Soapbox: The Era Of Rock Band, Guitar Hero And Plastic Instruments Was Silly But Special

The Beatles Rock Band
Image: Harmonix

Over the past few weeks it’s been a lot of fun to share a huge range of music-themed features as part of the Nintendo Life VGM Festival. Much of our focus, quite rightly, has been on highlighting the amazing talents behind the soundtracks and audio design that we enjoy in games. For a little change, though, I wanted to reflect on a long-gone era when plastic instruments and wish fulfilment were all the rage – the time of Rock Band and Guitar Hero.

Like The Beatles vs The Rolling Stones, or Blur vs Oasis, these two brands duked it out in during the 2000s, and in a dizzying few years we had a whole lot of rhythm games and assorted accessories flood the market. I had no allegiance either way, skipping between the IPs depending on which game took my fancy, and the legacy is a pile of colourful plastic instruments up in the loft, dusty and in one annoying case barely functional. Yet as recently as last Christmas I had them out, dutifully dusted down, for a bit of co-op music.

While some families play Mario Party and Mario Kart, when it comes to multiplayer games in the Holidays — as well as actual board games, of course — it’s a little different in my parents’ household. Sure, my parents are retired and my brother and I are hurtling towards middle-age [aren’t you already middle-aged? – Ed], but we still gather at the end of the year and do much the same stuff as we used to 20 years ago. Our routines are well established, and I don’t think we’ll ever willingly change them.

Even in the old days, we weren’t exactly the band of photogenic 20-year-olds from the adverts — my brother and I would swap between bass and lead guitar, and my folks would sometimes join in, too. Then there are the Rock Band drums, daft things that are actually very loud in a toy-like way.

It figures, too, we’re a music loving family. My brother played clarinet back at the dawn of time, and in my teens I was serious enough about my music studies that I flirted with the idea of training to be a professional classical musician. My parents are big music fans, too, so for years these games — the Wii versions in this case — were staples. Last Christmas one of the Guitar Hero guitars was barely working, but we still made the most of it. The allure never fades.

We have a couple of the Guitar Hero entries, which are great for classic rock tracks. My absolute favourite though, and the one that brings everyone into the room, is The Beatles: Rock Band. My dad plays games least out of all of us but adores The Beatles, and growing up listening to their albums I feel like I know pretty much every lyric they’ve ever written. This is the game where we get close to a full band going — guitar, bass and drums, and it’s still some of the best fun.

And really, as a project it was arguably the peak of the era. No doubt EA, MTV Games and Harmonix had to bend over backwards to secure the rights for the most famous band of all time, and what’s fascinating is that the work they did in mixing the tracks delivered some of the highest quality copies of Beatles music that had been heard to that point. Giles Martin — son of famous Beatles producer George Martin — painstakingly deconstructed and enhanced the source recordings, which were then converted into ‘stems’ that could support each part and their gameplay. The type of work done on the game is still utilised now to produce mixes of iconic recordings.

Even on Wii, which of course was rocking 480p standard definition visuals, the game looked fantastic. The development team clearly respected and admired the band, as the style and quality of the music videos/performances for each track were gorgeous. It felt like playing through a historical reimagining of a golden era in music. Absolutely wonderful.

And look, none of us was pretending it made us good at the real instruments. The drum parts were simplified, and though I can play some instruments, guitar isn’t one of them — being able to slay rock tracks on a plastic axe with colourful buttons doesn’t make me a guitarist. But what silly fun it was, genuine wish fulfilment, executed with aplomb.

Sadly, both EA and Activision — as publishers — overplayed their hands in those times, flooding the market with too many sequels and variations on pricey accessories. Sales fell away, and an attempted comeback a generation later flopped badly.

Like many great moments, it was a flame that burned too brightly. But still, come the Holidays I’ll dust those instruments off one more time and ‘play’ some wonderful music once again, with a little help from my friends.

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