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The Beatles: Rock Band

(MTV Games; US: 9 Sep 2009)

My colleague, Mike Schiller, reviewed Guitar Hero 5 earlier this week, arguing that of the these two big September music game releases that the latest Guitar Hero is the better product.  I can’t speak to that claim (though the set list on Guitar Hero 5 looks really pretty good and Mike’s argument is generally pretty compelling) as I have only played The Beatles: Rock Band at this point and not Guitar Hero 5.


I do want to speak to one criticism that Mike made when making his comparison between Guitar Hero 5 (which he observed added a lot of new components to the game this time out) and The Beatles: Rock Band.  He said that “there is nothing new about The Beatles: Rock Band other than the music and the personalities.”  While I do intend to suggest a bit about a few subtle differences between this version of Rock Band and its prior incarnations, Mike is certainly not wrong in his estimation that The Beatles is not really “new” per se. Interestingly, though, I think that one of the strengths of this iteration of the series is related to the fact that “there is nothing new about it” in terms of its gameplay but especially in regard to its music and personalities and how that relates to and maybe improves its gameplay in some way.


This is your grandma’s Rock Band.  And frankly, that is kind of a good thing.


The Beatles as a band and a phenomena are one of the most inclusive things to happen to popular music, well, ever.  Interest in The Beatles crosses generational lines.  Yes, they belong largely to the Baby Boomers, but Gen X grew up listening to their music on oldies stations in the back of the station wagon.  What song did Ferris Bueller dance to on the float during his day off after all?  Oh, yeah, and he actually knew all the words to “Twist and Shout”, too.  The Millenials (despite the infamous lack of availability on iTunes) too can’t escape the ubiquity of The Beatles recordings (run a search on YouTube—you’re gonna get hits, quite a lot of them).


For good reason, too.  The Beatles’ music and influence spans decades and defies musical classification.  These guys play pop, folk, blues… hell, there is a bit of proto-punk in “Helter Skelter”.  There is enough music in The Beatles catalog that someone can find something to like and get excited about, something that can be said for very few bands.  You don’t have to love them (and, honestly, they aren’t my favorite band), but there is probably a song or two or seven that you think is at least pretty good.


This inclusivity transfers over pretty well to a rhythm game.  The idea of playing some plastic instruments with a group of people has proven to be a pretty successful formula for attracting gamers, both hardcore and casual, as well as non-gamers to gather around the TV set in living rooms across the world.  Rock Band and Guitar Hero have both become pretty ubiquitous phenomena in their own rights as folks who love games and folks who have never touched an actual controller find that they can all appreciate the experience that these games have to offer. 


The only thing that hasn’t always been that inclusive and inviting has been the set lists.  Last Thanksgiving, my wife and I had my parents, my brother and sister and their spouses, and some friends from town all up for dinner.  There were Boomers, cusp Boomers, Silents, Xers, and Millenials all gathered in a room for one day, and at some point, all gathered around a TV set to jam out some simulated tunes. Everyone was pretty much into the whole artificial Rock Band performance, smiling, laughing, singing along.  Well, except once in awhile, those curmudgeonly Silents and Boomers would mutter about how “stupid” some of these songs were.  They liked the idea; they couldn’t get past the generational divide represented in what they were hearing.


Still, the game drew in my casual gamer brother and my non-gaming parents (despite their occasional mutterings about a song titled “Wave of Mutilation” and the fact that I avoided playing songs with phrases like “hooker waitress” while they were there).  Look, I love me some Pixies and a little Courtney Love, but I can dig that my 60-something mother and my 70-something father just don’t quite “get it”.  The Beatles: Rock Band changes the nature of the game with the simple inclusion of the most inclusive band in the world.  Now, my folks have something they know the words to.  In other words, if Rock Band was already ground breaking in providing space for casual and non-gamers in a medium largely only embraced by X and Y, The Beatles just managed to widen that space to something amounting to the size of the Grand Canyon.


Having said all of that this is a good Rock Band for creating seats at the gaming table, however, beyond that, it admittedly does not represent some revolutionary approach to the genre.  It’s solid with a strong, however smallish (45 songs), set list. There are some great songs here, but someone is certainly going to feel like an essential tune has been missed just by dint of the size of The Beatles catalog.


The ostensible “history lesson” that the game tells about the evolution of the Beatles career from their lowly beginnings playing The Cavern through their introduction to the world on the Ed Sullivan show to the psychedelic years at the Abbey Road studio boils down to little more than a few brief cut scenes where we see old photos of the Beatles during these eras and then see them take the stage.  It isn’t the most enlightening narrative, but then again, most players probably would just like to get to playing the songs. 


The graphics and cartoonish representation of The Beatles is charming enough if a bit blah over time given that you will continue to see more or less the same suit and tie mop top looks when playing through the earliest Beatles tunes and the hippie and psychedelic styled Beatles as they play their later hits.  Probably the most interesting moments of visual innovation occur during the Abbey Road recording era (for my money, it also contains the strongest line up of songs—but that’s a matter of personal taste), in which the typical rock band crowd that watch your virtual performance is excised from the game in favor of just watching the Beatles play quietly together in the studio before being launched into complex, hallucinatory visions of the worlds of songs like “I Am the Walrus”, “Yellow Submarine”, and Octopus Garden”.


These moments are visually pleasing, however, they do detract from one of the staple qualities of the Rock Band experience.  I find that the experience of “feeling” like a rock star that these games are capable of generating are in part generated through the crowd cues in the game.  The way that the crowd goes crazy when your band is playing together perfectly or when someone kicks in an overdrive contributes largely to such feelings of rock deification in addition to holding on to or leaning over a peripheral that closely resembles an instrument.  Both of these simulatory aspects provide the foundation of the illusion of playing in a band. 


I never really felt like some kind of approximation of “being” a Beatle was fully achieved when playing The Beatles: Rock Band.  The psychedelia feels right but is something to observe, not feel a part of, because the game isn’t really reacting to your input in the manner that the crowd cues indicate.  I kind of wanted to see more “little girls” break down screaming and crying during my performance to get that seemingly “true” Beatles vibe (the little girls are there but relegated to the brief introductory cut scenes when the Beatles arrive at a venue, so they seem to be reacting to the guys that are arriving on the screen rather than to my arrival, since I don’t directly participate in a passive cut scene).


Finally, hardcore fans of the series may be a little bit disappointed by the less challenging nature of a lot of these tunes.  There are a few tricky tunes here (look for them especially in the latter end of the Beatles career), but generally, these songs are a lot easier to play than previous line ups.  I guess that this monkeys a bit with my claim about the near purity of the game’s commitment to inclusivity as the hardcore may be left a little bored by some of these proceedings and may want to retire early the evening of a Beatles: Rock Band session. 


At the same time, though, this lowering of the bar does contribute to that inclusivity as well.  This is grandma’s Rock Band after all, and she may not give up in utter frustration when trying to learn the drums thanks in part to these kinder and gentler tracks.  For more middle of the line players like myself, too, the more graduated difficulty curve is very appealing. Making the leap from Medium difficulty to Hard is pretty daunting in the original games.  Because of the slower pace, lack of complexity, and greater amount of regular patterns of a lot of the songs here, trying out a more difficult version of a song is far less of a leap and there are far more songs that I like playing that allow me to continue to practice.  Maybe I can finally train my hand to find where that damned orange button is on the guitar neck!  In essence, this version may serve as a bit of a less punishing trainer for more casual fans of the series.


All in all, though, The Beatles: Rock Band is a fun addition to the series.  It gets a lot of things right with a license that that obviously comes along with some pretty high expectations.  Its greatest strength, however, is in wedding its already inclusive game play style with a music that promotes a similar inclusivity and in doing so makes its own broad appeal that much broader.  For that reason, it is kind of a “must have” if Rock Band is a party game staple for you.  Heck, this is a game that you might find granny playing all by herself.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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