Rock Band

Developer: Harmonix
U.S. Publisher: MTV Games
U.S. Release: October, 2007
Platform: Xbox 360/PlayStation 3

Games | Xbox 360 | Rock Band series

Article by Michael Ayles | October 22, 2009

Iím not going to mince words here: Rock Band is, quite simply, the best videogame ever made. This probably seems counterintuitive on the surface; after all, here you are reading an ordered list of the best games ever and there are still another 80 pages to go. We shouldnít have reached the end yet! But the simple fact remains that Rock Band -- and by Rock Band, Iím actually referring the original game and its sequel as a single entity -- is the pinnacle of game design, the high water mark to which others can only aspire. But to really understand what makes it so special, a little bit of perspective is necessary. So letís start with a history lesson.

One day, near the tail end of the '90s, I walked into my local arcade and was greeted by an unusual sight. A new game had been installed, one that didnít blend in with the masses of light-gun shooters, racers, and fighting games that were already becoming the norm in North American arcades. Sandwiched between Time Crisis 2 and Rival Schools was something entirely different: an arcade cabinet with two tiny plastic guitars attached to it. If you werenít there 10 years ago, youíll have to take it from me when I say that this was possibly the most ridiculous thing anyone had ever seen in an arcade, eclipsing even such luminaries as Sega Bass Fishing and that game where you had to play Qix to uncover lingerie models. The game was called GuitarFreaks, and its mixture of J-pop music and candy-colored images made it something of an odd duck in the context of my local arcade.

When I finally worked up the courage to drop a couple of tokens into the cabinet and strap on the silly toy guitar, I was amazed to find myself having a great time. Despite the patently ridiculous nature of the game and the tracklist full of music I would never listen to in any other context, it was actually pretty fun to match the descending gems to the three colored buttons and strum in time with the music. It seemed pretty ridiculous that you were asked to swing the guitar up into a vertical position at certain moments in the song, almost as though you were "rocking out," but a pretty good time could be had playing Guitar Freaks -- assuming you weren't too concerned about looking like a total idiot in front of whoever was watching you play.

A few years later, I stumbled on an arcade in Vancouver that had an even better surprise waiting for me. Being on the west coast, they had a broader selection of Japanese arcade cabinets, including the holy grail: a newer version of GuitarFreaks that hooked up to the neighboring DrumMania cabinet. If the idea of strumming a fake guitar in GuitarFreaks had perplexed me, the concept of networked arcade cabinets that let you play in a 3-piece-band with two guitars and drums blew my mind. These so-called Bemani games were already fun when played alone; collaborating with two other players to work on a single song sounded like the most fun thing imaginable [1].

Looking back on these experiences, itís quite obvious that Rock Band wouldnít exist if it werenít for Konamiís Bemani series, which laid down the fundamentals for its gameplay almost 10 years ago. On the surface, they are nearly identical: up to three players with fake plastic instruments follow along to a music track by strumming or hitting their instruments as colored gems cross a line at the bottom of the screen. Get the notes right and the song sounds the way itís supposed to; get too many wrong and your energy level drops until you fail out of the song. Admittedly, Rock Bandís grafting of a karaoke game on top of the proceedings was something novel, but considering that the vocal mechanics were lifted straight out of Karaoke Revolution [2], itís not like Harmonix deserves a medal for innovation. No, without a bit of context, Rock Band seems to be nothing more than an American knock-off version of the Bemani series. As it turns out, however, the context is quite important in this case, and Rock Band wound up being much more than a quick and dirty cash-in. The reason why rests with the gameís developer: Harmonix wasnít just an average studio, and this wasnít their first time at the rodeo.

Founded by a bunch of MIT music nerds, Harmonix was a studio that took music games very seriously. Their first major game release was an incredibly innovative title for the PlayStation 2 called FreQuency. Like the Bemani games, it too relied on the concept of playing music by matching colored gems, although this was done entirely with the DualShock 2 controller rather than some peripheral device. What made FreQuency special was that the player wasnít simply recreating a song through their button pressesóthey were remixing it. Each instrument in song was mapped onto one of 8 channels that formed an octagonal tunnel that scrolled, Tempest-style, toward the player. By hopping from track to track and activating (or failing to activate) the various instruments, the player was essentially creating a real-time remix of the song being played. It was a fascinating system, and one that probably deserves to be discussed at length in its own article, but for now it serves to illustrate one thing: that Harmonix was company that spent a lot of time thinking about how people could interact with music through games.

A few years after FreQuency (and its direct sequel, Amplitude), Harmonix developed a game that needs no introduction: Guitar Hero. Appearing at first to be a simple clone of the GuitarFreaks games, Guitar Hero surprised everyone by becoming a smash hit, selling more than a million copies and becoming a cultural phenomenon [3]. It managed to capture the attention of western audiences in a way that Konamiís games never did: Through a combination of deeper gameplay (increasing the number of fret buttons from three to five, plus the addition of mechanics like Star Power and hammer-ons) and a soundtrack full of familiar guitar anthems rather than unknown J-pop instrumentals. Guitar Hero was followed by Guitar Hero II, which was essentially a more polished version of the game that also made the jump to the current generation of consoles through an enhanced Xbox 360 port. The series continued to be extremely successful, both critically and commercially, eventually attracting the attention of MTV Games and Activision. Both companies wanted a piece of the pie, and each made its move: Activision bought Red Octane (the company that provided Guitar Heroís fake plastic Gibson SG guitars and which owned the rights to the series) and MTV Games acquired Harmonix themselves (with a little help from corporate parent Viacomís bank accounts). Nothing speaks more highly for the importance of the Guitar Hero series in 2007 than the costs of these transactions: Red Octane sold for a whopping $100 million, and Harmonix somehow managed to best even that, going for $175 million.

This breakup was a major milestone in the history of music games, and without it Rock Band probably wouldnít have gone on to become the game that it was. By splitting up with Red Octane and leaving behind the Guitar Hero name, Harmonix had literally created their own worst enemy. Whatever their next project was, it would have to go up against an established brand that was already known by millions to be the best music game series in town. It was going to be an uphill battle for Harmonix to recapture the mindshare that Activision had bought from them, and if they wanted to stand any chance of success, they were going to need something big.

In October 2007, Neversoft [4] fired the opening salvo in what would eventually become the war for Americaís living rooms (and closets) by releasing Guitar Hero III, which was essentially Guitar Hero II with a few minor changes. Foremost among them was the music itself: whereas the soundtracks in the previous Guitar Hero games had consisted almost entirely of cover songs, 2/3 of the songs in the third game were taken from the original master recordings. As an added bonus, all of the female characters in the game were turned into disturbing, hyper-sexualized caricatures of their former selves. Understandably, the game sold like hotcakes, becoming a commercial juggernaut that eventually grossed more than a billion dollars in sales. But while Guitar Hero III was long on profitability, it was short on innovation. It also suffered from some technical problems like an unstable framerate (a major faux pas for a rhythm game) and a difficulty curve that started at "hard" and topped out somewhere around "extreme sadism." While the game reached a level of popularity that was almost unheard of, it was clumsier and less accessible than the prior games in the series had been.

One month later, Rock Band was released and, with it, Harmonixís strategy for taking on the 800-pound gorilla of the music game world was unleashed. Rock Band was designed, from the ground up, to take the fundamental concepts of Guitar Hero and improve upon them in every conceivable way. It upped the ante across the board, upgrading everything from the user interface to the mastering quality of the gameís tracks. Both in terms of content and in magnitude of the changes it made compared to the previous generation of rhythm games, Rock Band was huge. To start with, there was the box: Rock Band came packaged in a box that was the biggest thing anyone had seen since Steel Battalion. Not surprising, really, since crammed inside of it was the game, a USB microphone, a plastic guitar controller and an electronic drum kit. Unpacking and setting up all of these devices can take the better part of an hour, not to mention most of an average living room. In terms of its footprint alone, Rock Band was already a good deal bigger than any of its forebears.

Once everything is set up and the game is put into the console, the next step is for each player to create their stage persona. While Guitar Hero featured a slew of rock-and-roll stereotypes that could take the stage for you, Rock Band came with a character generator that was practically a game in and of itself. Avatars could be customized to an impressive extent, with everything from height and skin tone to hairstyle and piercings being user-selectable. The character creator even allowed for the creation of custom tattoos and T-shirt artwork, encouraging more creative players to go hog wild with their customization. The resulting creations almost have the look of claymation characters, expressive and vaguely wholesomeóa far cry from Guitar Hero IIIís brooding harlots.

As fun as it is to sculpt virtual rock stars, though, the real action begins when they take the stage. Itís at this point that the strength of the visuals becomes evident: Rock Band raised the bar for animations in a rhythm game so far that it still hasnít budged in the two years since the game was released [5]. The Guitar Hero games had acclimated players watching a group of four discrete musicians, each of whom had a fairly limited set of animations. Rock Band, on the other hand, pulled out all the stops. Characters had a wealth of animations for each of the available instruments: Guitarists strutted and kicked, singers had proper lip-synching (when they werenít stage diving) and drummers pantomimed their parts with much greater fidelity than had ever been seen before. Furthermore, the musicians actually interacted with each other in ways that would bring a smile to all but the most jaded players. Seeing the guitarist and bassist leaning back to join in on the chorus with the singer was impressive in its own right, but choreographed punches that had everyone leaping into the air at once or slowly advancing to the fore of the stage in sync were simply a delight to behold.

An immense amount of time was clearly invested in giving the game its visual polish, but look past the gloss and you will find that improvements to the visual design were also made in a crucial, but less obvious, place: the interface itself. A four-player session of Rock Band has to convey a huge amount of information to the players in the form of note charts, scores, multipliers, overdrive meters and each playerís remaining life. To cope with this, an extremely efficient interface was designed to help players find what they needed in the middle of the action. To cut down on the visual clutter, the background art on the note charts was removed, leaving a simple black base. The round note gems of Guitar Hero were replaced with thin rectangles, reducing the ambiguity in the strum timing. Each playerís overdrive meter and combo multiplier lies conveniently at the bottom of their note track, available for consultation with a quick glance. The cumulative effect of these changes is that it became easier for players to see what they need to see in the thick of the action.

Of course, while good graphics and strong visual design are always appreciated, a music game is only as good as its soundtrackóif the songs donít interest the player, then they probably wonít have much fun playing along to them. Here, more than anywhere, Rock Band excels in a way that other games can only dream of. While the selection of music on disc does feature some bonafide classics -- "Highway Star," "Donít Fear the Reaper," and "Gimme Shelter" to name a few -- the real appeal lies in the extensibility of the song selection. Ever since its release, Rock Band has seen a steady stream of downloadable music available for purchase, with new tracks added every week like clockwork. The initial rate of three new songs a week was already unprecedented when the game was first released, but since then production has ramped up to the point where songs are often released ten at a time. There are now well over 500 songs available for download in such disparate genres as death metal, country music and geek-rock, allowing players to customize their setlists however they want.

Having this many songs to choose from takes a feature that could be a nice perk and makes it central to the experience of the game. Long-time Rock Band players can easily have more downloaded tracks than music from the game disc, and many people will play their add-on songs almost exclusively. This has the twofold effect: on the one hand, you can plan the perfect '80s theme night with tracks by Janeís Addiction and MŲtley CrŁe; and on the other, you can use your DLC to avoid ever having to play "Visions" again. So itís a win-win situation all around.

All these available tracks did highlight one problem with the original game, however: The World Tour mode in Rock Band didnít make optimal use of downloaded songs, since the majority of challenges were based around the songs on the disc. This, as well as a number of other little quibbles that players had about the first game, was addressed when the sequel arrived a scant 10 months later. I mentioned at the beginning of this article that the term ďRock BandĒ can be used as a general term for describing anything to do with either the original game or its sequel; thatís because Rock Band 2 is more of a combined patch/expansion pack than an actual follow-up to the first game. For the most part, the sequel was just more of the same, adding new venues, additional character customization options and, of course, a slew of new songs. But what really gels the two games together is the fact that the tracks from the first game can, for a small fee, be exported to your consoleís hard drive, giving you access to both setlists from within Rock Band 2. The sequel also adds some essential multiplayer features, such as the ability to play the gameís World Tour mode online, but otherwise itís such a direct continuation of the first game that it becomes difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

So the combined game that is Rock Band looks great, plays great and has an extensive soundtrack, but how does that make it the best game ever created? There are certainly prettier games out there, and its selection of songs is easily trumped by fare like Audiosurf and Vib-Ribbon. Well, it turns out that the real secret to Rock Bandís greatness isnít the bullet-point list of features found on the back of the box, but rather its broad appeal. Everyone likes Rock Band -- or at least, everyone who likes popular music does. The charming visual style is disarming enough that it doesnít scare away parents or girlfriends the way that a Gears of War or Metal Gear Solid might. The core gameplay mechanics are simple enough that your 6-year-old niece or your 60-year-old father-in-law can get in on the action and probably start passing songs on Easy within a few tries. At the same time, itís challenging enough that hardcore rhythm game aficionados can spend weeks practicing the drums in "Panic Attack" or the guitar in "Bodhisattva," striving for that elusive perfect run on Expert (which they will subsequently post to YouTube).

Rock Band is also the ultimate party game, with four-player sessions often taking on a life of their own and lasting well into the wee hours. Tightly focused groups of expert players can spend hours charting their way through a single song, looking for the best times to use overdrive in order to maximize their total score. More frequently, drunken groups of friends will spend the night passing the mic around or flailing away at the drums ineptly, putting more effort into their rock and roll moves than their playing. Rock Band 2 lends itself particularly well to riotous incompetence thanks to the addition of No Fail Mode, an ingenious invention that keeps the game going no matter how badly the players are faring. On the other hand, an experienced player can take up the challenge of keeping a group of neophytes alive for the duration of a song through well-timed use of their overdrive meter. And if there isnít anyone else around to play with, you can always set up a mic stand, grab a guitar and pretend that youíre Neil Young or Bob Dylan.

Rock Band is a truly exceptional game. With strong visuals, rock-solid mechanics and an expansive soundtrack, it can be as loose or as technical as the player wants it to be. Its social aspects have attracted people who ordinarily wouldnít give a videogame the time of day, yet the solo play is compelling enough to hook hardcore players for months on end. And while other games may be able to surpass it in terms or ambiance or storytelling, no other videogame allows you to pretend you are Neil Peart while playing through the entirety of Rushís Moving Pictures. If thatís not incontrovertible proof that Rock Band is the single greatest videogame ever created, then I donít know what is.


[1] Sounded like, I say, since I never had the opportunity to play the games in a group and had to settle for failing out of bottom-tier DrumMania tracks by myself.

[2] Another Bemani game that Harmonix actually developed for Konami.

[3] How big of a phenomenon? Not only has Guitar Hero been the subject of an episode of South Park, but it has actually become common to see karaoke bars that host Guitar Hero nights where punters get up on stage and flail away to "Freebird" and, uh, "Cliffs of Dover."

[4] Yes, Neversoft. The Tony Hawk people.

[5] The one contender for the title of ďbest animationĒ is Guitar Hero: Metallica, for which an entire concert was motion captured in-studio by the band. The results are quite impressive, but can only be applied to the songs that they were captured for, unlike the more modular systems used in Rock Band and the other recent Guitar Hero games.

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