm Thief & The Emperor's Treasure didn't make as big of a splash as Elite Beat Agents, Rhythm Heaven, or any of the other less action-focused rhythm games on the Nintendo DS family of systems, and that's a shame because it's a very special game. 

It's Professor Layton by way of Rhythm Heaven, weaving a deep story (complete with Level-5's iconic beautiful animated cutscenes and voice acting) replacing brain-bending minigames with rhythm-based minigames.

The game does a great job of integrating these minigames with whatever is going on in the game's campaign, which makes the overall experience really special and immersive.

Amplitude

In Amplitude, whether you're playing the PS2 original or the PS4 re-imagining, your reward for playing well is being able to hear more of the song. 

It's an interesting gameplay hook  instead of mashing buttons to the beat of the song, you control a ship responsible for playing each individual part of the song. You have to lay down the drum track, the vocal track, the synth tracks, and the guitar tracks, and as you do, the actual song takes shape in front of you.

It's a frustratingly fun way to motivate the player since your reward for nailing a particularly difficult section is actually being able to hear the sweet guitar solo that has been plaguing you for the last 30 minutes.

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Bit.Trip.Runner

Sure, Bit.Trip.Runner doesn't have an all-star tracklist full of licensed songs, nor does it have photorealistic graphics or a deep story. But if there's one thing the Bit.Trip series is good at, it's stripping everything away in order to create a distilled, concentrated hardcore experience.

One of the more difficult games on this list, Bit.Trip.Runner may have you throwing your controller at the wall, but at the same time, you know you'll be back grinding that level soon enough.

Sayonara Wild Hearts

Sayonara Wild Hearts is an incredibly special game. It blends a story of self-discovery after heartbreak with super-flashy graphics and tight controls. That would be enough to land it a spot on this list, but what makes the game iconic, and truthfully, one of my personal all-time favorites, is the soundtrack.

The game plays like a concept album, each song matching perfectly with its stage but also coming together as a whole to tell a larger story. The dream pop soundtrack stands alone as one of 2019's best albums, but experiencing it together with the game is almost a transcendental experience.

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Thumper

Thumper is a transcendental game in another way. The developers bill it as a "rhythm-violence" title, and they're not wrong. Everything about the game feels oppressive, and death is always creeping in around the corner.

Where the rest of the games on this list can induce a state of focused flow, Thumper is much more of a white-knuckle experience. You'd be surprised at how scary this rhythm game can be.

Crypt of the Necrodancer

Crypt of the Necrodancer is another unique entry on this list. Although it is, technically, a rhythm game, an advanced sense of rhythm and syncopation won't really help you here. This roguelike dungeon-crawler is more about quickly making a plan of attack, executing it, and doing it to the beat, moving on every single one so that you don't break your combo. 

Oh, and this game is hard, too! You'll have to think ahead to avoid being one-shotted by a particularly vicious enemy, but once you learn the enemy patterns, it's an extremely satisfying romp.

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Child of Eden

I could have easily put Rez or Rez Infinite in this slot, but for my money, the game's Xbox 360 followup, Child of Eden, is the best of all three if you're looking for a rhythm rail-shooter.

It is currently unavailable on current-gen marketplaces, which means that even though it is backwards-compatible with the Xbox One, you're out of luck unless you can dig up your old Xbox 360 disc, which is a shame because it is legitimately one of the most beautiful games ever made.

Where Rez skewed more digital, with a cyberpunk-inspired aesthetic, Child of Eden is decidedly more organic and psychedelic. The graphics hold up today, punching well above their weight, and it is, oddly enough, one of the only games ever to pull off Kinect integration in a satisfying way.

The Metronomicon

I have no idea why this game didn't get more attention when it came out. A mix of Final Fantasy and Rock BandMetronomicon layers strategy-based RPG-style battles with a rhythm overlay, tasking players with playing different parts of a song Amplitude-style in order to unleash different attacks.

It's difficult, but when you finally put together the perfect combo without a missed beat, it's incredibly satisfying.

That's it for our best rhythm action games of all time. What games would you have included? Let us know over on Twitter!

Published Jul. 31st 2020

Featured Contributor

RobotsFightingDinosaurs has been writing about games for 10 years and playing them even longer. Despite the millions of hours he's played across multiple gaming generations, his favorite games are The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild and Super Smash Bros. Robots has written for Polygon, Thrillist, Kill Screen, and more.

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