For Harmonix the long time ago was November 2005, the time when most of us first saw the appeal of playing fake guitars in video games. Its fair to say the music made us smile also, as what looked like a game of niche appeal (especially considering the lack of commercial success of games like Guitar Freaks) became a complete phenomenon. Of course Harmonix eventually parted with Guitar Hero and upped the game once more with Rock Band, ditching the singular instrument focus and opening up a whole new world of gameplay possibilities and music. Rock Band hit the states in 2007 and has since been my go to series for the entire genre, Guitar Hero had the name and a bit more popularity, but it was Rock Band which won over the hearts of so many. The novelty of strumming a guitar along with your game was no longer the key factor and Harmonix exhibited a level of professionalism and polish that Guitar Hero werent pulling off. Sure, if you were crazy into the devil and tired rock n roll iconography then I can see how Guitar Hero would be the game for you (when you arent playing Doom of course), but Rock Band was the one for me.
I can only speak to my own experience here, so forgive me for generalising, but I think its fair to say that if you cared about music (and specifically rock music) Rock Band was the gold standard. It was a game made by music lovers for music lovers, with an appreciation for the art form it presented. Just look at The Beatles Rock Band, which was the perfect tribute to one of (if not the) greatest bands of all time. Every aspect of the game was lovingly crafted and all went towards giving you the authentic (though entirely drug free) Beatles experience. Iconic moments were faithfully recreated, the setlist did a great job of showing the bands musical arc and the visual details and buckets of extras just couldnt have been better. It was a true loving letter to the bad and is still a highlight of my video game collection (I feel obliged to say that I am a huge Beatles fan, so make of that what you will). The Beatles Rock Band wasnt the only band specific rhythm game of 2009 though, remember Guitar Hero Van Halen? Honestly, I would be surprised if you did. Harmonix advertised the Beatles to the ends of the earth, going as far as to create a truly fantastic awkward E3 moment featuring the surviving Beatles and Yoko Ono on stage (separately of course). The Van Halen treatment on the other hand was very different. Perhaps aware that they were still making spin-offs while Harmonix was putting out a proper standalone video game (superb in its right), Activision decided to pretty much write Van Halen off. As people gave away their $60 just to play Beatles tracks Activision were giving Van Halen away as a freebie if you bought Guitar Hero 5. This (perhaps unfair) treatment of the game made Guitar Hero Van Halen look more like the free CD or game disc you get with a magazine than a proper tribute to a beloved rock group. Perhaps this was appropriate though, you dont set a B-movie up against Citizen Kane, and while the Beatles game was praised for its attention to detail and authenticity Van Halen was criticised for lacking in this area.
This only part of why Rock Band became so much more important to me than Guitar Hero though. I love music, I love rock music especially, and Harmonix treated it with the reverence that I think it deserves. The key factor though, and the reason why I still play Rock Band 3 to this day, was the Rock Band store, and here we have the true point of this blog. That opening verse form Don McLeans American Pie is more relevant than forced connections between it and the path of Harmonix. Its true that they started a long, long time ago (ok not that long ago, but cut me some slack), made us smile and eventually decided to make us dance when given the chance. The importance is not this though; the importance is that American Pie is the final song to come to Rock Band. Recently they stated they were stopping weekly song releases and now Harmonix have announced that they are stopping updates altogether, and what a way to end it. Im not the biggest fan of the song, I like it and am listening to it as I write this blog, but I will not deny how appropriate it is as a finale. Personally I would have been perhaps more on the nose and tried to get my hands on The End by the Doors (Im imagining Apocalypse Now levels of darkness and insanity in the backing video) but really American Pie is a better fit. This is really an end of an era, these plastic instrument games were so big and this is the last hurrah. Its a genre I dont see coming back next generation, and it is one Im going to miss, for Rock Band (and perhaps plastic instrument rhythm games as a whole) this truly is the day the music died. But what a legacy they have left behind! The dedication Harmonix put into supporting their product is really impressive. Some have criticised them for putting out three Rock Band games rather than pure DLC, but for me Rock Band 3 was so good that this was never an issue. The flow of DLC may have stopped but we are not left deficient in content, there are over 4,000 songs to pick from on the store now, and while half of those are user created Rock Band network songs this still represents quite an achievement.
I will be honest, the Rock Band store never had everything I wanted, but it was never going to. It had enough to satisfy me though, and enough quality material to put a couple of hundred tracks in my personal library (really the limit was my wallet not the quality on offer). This is a paltry amount compared to the Rock Band libraries of so many of your but it was still a significant investment and one I dont regret for a second. This is kind of a sad moment for me then; Im proud of my Rock Band library and am now forced to accept that songs I wanted will never be there. I never really expected the songs to appear but living in denial is still better than being hit in the face by reality. I dont feel we should be saddened by the end though, or rejoice it, merely reflect on the amount of support Harmonix put behind their product for good or for bad. It may be a genre you have no interest in, and you may be happy to see it exit the stage after its final encore, but I think you should still appreciate it. While Guitar Hero sequalised the genre to death Rock Band did live the dream we wanted of a platform for music, and the occasional sequel just refined this further. Harmonix were truly a developer who cared about music, and cared about their product, you may not miss the updates (you may be glad the clutter has gone from XBLA and PSN) but I for one will miss it and I know there are others out there. So I would like to take this moment to thank Harmonix for going above and beyond the call of duty and for showing a genuine passion for what they make and what they represent.
I will leave you guys with a short list of my Rock Band dreams, and I would like to hear yours, so here are five albums that I would have loved to see in Rock Band (not my five favourite albums, just ones I would love to play in the game). Though realistically my biggest wish was Led Zeppelin Rock Band,
1. Appetite for Destruction- Guns n Roses (This would have to be uncensored, which could cause an issue, but this would be so much fun to play. One of the best rock albums ever written and would be a blast on all instruments (bar keyboard I guess))
2. The Bends- Radiohead (Not their best album (though up there) but the one which best translates to a music game)
3. Argus- Wishbone Ash (I saw Wishbone Ash play most of this album live and it was just amazing, when it comes to pure musicality and just amazing guitar music you dont get much better than this)
4. Physical Graffiti- Led Zeppelin (If I cant have the full game, at least give me my favourite album... Oh, I cant have that either? Dammit.)
5. Kill Em All- Metallica (I think this album might be the most fun Metallica album to play, and I would really love to play (Anaesthesia) Pulling Teeth)