The great thing about pop music is that everyone listens to it, whether they actually like it or not. There's virtually no gateway to accessibility; there's no lexicon of taste or knowledge you need for it. It's often catchy. The songs are short, n' sweet. The reasons go on and on as to why millions across the world listen to pop music. And there's so much of it, even as genres blend and the term "pop" has grown more nebulous overtime.
In my review of Splatoon 2, I noted that the fashionable squid kids are always the first thing to appear in my mind when I think of pop music and games. I envision the inklings kicking back in Inkopolis Square, dusting ink off their oversized sneakers while listening to Charli XCX or something equally in-your-face cool. That feeling cemented after I recently read writer James Davenport's manifesto, "The most metal PC games," over on PC Gamer. At first I thought, "fuck, I've kinda always wanted to write something like that." But then I thought better: "I'll just do it with pop music instead."
So here's my response. Or companion piece. Or standalone piece. Whatever you want to attribute it as. These are the most pop games—not the best, nor the most fun—but single handedly the poppiest. The ones that are bound to put a smile on your face, or a grimace.
Companion album: Memories… Do Not Open by The Chainsmokers
People who play Candy Crush and don't abhor it probably listen to the worst kind of pop music in secret: frat boy EDM like The Chainsmokers, stale uninspired pop like Justin Bieber, and uh, I could go on. Candy Crush is a game that everyone has played, for better or for worse. I don't need to explain it to you. (There's candy, you know this.) I don't think anyone loves it; they play it out of compulsion. It's just there. It appeared on your phone one day, and you can't bring yourself to take it off. "It's no Angry Birds, but it's okay," my nana once explained to me. It's a simple game with easy accessibility (it's not complicated, it's on your phone) and a colorful interface to boot. Very pop. But it's boring pop. It's pop you'll hear on your hometown radio station (shouts out to KKIQ). So, pop in the bad way, I suppose.
Dance Dance Revolution
Companion album: Starboy by The Weeknd
I have quickly dropping arrows painted into my memory from the years I used to play Dance Dance Revolution every day. When I think of the dancing series, fancy footwork and pop music are the first things to come to mind. I think of its music outside of the realm of pop too: house, polka, hip-hop, alternative, other bullshit. Dance Dance Revolution as a series, as an entity, has always been a celebration of anything you can shimmy to, but its heart has always lain in pop. J-Pop and K-Pop primarily, but pop nonetheless. I'll never forget that one time I mastered Captain Jack on Heavy, a song that transcends the restraints of genres into a god-like tier of pop.
Fantasy Zone 2: The Tears of Opa-Opa
Companion album: E•MO•TION by Carly Rae Jepsen
Fantasy Zone 2, like Carly Rae Jepsen's E•MO•TION, has ulterior motives beneath the surface. Fantasy Zone 2 secretly tells a tale of deep-rooted daddy issues, while Carly Rae Jepsen's E•MO•TION spins the narrative of Jepsen being the greatest pop song writer in the world. It's wild, I know. Sure, when you play Fantasy Zone 2 and hear its samba-inspired soundtrack, Carly Rae Jepsen might be the last thing you actually think of, but the two share the same spirit: something delectably retro, but lively and modern all the same. Fantasy Zone 2 may not sound like pop music, but its repetitive shooting, astounding bosses, and pastel worlds imprint on your brain for infinity, like what werewolves allegedly do or whatever.
Jet Set Radio
Companion album: HER by Block B
Jet Set Radio did the fucking impossible: it made rollerblading seem cool. In a world where skateboarding was the extreme sport of choice all across the world and Tony Hawk games dominated everyone's PlayStations, Jet Set Radio blew them all away. It was a neon reimagining of Tokyo, from Shibuya to Kogane. It was a different kind of Tokyo: one where nearly every wall, every billboard was now a canvas for your spray can. It was anarchic in the most innocent way possible—the most menacing thing in the entire game was a cop who shot literal bullets at you just for graffiti—but it was also alive with the promise of pop. For once, the kids were all right.
Companion album: Rice & Snow by Negicco
I feel the cosmos when I play Katamari Damacy. It's a surprisingly dense game, even when your lone goal is to roll things up into a ball. It's the type of game to make you think of all the little things in life, from cows to telephones, and their role in society. When a cow is bundled along with other litter, I think, "I'll eat that cow one day, probably when it's slaughtered into an In N Out burger or something." Then I roll the boulder into a rotary phone, and wonder who even has home phone lines anymore. Katamari Damacy is hard to play without the smallest smile on your face, even if you were feeling down moments prior to seeing the King of Cosmos drunkenly knock out all the stars in the sky. I salute Katamari Damacy, for being the most pop game in existence: it's silly, fun, self-aware, and has no interest in making you trudge through video game garbage to enjoy yourself. Instead, you roll through literal garbage. It's a game anyone can play, understand immediately, and fall in love with. Just roll along, little katamari. Na na na na na.
League of Legends
Companion album: The Red by Red Velvet
I have League of Legends downloaded on my computer, but I've always been so intimidated by it. It's a MOBA (already scary) and it has about 100 million monthly active users, meaning I'm already way behind. I recently dipped my toes into MOBAs earlier this year, and playing League of Legends one day is now inevitable. (In other words: All my esports writer friends play it, so why not me?) I don't know what makes it pop, aside from the fact that the entire world plays it except for me. So in that case: it's hella pop. League of Legends is also a mainstay for esports, where K-Pop and esports often collide, like this upcoming music festival-League of Legends competition this summer.
Companion album: CRUSH by 2NE1
I imagine D.Va's a big CL fan. She probably blasts "MTBD" or "Hello Bitches" to hype herself up before a Starcraft competition. Or maybe it's what plays in the confines of her bubblegum pink meka (we don't know what goes on in there, honestly, we just know she harbors snacks). Overwatch is only one-year old, but it's already drawn millions of fans worldwide. Players who are enticed by its liveliness, its diversity, its polished take on the team-based shooter genre. Overwatch wants to be the game for every type of person who plays games: whether you're into Call of Duty or DJ Hero, there's likely a character for you to cling to and master. Overwatch is a game for everyone. If it were music, it would be carefully engineered for the Billboard Top 100.
Companion album: ANTI by Rihanna
The Sims is another game that has extended its reach far and wide, much like Overwatch and Candy Crush. The Sims is a life simulator, where you build, create, and mold the lives of virtual beings. You live out fantasies, like marrying your celebrity crush. At its simplest description, it's an interactive dollhouse for people to bring their once stagnant dreams to life. When I think about it, I've been playing The Sims all my life. Like way back in my N*Sync and Britney Spears days, when I played with toys like a Sonic the Hedgehog plush. Except in The Sims, you can have your Sim die and become a ghost, which is dope.
Companion album: pamyupamyurevolution by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
I namedropped Kyary Pamyu Pamyu in my review of Splatoon 2 too, but whatever. The same still applies here. No musician reminds me of a game more: they're both hypercolorful, stylish, all while taking risks and being unabashedly weird. A decade ago, Nintendo wouldn't have touched something like Splatoon. Now, it's arguably one of Nintendo's most recognizable properties. With Splatoon, Nintendo finally entered the modern age (except for when it comes to their online services, which, yikes).
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE
Companion album: Game by Perfume
This feels like cheating. Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is a game about pop music. All its stars are pop idols (save for your boring male insert hero who is a back-up dancer; the emotional support for all your pop idol pals; a shoulder to cry on; yada yada yada). Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE captures pop music beyond its cutscene concert interludes though. It navigates the inner workings of what being a pop star in Japan is like, and all the emotional baggage and complications that are inherent with the career and lifestyle. It's also a bright imagining of Shibuya, where background silhouettes are neon colors, and pop music overlays the neighborhood supercenter. Tokyo Mirage Sessions knows that Shibuya is both the starting and end point for all J-Pop, and it exemplifies that truth in bringing the music to life, and adding depth to it too. It's the most upbeat imagining of the Shin Megami Tensei JRPG formula since Persona 4. It also has shameless Fire Emblem fan service, if that's your thing.
The World Ends With You
Companion album: FRIENDS by Sugar's Campaign
The World Ends With You is maybe the most 2007 game in existence. From its fashion to its cell phones, it was the rare JRPG that was so emblematic of its time, like how Persona 5 is for today in its incessant ties to the internet, smartphones, and Japanese society. Pop music often reflects on itself, like the boy band saturation of the late 1990s. Nowadays pop is saturated with Lorde wannabes and tepid EDM, where bands like Coldplay have shifted their sounds entirely to match the climate of today's EDM-heavy pop music. The World Ends With You is almost like its developers peaked out their office window for the first time and said, "hey, what if we just made a JRPG that's sorta about Japan today?" Then the room emphatically nodded, and the game was born.