The Rhythm Game Genre
On PC rhythm games have long since contended with wave shooters and archery titles in a battle to be the most popular, some might argue derivative genre in virtual reality. Barely a week goes by without at least one game from these genres appearing. Even Beat Saber itself was hardly an original project, building as it did upon the success of earlier hits like Audioshield and Sound Boxing.
However Beat Saber’s overall polish, married to a stellar soundtrack and immensely fun lightsaber-wielding gameplay hook elevated the rhythm game genre to new heights and spawned an army of imitators.
In fact, you could easily make the case that the single biggest reason the Quest has sold so well, is that tens of thousands of non PC owning consumers wanted to play Beat Saber.
Which makes it all the more surprising just how few rhythm games have actually been released on the Oculus Quest so far. Dance Central has you explicitly mirroring the choreographed moves of a host of cartoonized dancers but in look and feel it has very little in common with anything else in the rhythm genre, whilst BoxVR may look like a rhythm game but plays more like a structured boxercise class.
Well, finally Quest rhythm fanatics can get their groove on to a genuine Beat Saber alternative in the form of Synth Riders. It was a surprise to me when I learned the game actually released in early access on PC way back in early 2018, and that it had somehow passed me by. Looking at the rather paltry number of reviews of the game on Steam and the Oculus store it seems most other gamers missed it too. One who didn’t was my fellow VRFI contributor Richard Bashura who gave the PC version of the game a highly positive review, which you can read here.
Now having played the game myself I wholeheartedly support Richard’s endorsement and am delighted Synth Rider’s release on to the Quest has considerably broadened its audience. In fact, as I write this Synth Riders has in one week since launch already racked in almost as many reviews on the Quest store as it has on both the PC Oculus and Steam stores combined!
Clearly Questors are wanting to take advantage of the freedom of mobile, standalone virtual reality to play untethered high movement games, and Synth Riders perfectly fits that bill.
Richard’s review was of an early access version of the game, however, it still accurately reflects both its fitness potential and core game content so in this article, I will focus on the Quest port and the additional features and songs added into the final release on both PC and mobile.
Synth Riders Game Premise
Synth Riders is a musical cyberpunk surf ride through a variety of bizarre, Tron like environments featuring mountains, pyramids, and futuristic Blade Runner style cityscapes. You stand upon a giant surfboard and literally ride the synth waves. The developers call this their rail riding system and that’s a good description of how it feels.
Like Beat Saber, the gameplay mechanic is incredibly simple and immediately intuitive. You hold in your hands blue and pink balls, which you must use to hit the correspondingly colored musical notes, which fly towards you as you ride through the levels at speed. There are also green notes that you can touch with either hand, although once you’ve made your choice you must stick with that hand through the sequence and yellow notes which you must touch with both hands. These moments, hands outstretched as if holding on to the notes definitely capture the rail ride feel.
As the name suggests, the music is mostly synthesizer electropop, a genre that flourished back in the ’80s and is apparently experiencing something of a revival in the 21st century. I didn’t recognize any of the artists present in the game but have to say I loved the soundtrack. It’s high tempo, a bit cheesy and very upbeat. Visually the neon lights and lasers ensure you’ll receive plenty of optical as well as aural stimulation, the game is a sensory delight. There are also some harder rock tracks later on that provide musical variety.
On the standard game mode, the movements are a lot less physically demanding than Beat Saber or BoxVR. Rather than hitting orbs or slicing blocks you’re merely holding your hands out and allowing them to glide through the notes to the rhythm of the music. Once you’ve completed a few songs it starts to feel more natural, and whereas as BoxVR feels like boxing, and Beat Saber drumming, this feels more like swaying and dancing through a trance-like metaverse.
Of course, dancing is one of the most primal things a person can do, and has been appreciated by all cultures throughout human history. Therefore it’s not surprising that this game can become hypnotically engaging.
Just how engaging is amply demonstrated through the results of my ‘thirty-minute’ playtest below.
As you can see I actually played for just over twice as long, a 63-minute session that flew by so quickly I simply forgot to check my watch!
Like Beat Saber, this game’s movement mechanics instantly hook and yet it provides a very different experience to that game. It feels a lot more trance-like, as you ride the rails of long chains of musical notes that all linked together look like they belong in the classic video game Snake. Indeed the simple low poly visuals made me feel I was part of a rave inside a 16-bit computer.
Of course, good rhythm games rely upon good tracking and beat mapping and both are excellent in Synth Riders. I never felt as if musical notes were unnaturally placed or out of sync to the song, and I never had any tracking or hit detection issues whatsoever.
In addition to the normal mode, Synth Riders has a force mode designed for harder workouts, in which you must punch the musical notes with enough force to register a hit. This dynamic changes the feel of the game quite a bit. It’s a great additional option that adds replayability, which was already high, considering the 31 songs at launch, and multiple difficulties.
To further solidify the game as a genuine fitness tool developer Kruge Interactive has incorporated native support for the YUR calorie tracker on PC. For Quest users, you can install YUR manually through SideQuest.
Synth Riders is currently a single-player only experience, although you can compete for high scores via the global leaderboards. In a piece of welcome news from the developers however they state that multiplayer is firmly on the road map for a future update so those wanting to compete directly with their friends should soon be able to.
The only thing that took me out of the experience at all was the rather long delays between songs. Upon completion of a musical track the screen fades to black, then shows a scoreboard which counts up from zero until it shows your final score total. You then have to hit exit, and wait whilst the screen fades to black again before taking you back to the menu to select the next song. I don’t want to overstate this, it’s not a huge wait several seconds at most, but compared to Beat Saber it seemed like a slight drag.
It’s also worth noting that standing on a moving platform in VR may induce motion sickness in some users. I played for over an hour and didn’t have any problems at all, but my editor had quite a negative reaction, feeling sick within several minutes. I consider myself moderately susceptible to nausea in VR. I am fine with things moving forwards as in this game, but smooth turning or games that use head tracking to steer can leave me feeling queasy. In my editor’s case, he was playing on Quest, and it’s possible it might have been the lower 72hz refresh rate of that headset that exacerbated it. If you do feel sick from the movement you can disable it in the settings and instead play with a static background.
Quest vs PC
Comparing the mobile Quest version to the PC I was surprised at how much better the game looked on my Rift S. Not only was it so much sharper, but texture detail and dynamic lighting were all much improved. That said my Rift S cord always tugs irritatingly in use and despite the visual drop, I preferred to sacrifice graphical quality for total freedom of movement, and chose to play on my Quest.
If you have a PC and Quest this game supports crossbuy so buying for one Oculus headset gives you the other platform free of charge. If you have a Quest and a non-Oculus PC headset then I’d say if you prize graphics over portability get the Steam version.
It’s also worth noting that there is a custom beat mapper for Synth Riders on Steam so custom song modders might prefer to invest in the PC version.
Final Release Build
For existing owners of the game wondering what’s new in the final release build, the developers list the following;
– A new stage called “The Monolith”
– Graphic improvements in all the stages
– Dynamic lights improvements
– Performance improvements
A new music pack with 5 songs from Ninety9 Lives:
- “Underdog” by Kastra
- “Paris Night Walk” by Roy
- “Id” by Ben Lepper
- “Spectrum” by Axtasia
- “Outburst” by Never Modern Talk
New song over the FIXT Essentials Vol 1 Music Pack:
- “Into the Void” by Celldweller (Exclusive early release)
- “L.O.V.E.” by PRIZM
- “All Night” by PRIZM
- “Phoenix” by Scandroid
If you’re an Oculus Quest owner who likes rhythm games this is an essential purchase. It’s great fun and sufficiently different from Beat Saber to warrant playing. I expect this will be on my playlist for a long time to come.
If you’re a PC user who missed this when it launched last year and the buzz of the Quest release has pricked your ears, then I’d also recommend checking it out. It looks a lot prettier on PC and with custom beat mapping and the higher refresh rates of a PC headset the game looks, sounds and plays amazingly.
For people looking for active fitness games in VR with hours and hours of replayability, Synth Riders is without a doubt one to add to the list.
Synth Riders costs $19.99 or £14.99 and is available on the Oculus Store for Rift and Quest, and on Steam for all PC VR headsets.