For Those Who Plastic Rocked, We Salute You

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What can I say? The dream is over. Well it wouldn’t be the first time Lennon lyrics have been pointlessly reappropriated. No this article is about Rock Band.

So if you didn’t know (honestly I wouldn’t blame you), after 281 consecutive weeks, Harmonix are finally ending their support of the Rock Band DLC platform. Rather flatly I might add with Don McLean’s “American Pie”, although it’s probably an appropriate song for this series. More on that in a bit.

But yes, with this last piece of DLC, the final nail in Rock Band’s coffin is knocked in, until the new consoles are released and we all need new plastic instruments again anyway. But no, what started with Rock Band, peaked with the expanded second game, hit its highest note (note to self: use more music puns) with The Beatles: Rock Band, stumbled a bit with Green Day: Rock Band and made its last great album with Rock Band 3 is over in its current carnation. You might recall that I’m quite keen when it comes to Rock Band. So with this, I decided to write my own little affectionate post mortem for what was my favourite series of this generation.

To cast my mind back to those crazy days of 2008, I can’t actually remember why I bought Rock Band for any specific reason. My first foray into the plastic instrument genre wasn’t until Guitar Hero 3 in late 2007 and I suppose by September 2008 my paitence with that game was all but eroded, plus Rock Band was new to us malnutritioned Brits who had to wait nearly a whole year for the first game after it was released in the US. It helped that the game had a pretty good soundtrack too, and featured a number of British bands otherwise not appearing on any Guitar Hero games at that point. My time with that game was not long as the sequel would arrive on my shores on time with the rest of the world a mere two months later, but it was enough to get me hooked in a way that Guitar Hero didn’t. It had a special something for me that Guitar Hero just couldn’t match, and I loved being able to create my virtual musician rather than use one of Activision’s then caricatured Rockstars. Or Tom Morello. Silly Tom.

It wasn’t until Rock Band 2 though that it truly started to click. Even though I was more of an enthusiastic gamer then than I am know, it was still one of the few times of this generation that I went out of my way to go to a retail store and buy the game on its release day, then play nothing but Rock Band 2 over the next week. That game expanded on so many ways from its predeccesor. There was the career mode, now more open ended, with no neccessary straight line to the end (and no, I never did any of the endless setlists). The band customisation returned but now with even more options, and virtual Jamie Gibson appeared in many bands during his Rock Band 2 career, although I wouldn’t be able to name any of the band names I used. I learned you could other characters in your band, so then there’d be an expanded roster of 10 different rockstars, usually my friends, to form together. The soundtrack was bigger and better, and with the quite frankly genius disc import system, all of my favourites from the first game could be carried into the second for the price of some DLC. (Except for Black Hole Sun, thanks Obama.)

Ah yes, the DLC. I didn’t have the budget to buy nearly as much as I wanted then, but the sheer amount and variety available really gelled with me and buying the occasional piece made the already big music soundtrack even bigger. It’s a little unfair to the first game in that I only had two months with it, whereas Rock Band 2 and me would spend a good two years together gigging across the virtual world. All that being said, I never really took as much advantage of Rock Band 2 as I could have. I only took it to one or two parties so never delved in the multiplayer aspect outside the occasional online session, and except for when I busted out the vocals alone in the house, safe knowing that my dignity wouldn’t be damaged I only ever played plastic guitar. Still, I loved that game, and some of my fondest memories from this generation come from it. It’s not my favourite Rock Band game however.

The Beatles: Rock Band. It’s probably the only time I’ve watched an E3 and been personally shocked and awed by an announcement, part of that possibly being because it was the first thing Microsoft showed at their conference that year. Sure the appearence by Macca and Ringo was awkward at best, but all I cared about was that one of the greatest bands of all time were getting their own Rock Band game and everything that was shown up until its release looked amazing. The dreamscapes, the authenticity of outfits and instruments, the little extra audio and video pieces unlocked by beating each song with five stars. There’s a reason I spent one of the first lunchtimes of my time at Sixth Form (the last two years of High School for American readers) walking out of town to pick up the game on its release date.

beatlesro-1296845680-3997Luckily it wasn’t a massive disappointment (save for a few omitted songs!), but everything I had hoped it’d be. Respectful to the subject matter (the realities of the Beatles’ career traded for a fantasy timeline where the Fab Four simply flew into space or something after the Rooftop gig.), fun to play, visually wonderful and easily the best soundtrack a Rock Band game’s had, The Beatles: Rock Band is my favourite of the series. Not everyone is a Beatles fan, but regardless of your level of enjoyment of the band, there’s no arguing that this game is an example of just exactly how you make one of these music game types focused entirely on the career of one band. Rather than say, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith.

Oddly though, it never seemed like a big hit in the UK past its initial release (particularly being half an hour from Liverpool) and wasn’t able to avoid the slow but inevitable slump in sales that all plastic instrument games saw from 2009 onwards. But that’s the story of Rock Band in the UK. Speaking from personal experience, it was never as popular here as it was in the US, compared to its rival series. The British tend to find one provider they like and stick with it, as seen with in games with our preference of Sega and then Sony over say Nintendo. All I know is that I never met another person who owned a Rock Band game during that time. Still, I loved The Beatles: Rock Band and was ready to play a five buttoned guitar for months or even years to come.

Then I got a real guitar.

Okay, so the story doesn’t end there, but my enthusiasim for Rock Band certainly depreciated after being taken over by the infuriation and then subsequent jubilation of learning to play guitar for the first time. All of a sudden Rock Band started to feel very much like a game rather than the illusionary rock journey I had created for myself in place of learning a real instrument. That’s not to say that I stopped enjoying the Rock Band games, and I enjoyed Rock Band 3 nearly as much as if not more than Rock Band 2 (except for tying clothing unlocks to in game achievements, that was silly), but it was never the same again. Of course Rock Band is a lot easier to play than real guitar, but the reward felt from finally nailing an entire song (Nirvana’s Polly if I remember right) was just infinitely more than five starring the same song on the game. Lego Rock Band was interesting but crippled by its family friendliness. Green Day: Rock Band was technically decent but not a worth follow up to The Beatles. By this point I was losing interest in most of the weekly DLC offerings. And my PSP analog nub stopped working before I could think about Rock Band: Unplugged.

By the time I went to University, the time investment in Rock Band was diminshing and eventually I stopped playing it all together. I’ve also stopped playing real guitar as often but the point is that I don’t have the time or enthusiasim to keep playing that kind of game anymore and to varying degrees this happened to most of us who enjoyed these games, it just happened a little later for me because I had a late start with it.

The legacy lives on though. My Xbox 360 has been gathering dust for the past year or so but Rock Band: Blitz brought back the Frequency/Amplitude style of play combined with the now extensive Rock Band library. Dance Central took the concepts of the series and applied it successfully to the dance game genre, although unfortunately because of Kinect I’ve only had a few opportunities to play it.

It’s a little sad to see one of my favourtie series essentially end in its current incarnation, but it managed to outlive itself for at least a year or two more than it realistically should have. The games are still fun to play from time to time, produced some of my most fond memories from this generation both purely as a game and as a social aspect and I’m sure that it won’t be the last we’ll see of plastic instruments, although whether they’ll ever have that demographic-spanning impact again is highly unlikely. So here’s to you Rock Band, for making us feel like rock stars, retaining your dignity and deliverin some great memories over the last few years.

As for Virtual Jamie Gibson, he made his biggest musical impact with his last band Mis-Shapes, who were recorded to have 243,059,360 fans at the time of writing.

Jamie Gibson is a former staff member of WatchPlayRead and now a guest contributer. He is currently Station Manager at Merseyside based Looprevil Radio and hosts a weekly show there from 4-6pm BST at www.looprevilradio.co.uk

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