Almost two years since the supposed death of the plastic instrument rhythm game genre, Harmonix has announced they will be coming back to consoles and living rooms everywhere with Rock Band 4. What was once a dormant, but passionate fanbase has come out of hibernation to celebrate the return of rock and inspirational gameplay that introduced a generation of kids to music. The joyous days of buying downloadable content, playing custom tracks, and getting 100% on every song have returned. Just like the phoenix, they have risen again.
The Rock Band series is one of my favorite franchises in video games. Some people have genre-specific favorites like Halo, Street Fighter, Assassin’s Creed, and Legend of Zelda, but Rock Band goes beyond all of them to me. The series has a beautiful social aspect to it that very few games have been able to achieve. Instead of fighting each other with guns or racecars, everyone would gather together to play songs from their youth or favorite bands thanks to this immersive technology. Playing a plastic guitar isn’t the same as a real one, but you absolutely feel like a rock star jamming out with this new way to appreciate music.
I originally started the genre with Guitar Hero 2 with all my friends clamoring about how it’s the best new game around. Hearing beautiful tunes like “Jessica” by the Allman Brothers or jamming out to hits like “Surrender” by Cheap Trick made me realize there were so many great songs I had never heard before. Growing up in a small town, there were only two rock radio stations that would play Butt Rock and Butt Rock-lite. In manys ways, this was my new MTV because it would expose me to so many different artists and the amount of work you have to put into playing an instrument. Things got really rough when you moved onto Expert difficulty.
What’s important to distinguish is that Harmonix was the original creator of the Guitar Hero franchise with hardware producer RedOctane. They created the original, along with the best selling Guitar Hero 2 and spin-off Guitar Hero: Rocks The 80s. The initial change and overall mainstream exposure of the franchise happened when Activision/Neversoft gained control of the brand. Harmonix would then work with rival studio Electronic Arts to make Rock Band after they had lost control of their original property. The unfortunate accident to come from this was a schism amongst rhythm game fans for one series or the other.
Rock Band has a real personal connection to me. As early as the second game came out, I would go to bars to play the game and meet with people. Being a geek who was into every aspect of the game was so useful to people who were just casually into it. I could tell people how to navigate through the cumbersome menu or sing/play a part so a person never felt like they were alone. You would have those days like “No! We won’t play (System of a Down’s) Chop Suey again!” but they were amazing. When you get to tell someone that their favorite hit song is in the game or an underground band somehow made it onto their DLC list, the reaction was always priceless.
I would be introduced to a number of incredible artists such as The Police, Queens of the Stone Age, Boston, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and Mastodon to name a few. Some of them I would later go on to see in concert like Rush and Steely Dan. There was this enchanting quality of the series to discover new music to find what you can really love or what songs are super hard. Harmonix’s passion was in full force when you see the work and care they put into The Beatles: Rock Band capturing every facet to the Beatles’ Career and unmistakable creativity.
Rock Band 2 made up for a lot of the clunky, repetitive mistakes of the original game, and Rock Band 3 would add even more content to the game by adding keyboards, harmonies for multiple singers, and a pro-guitar mode to learn how to play the game. (Although all the singing and drumming you do can carry on to the real thing)
What’s a shame is that the race between Guitar Hero and Rock Band led to an exhausted fanbase after a four-year onslaught of games. Activision’s over-saturation of the genre made many of the fans tired of the series, especially as many of the games started to have overlapping songs and features. Even I got to that point of fatigue when I waited to buy Green Day: Rock Band for a discount of half price. Inventory management made it rough for people to continue playing, as the plastic instruments would form technical problems and there was never enough of a demand to keep them updated.
The day Harmonix had to end the series struck a serious blow with me. On that same week when Rock Band ended, I had to finish some of my finals in college, one of my favorite podcasts was unexpectedly retiring, one of my personal heroes (Roger Ebert) passed away and I lost of member of my family. It devastated me because Harmonix always tried their hardest and appeared to be doomed with unfortunate luck. Over the course of Rock Band, they released over 2000+ songs over the 7-year life cycle of the franchise. That’s some real dedication.
The determination that kept Rock Band alive for so long passed onto many of Harmonix’s other projects. They would then create Dance Central, the impromptu purchase for any Kinect owner and they would soon move on to make Fantasia: Music Evolved for Xbox One. The studio even created Rock Band Blitz by using the system from their game Amplitude to give those songs new life to those who didn’t even own a plastic instrument. These artists weren’t just creatively and financially motivated; they were incredibly skilled at creating new engines and software to several forms of musical interaction.
I’ve been waiting for the rhythm game genre to come back into the mainstream. We’ve never completely lost the appeal thanks to the strong following of games like DDR, Drummania and Rhythm Heaven. Playing songs by the musicians we love has an inspirational, universal appeal that brought myself and millions of players into the world of music in the first place.
The best thing I have read about the announcement is that 95% of the purchased and downloadable songs will be transferable onto new consoles. For people who have switched sides of the console war, this is an issue, but it would save someone like me tons of money by letting me keep all my old songs to a new system. Modern geekdom relishes in replay value, so I can play all my old games on my new systems just like we read comics on a tablet PC.
My only gripe about Rock Band’s return is when product manager Daniel Sussman announced: “Rock Band 4 will focus on the core experience and the roots of the franchise — guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. There will be no Pro Guitar or key support in Rock Band 4.” I loved playing the keyboard in Rock Band, but it’s incredibly intimidating to use due to the intense upswing in difficulty. Learning to play real guitar is now handled by games like Rocksmith, so I understand why Harmonix wants to stick to basics.
Rock Band 4 is said to have “A top-tier soundtrack” as promised by CEO Alex Rigopolus with the budget they’ve allocated over years of work. MTV Games isn’t pressuring them anymore to push out games to cash in on the craze. I can’t wait to see what big hits they’ll surprise us with and what songs will become new favorites. If my favorite podcast could resurrect back from the dead back on this website, why couldn’t this game?
Rock Band was a part of a system that happens to many great artists. It built up a strong audience with their early work, it skyrocketed to popularity thanks to working with some studios, and then it became associated with a fad that people grew tired of from overexposure. When they announced their close in 2013, I was sad…but happy they went out on a good note with their final DLC song. But seeing them get a second chance again and live on to broader horizon makes me a happy fan.
What are your thoughts on Rock Band coming back? I have loads of stories with my connection to the series. Do you wish there were more social games like it? Tired of the genre? Do you think Guitar Hero could return as well? Does it affect your gaming life? Leave a comment and join the discussion!