A few days ago, I picked up Green Day: Rock Band, the latest music game to be released. Upon playing, I realized that, as fun as it was for me because Green Day is my favorite band, the familiarity of that note highway business is starting to falter.
Back in 2005, the music game was a novel concept. In fact, when I was a senior in college, I saw a buddy of mine walking back from the parking lot holding the original Guitar Hero in its massive packaging. I told him to have fun (I had an XBOX at the time, which Guitar Hero wasn’t available for) with it, and walked my path to wherever I was going, thinking, “Man, that must be a fun game.”
Harmonix, the company that created Guitar Hero, made it fun to play and listen to music you knew, and music you didn’t know. The musical integration has made older tunes available to new generations. For instance, I work with kids, and when they sing something like Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” or The Scorpions “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” it’s all due to Guitar Hero.
Originally, a good chunk of the songs on the games were covers, and most artists would scoff at the idea. But now, plenty of bands want their songs featured in these kinds of games for exposure (Guns ‘n’ Roses probably needed it for their recent album, Chinese Democracy, available in Rock Band 2) because that stuff leads to compact discs selling, Itunes downloading, and concert attending. It’s all about the benjamins.
Harmonix was then offered a partnership with Activision to work on the next Guitar Hero game. Guitar Hero II had more of everything-better songs, better venues, and more outrageous characters. It was released first for the Playstation 2 and later for the XBOX 360. But there was trouble brewing, as Harmonix, after releasing Guitar Hero: Rocks the ‘80s, split from Activision to join up with Electronic Arts and MTV games to release the next music game.
Meanwhile, Activision relied on Neversoft (who made the Tony Hawk games) to continue the winning Guitar Hero formula, while Harmonix got to work on Rock Band, which would extend the idea past Guitar Hero’s guitar/bass peripheral mechanic and add drums and a microphone.
Guitar Hero III released while shortly afterward Rock Band debuted. While Guitar Hero III broke records, everyone saw the underdog in Harmonix’s Rock Band. It relied more on the interest of music than the flashy, cartoony style of the Guitar Hero franchise.
More sequels came, and the band centric games also followed. Following Rock Band and Guitar III, we’ve had Guitar Hero: World Tour, Guitar Hero 5, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: Van Halen, Guitar Hero for the Nintendo DS (two games to be exact), DJ Hero, Rock Band 2, The Beatles: Rock Band, Rock Band Unplugged for the PSP, Lego: Rock Band, and Green Day: Rock Band. All the ones that I mentioned besides the DS and PSP were available on the Playstation 3, XBOX 360, and Wii. Rock Band 2 (I feel ) is still the best music game to date, as its career mode, track list, character development, and downloadable content are all the epitome of a great music game.
Despite the fact that things were changed up, the basic idea remains the same; the notes stream down the highway, you have to hit them with the peripheral of your choice. The once novel concept got overwhelmingly abundant, as the music game genre has literally flooded the market with a new release within months of each other (if you pre-ordered Guitar Hero 5 you got Van Halen for free just a few weeks later. The game was released in December 2009 following Guitar Hero 5’s October 2009 release).
DJ Hero actually tried to change the formula and don’t get me wrong; the game is fun, but it probably got lost in the barrage of releases by the Guitar Hero franchise. In any case, DJ Hero has a solid soundtrack filled with clever remixes (my favorite being Marvin Gaye’s “Heard it Through the Grapevine” with Gorillaz ‘s “Feel Good, Inc.”) and the turntable peripheral is not easy to master. But, like everything else in the main -Hero franchise, it’s getting a sequel a year later. One must applaud Harmonix for releasing their main entries in the franchise further apart (Rock Band 2 came out in 2008, the third entry will be coming out in 2010).
What both companies lost sight of is that these games were really all about the music. The financial drawbacks of each game are frustrating-with each new game, it may mean new “ instruments “ to buy, and that’s already on top of a 50 to 60 dollar game. To buy a whole band set is not much cheaper than going out and buying an acoustic guitar. And to be honest (with the latter), its money better spent.
Rock Band 3 is trying to change the way we look at music games by incorporating a feature called “Rock Band Pro” into the game. They are releasing peripherals that will teach you how to play the real instrument (guitar/bass/drums/keyboard) through the game. It’s an interesting feature, and one that should’ve been put into place since the music game debuted, because who wouldn’t want to learn how to play an instrument, especially through a video game?
Rock Band Pro (while I applaud the idea) will not give you the drive to learn how to play an instrument, especially if you are shelling out more money for fake plastic instruments. But if this new formula seriously is going to challenge the existing “real music” stores that shelve guitar, keyboards, and drums every day (amongst other things), they are going to fail. Why?
Because no one is going to drop hard earned money on a plastic thing when, if they truly put their mind to it, can pick up an instrument of their choice at a local store (my acoustic guitar was cheaper than the whole DJ Hero package), find tabs online (for free) and begin to practice on something real.
And probably most likely, they have some sort of instrument in their house already that they can tune up and start jamming on.
Why is the music game genre dying? Despite the attempts at making it fresh every single time, the idea of playing a song through a game is not really thrilling anymore when you can learn tunes for free online using something that’ll output real sound and not just clicks and clacks.
To quote Cheap Trick, it’s time that these music game making companies just “Surrender.”