A decade on, the Guitar Hero and Rock Band craze could easily pass as the video game industry’s very own disco moment. Requiring expensive hunks of plastic good for nothing else (unless you’re the type who thinks Dark Souls is too easy with a traditional controller) and supposedly encouraging teenagers to severely overestimate their ability to translate their in-game skills toward actual playing, mockery came easy. Now its success seems all but a blip.
As a teenager at the time, however, it’s hard to overstate the impact these games had on my cultural development. In a series celebrating popular music, Harmonix did not skimp out on their set lists. I have listened to several thousand albums now, but that all started with Rock Band 2 introducing me to Sonic Youth and Bikini Kill. From David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix to Phoenix and Amy Winehouse, the series covered as many styles and eras as possible, with thousands of additional songs available to download. As a collection of music, this is the height of licensed video game soundtracks.
Of course, a rhythm game is far more than its music. Rock Band 3 was Harmonix at their zenith, but this all started with Guitar Hero. The idea was simple; where its most popular predecessor (Dance Dance Revolution) focused on how the listener interacts with music, Guitar Hero focused on the creative side. Naturally, five buttons and a bar offer little in the way of true simulation, but the joy of this process rests more in gaining a deeper understanding of the songs themselves. The simple presentation highlights this single instrument in a sea of sound. Guitar Hero never taught anyone how to play guitar, but it certainly left some of us better attuned while listening. And, for those of us who actually recognized this as a video game, the series offered its own unique and challenging experience; powering through “Free Bird” until finally managing it on expert difficulty gave perfect bragging rights.
Harmonix expanded on this with Rock Band, adding bass guitars, drums, and vocals to the mix (the Guitar Hero series starting with 3 were developed by a different studio). Rock Band 3 stands as the definitive version due to going yet another step, adding a keyboard and vocal harmonies along with a “Pro” mode which could use an actual guitar alongside a more complex variation on the drums. The amount of content and variety is staggering; with 83 songs included on disc and most utilizing all five instruments, that’s well over 300 different parts to play with the base game alone. The sheer difference between these instruments almost makes this five games in one.
Key to Rock Band’s success is the communal aspect. In an era where mainstream multiplayer games were dominated by competitive shooters and fighting games, Rock Band offered something completely different and cooperative. Few games have replicated the asymmetrical unity on display here. Some of my fondest high school memories found four or five of us belting it out for hours, each contributing our own unique part toward a shared goal. This would always come to a screeching halt as we approached midnight and my step-dad asked us to turn that racket down.
The party might have ended, but only because Rock Band was such a singular experience – Rock Band 4 exists, with a few limitations and largely as a way to harbor the massive content during the generation that followed. There was simply no meaningful path forward with how much Rock Band 3 offered. Though it’s easy to mock those days of beating on plastic instruments, this is where I learned to better recognize music as individual parts building toward a singularly cohesive unit.
Plenty of games have left their mark, but Rock Band is one of the few I can say changed me as a person, and that goes beyond opening me up to the world of popular music. After a childhood of fearing my own voice due to various speech impediments, those evenings of wanting everyone to play a part would eventually end with a microphone being tossed my way. Though it may not be the most beautiful voice, Rock Band offered an outlet for me to realize it was safe to sing among friends.