As the holiday season approaches, I would like to take you back to those wonderful gatherings around the end of the 00s. When plastic instrument music games were still new and new (at least outside of Japan) and everyone was eager to try this new imaginative Rock Band game. Alas, it would only be a couple of years before Activision killed the genre by oversaturation, releasing a whopping seven “Hero” games in 2009 alone. By the end of 2010, Guitar Hero and Rock Band had both released their entries finals.
2015 saw both series attempt a revival. Harmonix went the simple route with Rock Band 4 which is Rock Band but on new consoles. Instead, Activision made a misguided attempt to reinvent its music franchise with Guitar Hero Live. While these games had their merits, both failed miserably, resulting in steep discounts within weeks to get bulky gear off the shelves as soon as possible. It was clear that the fad for plastic instruments was over and both Guitar Hero and Rock Band couldn’t survive without it.
Except that Harmonix had already proved he could do without them. Several times in fact. At the height of the genre, one of the only things more popular in the casual market than music games were handheld consoles like the DS and PSP. Obviously, the two must cross at some point. Activision was first with the Guitar Hero On Tour game series for the DS; which came with its own keyboard attachment, plugging into the GBA card slot. It was a fun if silly gimmick, but he still couldn’t give up the idea of an unwieldy attachment.
When it was Harmonix’ turn to the plate, rather than conjure up a convoluted way to bring a batch of four new peripherals to the DS, it looked back on its past. Older Harmonix titles like Frequency and Amplitude were key to bringing their flagship franchise to smaller systems. Rather than limiting yourself to one band member, his first portable entry, Rock Band Unplugged, puts you in the shoes of all four. The series was no longer about playing a specific instrument perfectly throughout the entire song; instead Unplugged’s gameplay focused on hopping from lane to lane and completing specific phrases on each instrument to keep the song going. Failure to play on one instrument had the knock-on effect of other instruments falling behind as they tried to keep up. This has brought an incredibly immersive dynamic to the series, one that a solo player has never had to consider before.
After Unplugged came the DS versions of Lego Rock Band and Rock Band 3. Rather than a semi-original title like Unplugged, these two took soundtracks, locations and characters from their big brothers on home consoles. Sadly, these were held back by the DS’s hardware; gone was the clear music the PSP could offer. In some cases, DS ports have even removed entire sections of songs, such as the grave crime of removing Yes’ Roundabout’s iconic intro.
After a couple of years without a voice, the swansong of the Rock Band series was Rock Band Blitz, who took the gameplay loop from Unplugged and adapted it into a record-chasing arcade game. Though the gameplay was probably downgraded from PSP and DS games due to the switch to a two button game. What made Blitz so special was that all of the approximately 4,000 songs that were available to play in the main series could be ported to Blitz.
As I’m writing this it’s been announced that Blitz is due to shut down for good in January, and the Rock Band series seems unlikely to ever return as no one wants to take the monetary hit of plastic instrument manufacturing. I sit here wondering, ‘Why?’. Harmonix has proven time and time again that they can make Rock Band work without instruments. And now that he’s got Epic Games’ seemingly endless supply of music licensing money behind him, what’s stopping him?
Next: To stop making sense would be a great music game