I was wondering what to write for the next article here at Games Xtreme. It seems like only yesterday I was listening to a song with my grandmother, Ian Drury's: Hit me with your rhythm stick (Ian Drury and the Blockheads if you want to be technical) and it struck me, no pun intended that there was a veritable goldmine in that very song. My mind flicked across in a typical tangent and constructed an article on a genre that was founded pretty much by the previous kings of simon-says like button-music matching games: Konami.
What am I talking about? I'm talking about the genesis of Band games as they now stand. To explain further one has to go right back to the source of such things. In the infancy of electronic entertainment there were several things that conspired to making the current generation of music games as they stand. Oddly enough, Simon Says, that electronic nightmare of button matching to musical beeping was the grandfather of the original Konami designed Beatmania series.
I don't care what Konami say, someone there must have thought: hey, this is a novel concept, let's see if we can't make a game out of this and sell it for far more than the original toy. There's something addictive about pressing brightly coloured buttons in time to the beats of yesteryear. Of course it didn't take long for the concept of Karaoke to filter into the modern game market either - once again spearheading this is, you guessed it, Konami.
Konami at one time or another have produced a bewildering array of beat driven games, from dancing, singing, and even guitar...and keyboards, drums. But they never thought of combining those concepts into a single core game with a band mechanic, a fact that has cost them dearly in the innovation stakes and sent them into a blood-curdling fury of activity - both legal and game development wise. More on that a little bit later in the article.
Harmonix enter the fray, the young bright stars of the rhythm game industry and produce a revolution in rock games: Guitar Hero. It soars to new heights of interactivity and allows you to experience the feeling of being a rock star from the comfort of your own home. It sold massive amounts and shifted numerous electronic controllers to boot. There have been several iterations of Guitar Hero since then. Harmonix went their own way and left Activision, leaving another company to take up the mantle of GH development.
Whilst this was going on, Harmonix partnered up with MTV and game giant: EA to produce the most innovative music game yet: Rock Band, this staggering entry into the genre really set the fires of competition alight in both Konami and Activision. In Konami's eyes they had just beaten them to the punch and the only reaction was to grab their legal swords and start slashing, claiming patents and copyrights, attempting to bring these media giants crashing down. It was a futile attempt that ended up with a terrible show at the 2008 mini-E3.
Music games had come of age and Rock Band buried the Konami instrument titles, it combined two guitars (lead and bass) with drums, and a microphone. It touted an impressive track list with many master recordings available right on that disc. The addictive mix of instrument play and Karaoke-style singing gave players a taste of being a rock band and brought with it an incredible sense of team-play, more importantly it allowed non-gamers a chance to shine. My own wife being a prime example, she's not really a gamer, but given a copy of Rock Band and a microphone, she'll happily take that mic over until forcibly removed from it. Recently it brought another poor soul into the genre who claimed that he had: two left hands and couldn't play these kinds of games.
Yeah, I had to fight to get my fake plastic guitar off him.
Rock Band's instrument design was solid, but flawed. The strum-bar on the guitar wasn't as reactive as it could have been, the solo notes worked fine but the buttons were fairly clunky. The overdrive (star power) wasn't as sensitive as it required quite an angle for tilt. The microphone worked perfectly and the drums were criticized for a less-than-solid return-bounce from the sticks, poor rapid-note performance and a tricky foot-pedal.
Yet with all those flaws the game was a massive hit. It sold incredibly well and the inevitable sequel was already in the works. Harmonix said that they wouldn't change much and just address certain issues with the original game and instruments. Yet that wasn't the only thing about to change. At the same time Harmonix were coding away at Rock Band 2, Activision had decided to enter the rock band stakes with the next in the Guitar Hero line, the aptly named World Tour.
One might have expected both companies to stare war-like over the game trenches on this one, but something incredible happened. In a massive show of solidarity, perhaps to fight against Konami's heavy-handed approach to their patents and perceived rights over all things music based. Harmonix/EA/MTV and Activision decided that there would be a large degree of compatibility between the instrument sets in Rock Band 2 and GHWT.
This is a great thing since the GHWT instruments are leagues ahead of the Rock Band kits. Both the guitar and drums are wireless and have a better action, solid construction and pretty flawless design. The kick-pedal is better but still needs work (since I'm not a drummer I can't complain too much), but this observation comes from a real drummer. So thanks Alex!
The guitar is nice, the strum bar has a good feel to it, the fret buttons are superbly reactive and the innovative slide-bar makes for some fun solo bits in the actual game. Compatibility has been tested between Rock Band and we can report that the GHWT drums perform better than the standard first edition Rock Band kit. GHWT as a game features the same type of gameplay that has made GH a solid hit so not much has changed. Custom Characters are incredibly detailed and an almost Oblivion/Fallout 3, Mass Effect level of customization is possible compared to Rock Band's fairly generic design.
It is also possible to customize your instruments for GHWT, a feature that is absent from Rock Band and Rock Band 2. There are a few things you can change on the previous games but nothing compared to a fully functioning instrument builder that lets you create the instrument of your dreams from a lot of parts and designs. These features mean that owning both titles is a must if you're seriously into those kinds of games.
This brings me neatly around to the aforementioned Rock Revolution and why Konami are probably seething right now.
Whilst Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero World Tour were being touted, loved, enjoyed and drooled over by press and fans alike. Konami in their infinite wisdom produced their newest title, one that they hoped (and said: would give them the edge in the music game industry once again). The aptly titled Rock Revolution has yet to show over here in the United Kingdom and won't appear until 2009.
I was able to see Konami crash and burn via the safety of YouTube and the show they put on was less than stellar. I am reliably informed that a certain member of the MTV crew who was on hand, watched Konami fail at their own game as they demoed it before a live studio audience mostly made up of press and lucky gamers. Whilst Konami's Rock Revolution touts several innovations over the previously mentioned games it looks cheap, tacky and highly plastic. It will probably appeal to someone out there who has a love for Konami still.
Konami tried to outrock the big guns and failed, it's plain and simple. Whilst you might have a decent cover of a Ramone's track with a real band - the moment that you play your own game and fail at it, you're going to end up being targeted for some kind of friendly banter. In a stellar show of 'taking their ball and going home' Konami's obviously gutted exec dismissed everyone and called their press conference to a close early. The bright thing to do there would have been to actually carry on, restart and just grin and bear it.
No, Konami now have a lot to live up to and I have to say that I am highly sceptical that they can even pull it off after just seeing Rock Revolution on a video. I have to say that the current market leaders: Rock Band (1 and 2), Guitar Hero World Tour are going to slaughter Konami come 2009 since by then Rock Band 3 and the newest GH will probably be in the works. Music games are now massive business and the record industry authorities are demanding even more money from the licensors to use the tracks of their artists, a fact that probably has the RIAA and so on rubbing their hands in glee as they can finally get their claws into another bastion of entertainment.
Meanwhile the end user has very little clue what's going on behind the scenes and is left to see the innovations, picking and choosing between the best of both worlds since the new era of instrument compatibility has ensured that you can own both of these giant titles and enjoy a fresh experience playing them. With Rock Band 2 already out in the US and debuting in the UK today, it is a good day for fan and new fan alike as finally we can rock out to 100 or so authentic master tracks from Rock Band 2 to join those already present in GH WT.
We can experience the features of both games without having to worry about spending around £300 on buying two sets of instrument boxes. Where can we go from here?
I would have said a fully functioning drum kit that can be used on stage with a real band, but Alesis and the Ion Drum Rocker have already beaten me to it.
Harmonix and Activision have already said they want to see more 3rd party peripherals for their games, so the new era of compatibility means even more choice for the player and end user. Add to that Downloadable Content from the Xbox Live marketplace and so on, a staggering 500 songs by Christmas 2008 are said to be downloadble from the marketplace.
We shall see!
Whatever happens next this genre can only continue to grow, the systems in place become more complex and the feeling of being a rock star or band becomes more apparent. Perhaps they might include a fake plastic lighter for those massive solo-moments when the crowd waves a salute to the fake plastic guitar heroes of 2009.
I'll be there, rocking with the best of them.
Because, I AM IRON MAN!