Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Top 50 Games - 10. Rock Band

Rock Band is not a masterpiece of narrative and character and literate ambition. It does not singularly challenge the ill-informed notion that games can never be art. It doesn't even present an intriguing new virtual realm for players to immerse themselves in. Rock Band is a music game. It's about grabbing a couple of friends and pantomiming real songs on fake plastic instruments while looking as silly as possible. It's the best music/rhythm game ever made and easily some of the most goddamn fun I've ever had playing a video game.
First, a brief history of the genre. In the late 90's there was a wacky Japanese arcade game called GuitarFreaks. Tethered to the cabinet were two odd guitar-shaped controllers used to play along to the J-Pop soundtrack by hitting the right scrolling colored note gem at the right time. There was also another Konami arcade game called DrumMania. The two cabinets could be linked together to simulate a full band experience. Harmonix, a company devoted not quite to video games but rather to new, digital ways of interacting with music, obviously took inspiration from the Bemani series. After developing the electronica-centric music rhythm games FreQuency and Amplitude, Harmonix took the template from GuitarFreaks and, with a much cooler soundtrack full of classic rock tracks, created a smash hit in Guitar Hero. The original and its sequel became some of the most recognized entertainment products in popular culture. Suddenly, the niche genre that was once the music game became blockbuster material, and the big publishers wanted in on the action. MTV Games acquired Harmonix while Activision bought Red Octane, makers of the plastic guitars and for some reason the guys that actually owned the rights to the Guitar Hero series. Tony Hawk developer Neversoft would continue to work on Guitar Hero until they and Activision milked the cash cow completely fucking dry in 2009. Harmonix had to make something to compete against the franchise they once created, the Guitar Hero name being much more deeply ingrained in the public consciousness than the developer's. The fruit of their labor was Rock Band, the definitive work of the best music game developer of all time.
In the game, your band is made up of a guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, and a singer (Harmonix also previously developed Karaoke Revolution). The guitar, bass, and vocal aspects were nothing new, (although their synergy was) but the implementation of the drums was something special. With four colored pads and a kick pedal, Rock Band's plastic kit was able to simulate real drumming way more closely than the five-buttoned Stratocaster replica could ever simulate playing a guitar. In my prior experience with Guitar Hero and its sequel, I found playing the guitar parts to be fun, but also a bit awkward and unsatisfactory. I was quickly drawn in to Rock Band's drums, as they were both new and more visceral. Teaming up with my friends and pounding the skins, I soon graduated from medium to expert difficulty, and was having a blast. I was almost convinced to start playing real drums, but although I never did, thanks to hours upon hours of Rock Band, my feel for rhythm has permanently improved.
I said that Rock Band doesn't present a fascinating new world to explore, and of course that's true, but it doesn't prevent the game from becoming a wonderful escapist fantasy. Before you begin rocking out, you and you buddies take turns making their own avatars using a robust and charming character creation system (unlike Guitar Hero's horrifying caricatures). You can pick out haircuts, beards, skin tones, clothes, and accessories. With cash earned from gigs you can return to the menu and spend it on even more ludicrous outfits and instruments. The band then gives themselves a name and a logo, and sets off onto the road in their lowly tour van. The whole rock star daydream presentation is very pleasant and addictive, making each song that you play an event rather than just the next track on a linear setlist.
Speaking of songs, the make-it-or-break-it of most music games is unsurprisingly the music. In this regard, Rock Band (and especially its polished sequel, which I count as just being Rock Band 2.0 and therefore included at #10) does not disappoint. Master tracks from Blue Oyster Cult, Boston, Bowie, The Clash, Nirvana, Radiohead, The Rolling Stones, The Strokes, The Who, and more make for good listening and playing. Singing along with the intensely soulful vocal in "Gimme Shelter," banging out the absolutely epic Keith Moon drum solo in "Won't Get Fooled Again"... They may not bring a tear to my eye or a shiver to my spine, but Rock Band memories like these I nonetheless treasure as much as any others.
Rock Band 3 promises to actually teach people how to play instruments, and it looks exciting (although it also looks horrifically expensive), but I have trouble imagining how things could get any better than the music game highs of 2007-2008. Gooood times.


  1. A tastefully crafted response to this alternative realm of gaming, Mr. Mendoza. With the addition of an intersting history (of which I was unaware)and sardonic nuances (directed mostly at Guitar Hero), this review is one of great meaning and insight, augmented by our friendly enjoyment of the game and comical bashing of songs such as Black Hole Sun, Rob The Prez-O-Dent, Still Alive, and many more. I agree fully with all you have asserted in your assessment, and I perceive your sentiments regarding Rock Band 3 intelligent. With this post as an archetype, I highly anticipate the remainder of the Top Tep as pieces of profound meaning and impeccable language manipulation.