Long before they got busy making their Guitar Heroes and their Rock Bands, Harmonix was already busy making innovative games based around music. I have fond memories of spending late nights - when I had work the next day - at my ex-girlfriend's house on her brother's Playstation 2 playing Frequency, almost 6 years ago, getting high and trying to beat each other's score on "Control Your Body" (which also introduced me to the New Wave band Freezepop).
I then got into the whole Guitar Hero craze when I got Guitar Hero II for the Xbox 360 a couple years back, though that faded away for me pretty quickly when my fingers starting falling off my hands. I liked the idea that people (especially kids) can have lots of fun playing video games, yet at the same time be exposed to culture that they might have missed otherwise (in this case classic American Rock) and become proficient at an interface other than a gamepad (ok, you can't compare the plastic guitar to a real one, but apparently the drums in Rock Band are a good simulation of a real drumset).
Another genre that I've always been fond of is the Puzzle / brainteaser category of games (although Sudoku is for yuppies and/or meat heads). I'm thinking more along the lines of Tetris / Lumines / etc. A friend of mine got me into Super Puzzle Fighter II a ways back, and while I didn't go apeshit over it like those crazy Japanese kids, I appreciated the mental workout that you get when you're playing. It's rather-well balanced and fun to play against a friend. In fact, one of the game designers involved with the project has a nice blog post about balancing the HD version here.
Enter April 2008. All the teenage kids are losing sleep waiting for Grand Theft Auto IV to be released, while the more refined-yet-casual crowd (me! ;) ) are patiently waiting for StarCraft II and Fallout III. (Blizzard, if you are listening... World Of Starcraft? Please???).
Then, totally out of left field, comes Audiosurf a highly-addictive puzzle-racing game where the tracks are generated to mimic music (MP3 and other formats) that you choose to "play" to. The best way that I can describe it is F-Zero meets Frequency meets Guitar Hero meets Puzzle Fighter meets an eerily accurate and mesmerizing music player visualization.
Actually, re-reading that, that's a terrible way to describe it.
You take control of a floating hovercraft-type vehicle (of which there are several, each with their own special abilities, from a 3rd person view, and race through a several-lane track populated with different-colored blocks that you must drive into to create clusters of different colors, with certain colors being worth more than others. The coolest part of it all is how each tracks is generated: by analyzing the music file you choose to play on, and building the track accordingly:
Audiosurf enhances the experience of the game by synchronizing the environment, traffic patterns and scenery with the events in the current song. Each music file imported to the game by the user is first analyzed by the game engine, and an ASH file (containing the dynamics of the sounds and how the track and blocks are arranged) associated to the music is created and saved (typically around 30 kilobytes). This helps speed up the loading time of future replays of the same sound file. The game loads the environment from the ASH files, with the track's elevation, surface and layout reflected in the dynamics of the music being played. For example, if a player were to choose to play a very soft and mellow song, the track would be uphill, very slow, relaxing and rich in cool colors. If a player were to choose a very intense and loud song, the track would be downhill, sped up, thick with traffic and lit up with hot colors.
It sounds simple - and it is. You're likely to quickly get sucked in for hours to a vicious circle of trying to beat your own high scores on your favorite songs, and them comparing your scores with the online leaderboard from other players all around the world.
The fact that the game is as varied as the amount of MP3s (or other audio formats) you have on your hard drive, the visuals are stunningly beautiful (there's a "cruise" mode which lets you just load a song without the blocks, to enjoy the scenery), and that each vehicle you can drive has different characteristics and features, make this one of the most replayable games I have every played.
Distributed through Valve's Steam digital distribution platform - which is rapidly becoming "iTunes for games", with all the good and bad that entails - Audiosurf is one of those rarest of games that I recommend to my non-gamer friends to "get their feet wet". While Audiosurf (and Steam, for that matter) are billed as "Windows Only", it runs rather well on Linux via Wine (both Gutsy and Hardy Ubuntu seems to be working OK, I can confirm). Of course, since it is distributed through Steam, that means that the Steam client also needs to work on Linux through Wine - which it does, almost perfectly.
Add to that the ability to change color scheme (I like the dark ones, obviously :) ), customizable sound effects and detail levels, and the ability to play at any resolution (I play at 1900x1200 - higher than HD - on my Dell M90 mobile workstation), the fact that it was developed mostly by a single guy and his friends and the ridiculously low $9.95 price becomes a no-brainer. Mac users are out of luck for now, though there are whisperings of a Mac version coming eventually.