Forget virtual guitars and plastic drum kits. A new breed of video games is set to turn wannabe DJs into superstar spinners. Toby Green reports

Before the hip-hop innovator Grandmaster Flash pioneered the modern art of DJing, the turntable was seen as nothing more than a device to play LPs. Wanted to use it at a party? Well, you'd have to wait between every song as the music stopped and the record was changed. But when Flash started to develop techniques such as cutting and back-spinning during the 1970s in his home in the Bronx, the record player was transformed into an instrument in its own right.

Now, more than three decades later, it is set to be the centrepiece of its own game, DJ Hero. A spin-off from the Guitar Hero music gaming series, players will use an actual turntable – or at least a controller shaped like one – that lets them become the superstar DJ behind the decks.

And no one is more excited than Flash. "This game could go in the hands of a kid in Brighton, or in California, or in Germany – wherever," he says. "It's wonderful, because 34 years ago I was in my bedroom just trying to do this thing [DJing], and just trying to get people to respect and recognise me as a musician."

The game's publishers, Activision, are hoping that DJ Hero, which will appear on the PlayStation2 and 3, the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox 360 in October, can provide similar success to the massively lucrative Guitar Hero, which gives rock fans the chance to play along to their favourite songs with the aid of a plastic guitar, drum kit and microphone. Selling over 25 million copies since the first game in the series was released in 2005, it – together with its rival, Rock Band, another multi-million selling series of titles – has become a cultural phenomenon, albeit a rock and indie based one.

To ensure that DJ Hero impresses the hip-hop crowd, its developer, FreeStyleGames, has brought in some of the biggest names in on the turntable rota, including DJ AM, DJ Z-Trip (both of whom contributed original mixes) and DJ Shadow, who has acted as an advisor during the game's creation.

And then there is Flash. When first approached to participate in the game, he was wary, but he says there were three things that convinced him. "What impressed me were the DJs they went after, the music in the game, and the calling of the techniques what they really are," he says. "Then I take it as a personal honour for them to say 'Flash, we can't pull this off without you, the inventor of the science.'"

Central to the popularity of both Guitar Hero and Rock Band is that they let people who wouldn't know the fretboard from the bridge feel like a rock god playing their favourite tracks, and DJ Hero aims to do the same with the turntable. "It feels like DJing," says Flash. "You can see the techniques – everything you do, you have to use the turntable."

This is something that the developers have been working towards. "What we've tried to achieve with DJ Hero is to create something that's authentic. If you are a DJ and have those skills you will be able to access the game really quickly," says Chris Lee, a director at FreeStyleGames. "However, we've also made something that's accessible. If you're intimidated by this huge configuration of vinyl and digital equipment, we have distilled that into something that you really just want to get your hands on and start playing."

But DJ Hero isn't the only upcoming title offering gamers the chance to get behind the virtual decks. Armin van Buuren – In The Mix, endorsed by the Dutch DJ, is set to be released this autumn on the Wii, and interestingly it won't only offer "career" and "party" modes, but also promises to let you create your own tracks. Another title set to hit the stores this year is Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, to appear on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox. Like DJ Hero, it will come with a turntable-controller, but with an extra level of authenticity, being made by the famous DJ brand, Numark, and it has been developed with the help of Quincy Jones.

Dance music in games is not something new, however, with the genre having an illustrious pedigree. Konami's Beatmania rhythm game which launched in 1997 is undoubtedly the granddaddy of turntable titles such as DJ Hero and Scratch. Most memorable, though, is the way that Sony combined dance music and video-gaming with the creation of its PlayStation console in 1995. "Real" music – proper tracks rather than specially created in-game muzak – were beginning to be used in console games, and by tying in the launch with the popular clubbing scene at the time, the Japanese company managed to capitalise on the BPM-driven zeitgeist.

One memorable example of this was the racing game Wipeout, which matched impressive graphics and futuristic racing gameplay with a soundtrack featuring major acts such as Leftfield and The Chemical Brothers. The result, according to Tim Ingham, online editor of the gaming magazine MCV, was that video games suddenly appealed to a wider demographic.

"Today, the games industry is thanking Nintendo for successfully pushing its products to families," says Ingham. "But if you go back to the mid 1990s, Sony and its PlayStation marketing did even more for the shift in the way games were perceived. All of a sudden, games went from being the preserve of geeks and nerds to appearing in the hands of football-loving, beer-swilling, Loaded-reading lads."

Ingham believes that guitar music is currently dominating other genres of music in games, but that's because video-game developers are mirroring music tastes: "You're much more likely to hear Kasabian on a game's soundtrack than some obscure trance DJ, but that's just symptomatic of the tastes of mid-20s, cash-rich men. As the popularity of the 1990s dance music lifestyle gave way to the resurgence in live music and stadium-conquering indie, so too did games companies' desire to attach their products to it."

The developers of DJ Hero are keen not to limit their game to one set of music fans, however, with Lewis saying that it was "an opportunity for us to open up even more genres than just dance" – as well, no doubt, as making as much money from as many different music fans as possible. With mash-ups (two songs blended together so that each is still recognisable) created especially for the game, including David Bowie vs KRS-One and Nirvana vs Rick James, it looks likely that DJ Hero and its ilk will do just that.

As for Flash, he hopes that the game will restore some recognition for the role of the DJ. "The DJ is why hip-hop exists. If you're into rock, people understand that [the guitarist's] instrument is a guitar and how he plays it. If you're into classical, you understand what a Stradivarius is. If you're into jazz, you know that the horns are very, very important. If you're into hip-hop, then the turntable is very important, and now you can see how we do it. It's wonderful, quite wonderful."

Boogie wonderland: Pioneering music games

Wipeout

With its up-to-the-minute design and anti-gravity action, Wipeout felt ahead of its time when it launched in 1995, but this was consolidated by its hip soundtrack. As well as numerous sequels, there was even a spin-off album – not something you often see from video games – that included tracks from The Prodigy, Daft Punk and Leftfield.

Ridge Racer

Another driving game that was released at the PlayStation's launch, this conversion of the arcade standard not only featured a great dance soundtrack but also let you insert your own CD in the PlayStation after the game had loaded so you could choose the tunes to accompany play.

Beatmania

Giving players the chance to take the role of a club DJ, 1997's Beatmania spawned a slew of sequels and was a success both in arcades and as a console title. It came with a turntable-style controller, a precursor to the seemingly endless peripherals that now come as standard with any music game.

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