Deep down, some of us have been longing for this. Through the thousands of runs through Guitar Hero songs, through “Free Bird” and “Green Grass and High Tides” and “Jordan” and even “Through the Fire and the Flames”, through expert runs on five different instruments, through artist-specific games and cheap knockoffs, the ghost of Frequency has always been there, a reminder of what “rhythm game” used to mean.
Frequency felt like the future. Sure, the tracklist is a little too “MTV’s Amp” for some tastes, and sure, the visuals were just psychedelic enough to give you a headache after a while, but the first thing that Harmonix ever did set the stage in such a way as to make the very idea of a “rhythm game” realistic. Sure, we had Parappa the Rapper and his friends, we had Space Channel 5, and Dance Dance Revolution was already a thing before Frequency hit anyone’s radar, but all of those smelt slightly of novelty. It was hard to imagine Parappa as a franchise, a position enhanced by its all too mediocre sequel. It was hard to imagine that Dance Dance Revolution could be anything other than an arcade phenomenon—because who’s going to buy plastic peripherals so they can flail around in front of their TV and look silly?
While it has since been proven that, well, tons of people are more than willing to flail around in front of their TV and look silly, video gaming wasn’t quite ready for that. Frequency took itself seriously as a game and it was played with a controller and it was quality. Amplitude, for its part, was a worthy follow-up with a more mainstream tracklist and a brighter aesthetic, and the two formed a pair of games that might not have been the most popular things on the PlayStation 2, but those that knew about them tended to love them.
The rise and fall of Guitar Hero and Rock Band and the handful of imitators that came along pushed rhythm gaming into the mainstream; for a time, rhythm games actually competed with first-person shooters for console supremacy until market saturation and peripheral fatigue set in. In a purely qualitative sense, the games certainly got better. The problem was that they didn’t get better enough for us to love them.
The genre essentially died with Rock Band 3 and Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock. While games have certainly appeared in which music plays an integral part, they’re games in which we’re given other things to do. Rhythm is incorporated into games. It doesn’t really stand on its own so much anymore.
All that history seems necessary here because Rock Band Blitz, for all its innovation in the genre, its skillful incorporation of already-existing DLC, and its beautiful presentation, feels at the start like a relic of a time gone by.
Eventually, its quality transcends such dismissiveness. Rock Band Blitz is a great game, every bit the game that we would hope for from the people who so meticulously built Rock Band, not to mention the people who taught us to take controller-based rhythm experiences seriously. It separates itself from previous Rock Band experiences by being more about playing a game than about performing a piece of music; all the skillful note pushing in the world won’t win you five stars on a song until you learn the rules, master those rules, and then figure out how to exploit those rules for the sake of the highest possible score. On one hand, this is very much about finding a new way to push buttons to the rhythm of a song. On the other hand, this is about memorizing the game’s layout of a given song to the point where you can make sure that you’re playing whatever track optimizes your score at any give time throughout the song.
To this end, Rock Band Blitz emphasizes the elements of rhythm games that they have always had in common with shmups. In any rhythm game, practice can raise your base skill level to the point where it becomes easier to get through songs on the first try, but the first try will never, ever put you on the leaderboard, particularly in songs with more difficult patterns. True success at these games requires repetition and memorization, both in the fingers and in the brain. Certain passages require that the only thing your eyes are doing is reminding you of what comes next; everything else is in the fingers. Practice and repetition convert even the most difficult passages into mere reflex reactions. While you’re learning it, the song itself becomes secondary to the bubbles floating by on the screen. Once the song is sufficiently implanted into your fingers, that’s when you can actually listen to the song and let those fingers do the work.
Rock Band Blitz transfers some of the responsibility back to the brain through a system that makes a single player responsible for up to five instruments, depending on the song. Drums, bass, guitar, vocals, and keyboard are all represented here, and in most songs, you need to know the layout of all of them to get the big scores. Here’s why: in order to get the big scores, you need to bump up your multiplier on whatever instrument you’re playing. The problem is that you start out capped at a 4x multiplier. But, if you can get every instrument up to a 4x multiplier before hitting a predetermined checkpoint, you can increase your multiplier cap. Increase it a few times, and you could easily be in the 15x to 20x range by the end of a song.
Heck, the multiplier for songs like Tears for Fears’ “Shout” (included in the game’s tracklist) and New Order’s “Blue Monday” (a DLC track) could easily be in the 30s or 40s. Bumping that multiplier cap is utterly necessary to manage scores that give you five stars, much less ones that land you anywhere respectable on the leaderboards. Because each of the tracks can be extremely variable in density and upping the multiplier seems to be a function of hitting some percentage of the total number of notes on a given track between checkpoints, the game is really to find the densest relative populations of notes in each track between each checkpoint.
In essence, each song gets boiled down to a pop-song-length math problem.
There are other pieces that contribute to high scores—doing well on songs rewards the player with coins and “cred”, the latter of which unlocks various power-ups, and the former of which allow the player to use those power-ups on a per-song basis. Some of the power-ups make sense in a rhythm game sense, like the ones that double your multiplier for a limited time and the ones that enhance the score for a single instrument, while others feel like pasting games on top of games, like the “pinball” powerup that launches a ball onto the track and asks the player to keep it in play, an activity that makes it very difficult to concentrate on the notes being hit. The powerups add even more to the strategy involved, though grinding your way to better powerups can be a bit tedious.
Once you do figure out how to pull in some high scores, the game’s leaderboards and Facebook integration could well keep you interested for a long time to come.
What Rock Band Blitz is not is casual. Because the only goal here is high scores, going through the trouble of analyzing the track and trying to figure out the best path through it is almost a necessary part of playing it. You can burn through a few songs if you want, but your only reward will be a bunch of three-to-four-star scores and the burning realization that you could have done better. Playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band were great ways to blow off steam—the amount of concentration required here almost removes that option.
Still, the emphasis on deep knowledge of the tracks, combined with the grind involved in unlocking powerups, combined with the ability to use any previously-downloaded Rock Band DLC, combined with the social network-based online hub all means that you could potentially pour hundreds of hours into this game. It’s a tremendous value for those who have played previous Rock Band games and already have a pile of DLC, and I suspect that the dollars-per-hour ratio is going to look awfully good here even for people who have never played a rhythm game before. If you’re willing to put the time in, it is perhaps the deepest rhythm experience yet on the market, and you won’t need to clutter your home with huge plastic peripherals. It’s a knockout.