Thursday, March 12, 2009

Interlude: The Power of Rock

My computer here took a crap today, and so in the middle of fixing it I don’t have time for the third episode of my Street Fighter roundup - which will end up being a pretty long post I imagine. Instead, I figure I’ll throw out some thoughts regarding the newly crowded music game genre.

Guitar Hero is up to about 9 games now (GH1, GH2, GH80s, GH3, GH:Aerosmith, GH:World Tour, GH:On Tour, GH:On Tour 2, the coming soon GH:Metallica and any I may have missed). We’ve also got Rock Band and it’s sequel. Then the stuff like Rock Revolution, Guitar Freaks, etc etc. The genre that was once barren and populated by DDR remakes and Parappa the Rapper (which, if you haven’t played it, is an obscene amount of fun) is now filled with options - some good, some not so good.

So what makes one of these stand out from the others? Let’s start at the holy grail of music games: Guitar Hero 2. When the first iteration of Guitar Hero came out, people scoffed, and players were laughed at for playing with “plastic instruments.” Then GH2 came along and laughter turned to the sounds of rocking out. It came down to a fun, slick interface, amazing song selection, extras that remind you you’re playing a game and last but not least, you really felt like you were rocking out.

Guitar Hero 2 was a smash hit, and suddenly the market was saturated with sequels and with Harmonix throwing out tons of downloadable tracks for Rock Band weekly, players had all the plastic music they’d ever need. Eventually, a bit of the magic was lost, and we’re here to figure out exactly why.

Old games are old
People who jumped on the bandwagon in GH2 have been playing these games for 3 years. What’s the last game you played for 3 years? Probably World of Warcraft or some other MMO if anything, and even then the reason is constantly changing content and a player community. Music games don’t have the luxury of the latter, and now rely heavily on additional content. If we stopped getting DLC, or new iterations of these games so often, they’d fade out. The fad has passed, and while adding drums and vocals refreshed things for a bit, it’s time for something new. Maybe Keyboard Hero is next?

MTV now has a stake in Rock Band, and the influence is easy to see when comparing Rock Band’s original track list to, say, GH2’s. There’s a lot of variety and a lot of new music. My personal music taste aside, there’s a distinct difference between playing “that new song that’s been on the radio” and “that song I’ve been rocking out to for ages.” Music has to establish itself, and flavor of the month stuff ends up having the same lasting power in the game as it does on the radio.

All cleaned up
It feels like there’s a gloss over these games now. GH2 had a grit to it that really just felt like you were in a seedy rock band. Rock Band removed the grit entirely, and the result looks nice, but that presentation layer sits itself inbetween the player and the music, and it comes off lacking personality. The GH sequels took a different approach, and tried to force that grit down our throats. Unfortunately their presentation just looks like a dull and uninspired paper mache version of the original. In a game all about rocking out, personality means a lot.

A most righteous conclusion
In the end, the biggest problem with new music games is they’re not that new. The only difference between one game and the next is the track list, and with the variety of songs being so scattered, it becomes less and less of a lure. Players desperate for new songs drop money every so often to pay for new tracks, but the magic has died and the curtain has closed.

It’ll take a a serious new innovation to get guitar games back to the glory they used to have. I’m sure instead though, we’ll get more rehashes and remakes and track lists, and players will buy it because well, if you want to rock that’s what you have to do. I’m hoping there’ll be some new revelation, something that makes these games as fun as they were when we started playing, but I’m not holding my breath.

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