How Friday Night Funkin’ Provides the Freshest New Take on Dance Dance Revolution
Proving once again that a nostalgic premise, love for the fans, and an original thematic upgrade is a recipe for indie game success
If you are a fan of nostalgic-feeling games reminiscent of the late 90s Flash game boom, then you may have already heard of Friday Night Funkin’. The small indie game has gained a modest audience since November 2020, due in part to being a fun, free game. But to fully understand how Friday Night Funkin’ gets its gameplay and execution just right, we have to take a trip back in time to the year 1998.
The Dynamite Rave of ‘98
Back in 1998 when Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) was first released, games that required physical exertion with full-body controls were in their infancy. Games like Ring Fit Adventure and Wii Fit have popularity due in part to DDR’s influence on the gaming market.
Just about every millennial gamer has their own memories of Dance Dance Revolution. If rhythm-based games are not your thing, there is still a large chance that you have at least seen one of the bright flashing DDR machines at your local arcade or Dave & Busters, pumping out booming dance music and nigh-impossible arrow step instructions.
And if rhythm games are your thing, then you fell in love with the game at a young age, spending all your quarters trying to get a perfect score on your favorite song, eventually buying yourself a PlayStation DDR game and the flimsy mat-controller that comes with it.
Open-Source Future of DDR
But that was not enough for many DDR enthusiasts. With the desire to dance to any song in their music library, and master even more difficult song packs, gamers gravitated to Stepmania, an open-source DDR app released in 2001 for PC that lets players build their own DDR games.
Stepmania had its heyday in the early 2000s, releasing regular updates and receiving song pack releases from its most dedicated fans. The game paved the way for pretty much every other open rhythm games like osu, Clone Hero, and Flash Flash Revolution.
While the Stepmania community did die down over time, their love of rhythm games persisted. Friday Night Funkin’ is the latest game to take the mechanics of DDR and give them a nostalgic-yet-fresh coat of paint, and with it a brand new audience and resurgence to popularity.
Friday Night Funkin’
Friday Night Funkin is a rhythm game that was originally created for the “Ludum Dare” bi-annual game jam. A game jam is a competition where game makers compete to create a game in a limited timeframe with additional thematic limitations put in place. For Ludum Dare 47, the theme was “Stuck in a Loop”. Rhythm and music games fit into this theme quite easily, with song looping being very common. The connection between the game in question and the theme is quite evident!
Soon after completing Ludum Dare, the team that developed Friday Night Funkin’ went on to polish and augment their game, eventually releasing it on Newgrounds and itch.io, and also on GitHub as an open-source game. Following the trend of indie games developed in 2020, by making the game free with the option to donate to the creators, the game blew up quite quickly.
Friday Night Funkin players control a nameless MC with blue hair, who competes in open-mic competitions with various characters. The player’s girlfriend sits peacefully on a boombox, nodding to the beat, as you confront her demonic parents (who also happen to be MCs) in a duet-style rhythm competition that controls like DDR, but as an abstraction of speech instead of dance.
The premise is built around comical and light-hearted fun that is compelling to players. And controlling a player character that is responsive to your button inputs, reminiscent of games like Paparappa the Rapper, gives an added layer of responsivity to the game.
The Driving Force of Nostalgia
The site Newgrounds, a staple for millennials back in the 90s to play Adobe Flash games, is seeing a resurgence by hosting and supporting the game. The game is written in HaxeFlixel, a 2D game engine that has roots in Flash games. There are clear influences from Newgrounds as well — one of the enemy characters in the game is Pico, one of Newgrounds’ mascots created by the site’s progenitor, Tom Fulp.
Indie games that show love to their nostalgic roots are typically held in high regard. With influences from nostalgic sources like DDR, Paparappa, Newgrounds, and of course 80s — 90s inspired funk and hip hop songs, Friday Night Funkin is the perfect love letter to the grown-up 90s kid without leaning too heavily on dated call-outs.
On top of this, the game aims to be more than a simple reskin of DDR, as the game equates the mechanic of pressing arrow keys to the character’s singing. The player takes turns with the opponent as dictated by the song’s cadence. The characters’ voices have a quality reminiscent of Vocaloid music, a musical phenomenon where Japanese Pop songs are sung by virtual pop stars. In this way, the gameplay feels familiar yet novel at the same time.
The tight coupling of the music, gameplay, and animation makes Friday Night Funkin’ feel good to play, drawing players back each time despite the relatively small musical selection.
The Mod Community Descends
While the game can be completed in a couple of short hours, the mod community around Friday Night Funkin’ has grown and begun adding their own content patches to keep the gameplay coming. It was a smart move to make the game open-source. Game developers and gamers are in a symbiotic relationship, and games that accept and encourage this to grow at a much faster rate. With a growing player base, the hype around Friday Night Funkin’ is bound to grow with time.
Unique indie game remakes have become popular over the last few years, and they seem here to stay. Thankfully for millennial and Gen X gamers, this means a resurgence of games we grew up playing!
What are some games that you would love to see reach peak popularity again? If you are interested in how game trends are changing over time, check out some of my other articles on the topic: