Are we human, or are we dancer? The legacy of “Dance Dance Revolution”, 20 years later
The revolution started with a whimper. In the fall of 1998, a roughly 900-pound contraption with blinking lights, blaring music, and a raised platform that housed two "dance floors" was wheeled into a Japanese arcade, then lifted onto another raised platform. Four steps above the arcade floor, the first Dance Dance Revolution machine ever built was the ultimate novelty, a neon temple of uncanny-valley disco that towered over the sea of beat-'em-up sidescrollers and fighting games. Given the bewildered stares on the first day of trial runs, one of the biggest innovations in video game history might as well have been a particle collider.
Only months earlier, in the spring, Konami game producer Yoshihiko Ota pulled the plug on a formulaic fighting game he and his staff had come close to completing. "Deep inside, no matter how many times I calculated things, I couldn't imagine that this game would sell," Ota told Japan Close-Up in 2000. He was in search of a more provocative muse. Arcades, once the lifeblood of the video-game industry, were on the downturn with the rapid improvement of home consoles. The industry could no longer be content churning out the same product for a changing market.
Ota needed a wild card and found inspiration in the clubs he'd visit on off hours. It wasn't long before Ota and his group of 35 core developers mobilized to create an experience that would serve as a spiritual successor to Konami's first rhythm-based video game, the club-DJ simulator Beatmania, released less than a year earlier. Konami's music game department soon became known as Bemani (an abbreviation of Beatmania, in the way Pokémon is short for Pocket Monsters). They brought in professional dancers and used available motion-capture technology to break down movements into data points. They eventually established the basics of the Dance Dance Revolution—a system of steps assigned to parts of a beat, visualized as a reverse cascade of corresponding directional arrows—by "having an engineer look at a dance book," Ota said. No one on staff knew how to dance.