I found myself guilty of taking DLC updates for Rock Band for granted after reading the news that Harmonix will be ending its run of more than five consecutive years doing so. I don’t know… I just never really considered that the run would end, despite the obvious decline of the Plastic Instrument Era. The truth is that the end is very much near, and I feel compelled at this point to write a few words about not only Rock Band… but about Harmonix and the impact that this development company has had on my gaming life.
My experience with Harmonix games started with Frequency back in 2001. As a singer and fan of music, I was fascinated by music/rhythm games, and Frequency took a different approach than Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution did. Playing separate tracks of a song in the correct rhythm to activate them was instantly addicting, and the game opened my ears to new kinds of music that I ordinarily wouldn’t listen to. In fact, I would wind up buying some of that music to play as bumper tracks in-between singers during karaoke shows that I ran. I was never great at Frequency; I struggled with note inputs on the PlayStation 2 controller as the difficulty cranked up, but that never stopped me from trying. My enjoyment of Frequency led to an instant purchase of Amplitude, the game’s sequel, when it was released in 2003.
Karaoke Revolution was the next series project for Harmonix, and as a singer, this series was near and dear to me. While I wasn’t necessarily a fan of not being able to ad-lib a little bit, like I do when I sing out at karaoke shows, the fact that the game understood and graded proper pitch was pretty amazing. It was also a major plus having a karaoke game at home, since I didn’t own a karaoke machine and computer-based karaoke was still in the early stages at the time. It was a little weird singing at home, in my bedroom, rather than out at a bar or club… but these games made for decent practice and I had fun playing them.
In 2005, Guitar Hero blew me away. $70 got me the game and the guitar controller, and it took one song– Thunder Kiss ’65– to hook me. I’d never played a guitar before, so simplifying it with color-coded keys and using my Frequency skill of hitting notes in rhythm became addictive in a major hurry. It was kind of like playing air guitar in the sense that I was “playing along” with some really great music. I felt like a rock star, playing chords and solos, hearing the crowd cheering, and getting that rush which comes with performing. As with Frequency and Amplitude, I struggled with higher difficulties. Adding extra frets and notes confused my fingers… and when the harder songs like Bark At The Moon and Cowboys From Hell came up? Oh, heck no. It was sure fun to try, though.
From that point on, the Plastic Instrument Era had begun.
Harmonix would deliver one more full-fledged Guitar Hero sequel in Guitar Hero II, followed by what was more of an expansion pak in Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s, before moving on from the franchise– and from Activision, who had taken over as publisher from MTV Games. Guitar Hero II was memorable for me because of certain songs, like John the Fisherman, YYZ, and Hangar 18. Hangar 18 was the big one… one of the last songs of the game, and getting through that– even on the easier settings– was no small feat. Rocks the 80s wasn’t as great, but the inclusion of Extreme’s Play With Me was brilliant and alone justified my purchase. Of course, it was the final song of the game, but that was okay.
As I played through each of these three Guitar Hero games, my fret and button work gradually improved. I went from being a pretty nervous Easy mode player to adding a fourth fret on Medium and feeling pretty comfortable. I wasn’t prepared for what the next Harmonix project would deliver, though… it changed music games completely and it changed my own approach from what it was then to what it is today.
Rock Band opened up the music performance game genre to more than just guitar. Drums, vocals, and bass guitar became options and the experience felt more like a band than a guitarist playing with a band behind him or her. The song lists were great, but what stood out to me was my playing preference. I gradually moved away from lead guitar and developed an affinity towards bass guitar instead. Playing bass was generally a bit easier with fewer chords to worry about and allowed me to finally tackle the harder difficulty levels for songs that I couldn’t ordinarily play. By the time the Rock Band sequels arrived, I had become a pretty good bass player and could play through most tracks on the Expert difficulty. I wasn’t necessarily getting five-star ratings, but I could at least get to the end of each track and progress. My favorite Rock Band accomplishment– for any of the games– is being proud to say that I can play through Yngwie Malmsteen’s Caprici di Diablo without failing. It isn’t pretty, but I consider it a big deal. Here’s some video of much better player nailing the bass guitar part down:
Looking back, I’ve been playing Harmonix games for more than 11 years. Their games have fused music, performance, and gameplay into addictive combinations and have supplied me with literally hundreds of hours of enjoyment and memories. It’s been interesting watching Guitar Hero and Rock Band emerge from the basic concepts that Frequency and Karaoke Revolution introduced. As the company prepares to embark on a new journey, I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone at Harmonix who worked on these games that have been so special through the years. I was fortunate enough to meet a few members of the team last year during E3, but never got the chance to extend my gratitude.
Being a vocalist does (usually) require some talent, but I don’t have the talent for the other instruments. Harmonix, through Guitar Hero and Rock Band, enabled me to bridge that gap and let me become the lead or bass guitarist that I never thought that I could be. I may not be a real rock star outside of my own home, but when I’m here? I’m a rock legend… and that’s a gift that I’ll always cherish.
Although I am a vocalist by trade, Guitar Hero and its subsequent spinoffs and sequels captivated me with the ability to make playing guitar as easy as just strumming and pressing buttons instead of, you know, actually learning how to play. Playing along with some great music certainly had– and continues to have– an allure that is undeniable. I even get the urge to play while away from home, such as I did during a trip to Mohegan Sun; I found a Guitar Hero coin-op and played a few songs there. I’ll probably never learn how to play guitar, so playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band will likely be as close to shredding stardom as I get.
That stardom, however, comes with a price. I call it Red Octane Wrist.
See, since I don’t know how to play guitar or understand proper positioning or fingering techniques, I’m probably cocking my left wrist around the neck in a weird way. After a few songs, my left wrist starts to get sore as I attempt to match fret buttons with on-screen cues. Particularly long songs (I’m looking at you, Free Bird!) will kill me. They’re still fun to play, but wow… the pain. Unfortunately, I’ve gone from being able to play these games for hours at a time to maybe an hour or two at most before ending my virtual jam session and moving on to something else.
Of course, there could be other, non-physical reasons for shorter play sessions. For example, neither Guitar Hero nor Rock Band in their most recent forms have managed to break the mold like earlier games did for me. I remember plunking the money down for Guitar Hero on my PS2 and initially experiencing that thrill of feeling like I’m actually supplying the guitar parts for some awesome tunes. Despite the fact that all of the songs were covers, I wound up liking several of the tracks so much that I had to purchase them from iTunes shortly thereafter. Playing the guitar solos in tracks like Bark at the Moon and Cowboys from Hell felt incredible, even though I could never play these songs on any difficulty other than Medium. As time has gone on, though, a lot of the experience has just felt… similar. Some of the tunes have been great– especially thanks to DLC, such as the release of Pearl Jam’s Ten for Rock Band– but it’s still the same core experience that I had years ago. There was literally a span of about three months when I didn’t play a music game at all, basically because they felt (if you’ll pardon the pun) played out.
I have started playing both Guitar Hero World Tour (GHWT) and Rock Band 2 (RB2) again recently. RB2 holds an edge over GHWT because of the game’s ability to randomize sets. Random setlists are great because you never know what you’re going to get… and if you’ve invested in a fair amount of DLC, the library could be pretty substantial. The DLC is a huge selling point for RB2, as well. It’s easy to gradually build up your library of songs and many of them are pretty damned good. To its credit, GHWT does focus more on the guitar and is more challenging to play, with a lot more notes to hit (and thusly causing my case of Red Octane Wrist to flare up quicker). GHWT also has Satch Boogie, which is one of my favorite songs to begin with; to me, it parallels the inclusion of Eric Johnson’s Cliffs of Dover in Guitar Hero III.
It could be fate, but my trip to pick up Guitar Hero Metallica ended in failure. Perhaps that’s a sign that my wrist would be crying for help after playing those Kirk Hammett solos. (I wound up getting Legends of Wrestlemania instead… but that’s a story for another blog entry.) That’s not to say that I won’t pick it up somewhere down the line… or maybe I can coerce someone into buying it for me as a birthday gift… but I think that I’m pretty stacked on music games for the time being.
What a week it’s been for the PlayStation Network Store. We saw, on the same day:
- Mega Man 9
- WipEout HD
- Burnout Paradise
- Rush‘s Moving Pictures DLC for Rock Band
- New expansion packs for BUZZ! Quiz TV
Holy crap. Let me summarize my experience with each of these for you, since I spent a good part of the weekend playing with these:
** Mega Man 9: I don’t consider myself to be a master-level video game player, but I’ve always thought that I could hold my own… until this game proceeded to demolish me in multiple play sessions. I made it to one boss– ONE– and failed to dispatch it. Although I was left somewhat demoralized, I enjoyed almost every minute of it because Mega Man 9 evokes such NEStalgia in me that I can think back to the days when the NES truly was the only game in town. In truth, I’ve only beaten two of the original six Mega Man games (Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3), but Mega Man 9 recreates the NES experience so well… it’s a bit less stinging to keep falling to my death or landing on spikes or getting hit by that one stray bullet or enemy to drain my life bar completely. Sure, it still sucks that I’m having a tough time succeeding– and it’s obvious that the game’s prohibitive difficulty will leave some purchasers wondering why they dropped $10 on an infinite ass-whipping– but the aesthetics of the game emulate the NES era so well that it’s too hard to stay mad at the game. If you weren’t a fan of the NES, though, you’re probably going to want to pass as the combination of 8-bit throwback visuals and an unforgiving difficulty will fail to impress you.
** WipEout HD: I never played any of the PSP WipEout games, but I did play the PSX and PS2 games. I wasn’t great at these, either, but they were stylish and F-A-S-T fast. WipEout HD is the best-looking game of the bunch, with a few tracks that remind me of F-Zero design. It’s easy to learn to play, but the difficulty level begins to really ratchet up a couple of levels in. Online play has been almost flawless in my limited experience– I actually won a race, which was surprising. WipEout HD is a fun experience, complete with Trophy support and Custom Soundtrack support, and online play serves to further extend the shelf life of this game; look for my full review shortly, either September 29th or September 30th on the Games Are Evil website.
** Burnout Paradise: I’ve tried to play this game before and it just never felt like a true Burnout game to me… but with the addition of motorcycles (OMG fast) and Trophy support, it seemed worthwhile to try the digital download. Road Rage remains my favorite gameplay mode. I’m still not a big fan of open-circuit races; it’s hard enough to keep an eye on traffic without having to plan which street to turn onto in order to finish a race. I still don’t understand Showtime mode, either. Despite these criticisms, Paradise is growing on me. After spending some quality time on a motorcycle this weekend and flying around tight turns and weaving through traffic, I can honestly say that I might be seeing what others have seen in this game for awhile.
** Geon: I don’t quite have the mechanics mastered in this game yet, but it’s like soccer meets Pac-Man with a WipEout-like presentation style. It’s an interesting game to try, and there is Trophy support, but I’m not certain that there’s enough substance to this game to keep players interested long enough to justify the $10 asking price. Look for a review of this on the Games Are Evil site later this week.
** DLC Watch: I did download a few of the tracks from Rush‘s Moving Pictures album for Rock Band. I haven’t broken out the drum set for these tracks yet, but they’re fun to play on either lead or bass guitar. I humbly suggest YYZ be added to your track list post haste. Singers will hate it since there isn’t any singing in this track, but this rockstrumental piece showcases all three other instruments. As for the BUZZ! expansions, I did not have the money to download any of them, as they range between $6-$8 per pack. If you’ve been playing a lot of BUZZ!, though (especially after reading my recent review), then you might consider looking into them– there are packs for Science Fiction, a National Geographic-branded pack, and a pack with solely video game-related questions. Guess which one I want?
That’s it from here for now. I obviously have a busy week ahead, in terms of review-writing. I encourage you to stay tuned to Games Are Evil for all of my published work. I think that I might be turning the corner on this cold/illness thing, so I hope to be back to my productive self this week.