Thursday, January 12, 2012


It came out of nowhere, shocking us.  Thrilling us.  Uniting us.  And the idea took off like wildfire, dominating the industry, firmly implanting itself into the pop culture subconscious.  It burned brightly, breathing new life into the video game industry like no one had seen before, forging an alliance between the two warring camps of Casual and Hardcore gamers.  But its star burned too fast, and companies tried too hard to milk its seemingly neverending teat, until nothing new could be drawn from it.  And now, the beast is dying.

I speak of course, of the music/rhythm game genre.

The genre is not dead, but at this point it may as well be.  What started in Japan with Dance Dance Revolution and Gitaroo Man exploded in the US with the release of a little game with a cheesy plastic instrument, Guitar Hero.  With Guitar Hero II, the genre found enormous success in college dorms, and then spread into homes across the country.  It was a bit pricey, but it was unlike any video game we'd played at home. 

The company that had created Guitar Hero split.  Some stayed to make Guitar Hero III, while others created Rock Band.  Rock Band upped the ante by adding not only guitars, but a drum kit and a microphone, as well as four-player co-op.  You could gather your friends and start an actual BAND.  The consequences would never be the same.   Guitar Hero followed suit with World Tour, introducing their own drums and mic.   In retrospect, this could be considered the high point of the genre...sadly it was all downhill from there.  We just didn't see it at the time.

I put the blame squarely at Guitar Hero's feet, honestly.  They churned out sequels and spinoffs every three months.  World Tour was already the fourth game.  We also got Guitar Hero 5, Guitar Hero Aerosmith, Van Halen, and Metallica.  Guitar Hero Rocks The 80s.  Warriors Of Rock.  Then came Band Hero, one's really sure why.  And then the disastrous DJ Hero, which stores couldn't get rid of to save their lives.  I worked for Best Buy when it was released; no matter how much we dropped the price on DJ Hero, we couldn't move them.  We had piles and piles of them.  Now you can find the Special Edition, which comes with two DJ decks instead of just one, for $19.99 at Big Lots or any kind of overstock store.  It oversaturated the market, and people stopped caring.

Rock Band played it smart, for the most part.  They released Rock Band 2, which was pretty much perfection in every way for the genre.  They tried their hand at band-centric kits, with Rock Band: The Beatles and Rock Band: Green Day (which nobody understood).  Then there was Lego Rock Band, but we kind of ignore that one.  For the most part, however, they just kept adding DLC to their online market.  Honestly, that's all anyone wanted anyway: more music.  The Rock Band catalog online was 3-4 times the size of Guitar Hero's.  It was far more convenient to buy the songs you wanted for $2 a pop rather than shell out $150 for a whole new game that had 60 new songs, only about 20 of which you actually liked. 

Rock Band dealt the final blow, really.  In Oct 2010, they released Rock Band 3.  It added a whole new instrument to the repertoire; a keyboard.  People were excited, until they got their hands on the small, boxy, uncomfortable little device.   And millions of Rock Band 2 fans were a little insulted that from that moment on, all new DLC songs would only be compatible with Rock Band 3.  Rock Band 3 wasn't bad, necessarily.  Critics absolutely adored it, and it shows that Harmonix listened to their fans' feedback. Most of the new features were geared toward the hardcore players, and the genuine musicians.  Unfortunately, it tried too hard to tinker with perfection, and crammed far too much in for the average casual Rock Band player.  The new career mode was a bit confusing, and band customization had been seriously limited.  Rather than being slightly cartoonish yet fairly realistic, the new character customizations looked over-the-top and silly, much more like Guitar Hero's signature style.  The game really split the fans in half.

That was a year and a half ago, and while Rock Band continues to put out great new DLC into their stores, they have focused more on their new rhythm game, Dance Central.  Activision has officially put the final nail in the coffin of Guitar Hero, stating that they were halting all production of the series.  The market was flooded, and then ran dry quickly thereafter. 

I write this more as a dirge and a retrospective, not as any kind of plea.  It's obvious why the genre collapsed.  It can't be stopped.  There's nothing left to do with it.  What further innovations could really be made, at this point?  I think my only regret is that the genre had the potential to have a much longer lifespan, but rather than draw it out slowly, the companies that produced the game tried far too hard to get it all RIGHT NOW.   It is the end of a brief yet powerful era in video game history, and I am simply mourning its loss.

Sure as hell enjoyed that ride, though. 

1 comment:

  1. As a side note and followup, this was mostly inspired by me picking up Rock Band 3 on XBLA last week for $19.99. It's fun, and there's a lot to like, but it makes me yearn for Rock Band 2. I spent three years playing that game. I made a band, and grew attached to them.

    The first Rock Band game I ever owned was actually Unplugged for the PSP, where I made a band that I'd intended as a throwaway. They were called The Douchenozzles, and most of their names were profane. But as I played, and laughed at them, they grew on me, and I gave them personalities and backstories. When I got my hands on Rock Band 2, I recreated them and added "myself" into the mix (of course the fit, muscular, Rock God badass version of myself). I was pretty much always the guitar player, since my drum kit broke and someone stole my microphone.

    Cockeater Suzie was the lead singer. Tall, statuesque Amazonian sex bomb who dressed like a naughty librarian with pigtails. She was sexy and strong, confident. She took shit from no one, and rocked the stage like nobody's business.

    Cunty McGee was a shy, mousy little twee girl with unparalleled skills on the bass. She and Suzie had been friends for a long time, and she was happy to let Suzie take the spotlight while she lost herself in laying down sweet bass licks.

    Of course then there was our drummer, Balls St. Balls. Balls St. Balls was a legend. He was a hard drinking, drug-loving badass who had toured with some awesome bands back in the day, including a brief stint as a Spinal Tap drummer. He fell on some hard times, but the Douchenozzles had always been big fans and took him on board when they were on the cusp of hitting it big. Balls St. Balls has since given up the hard drugs, but still won't go onstage without a fifth of whiskey pulsing through his veins.

    I think my biggest disappointment with the Rock Band 3 was the limited customization of the band members as compared to the previous games. I was able to make reasonable facsimiles for each band member, and could even make Suzie pretty much dead-on, but I could not for the life of me recreate Balls St. Balls. he had a distinct face and hairstyle (the bald in the back, barely a combover on top). The closest I could come was only marginally close. They had a balding combover with short hair. But he KINDA looked like him...I also couldn't make him look as old.

    So I had to advance the band's storylines. Suzie is still the rockin' powerhouse of the show. Cunty has really gained some confidence and grown into more of a tough riot grrl. Balls St. Balls died of a tragic overdose, unfortunately, but The Douchenozzles were able to hire his son, Balls St. Balls Jr. And me....well, I'm still a fit, muscular Rock God badass guitarist.

    My other complaint is that as far as I can tell, you can't assign instruments to your bandmates. Now, Balls Jr is often the lead singer, while Suzie is on bass and Cunty plays drums. It makes no sense to me, and while it has zero impact on the actual gameplay, it still bothers me on an immersion level.

    But The Douchenozzles will live on.