Battle of the Bands

Personal identity is so grounded in group identity. Race, gender, nationality, class, and even loyalty to regions, cities, and schools mark individuals from birth, stamping them with a variety of aspects of identity that is difficult to ignore personally and publically. Interestingly, most of these markers are ones which cannot be ignored because of their inalienable qualities. They are identity markers that we are born with either because of genetic makeup or because the choice of where we are born or how much money our folks make just aren’t things under our control.

Of course, self-identity and its relationship to those things that make us different from others but also bind us to a group grows more complicated as individuals themselves grow. Choices about what and with whom we affiliate ourselves begin springing up especially in adolescence.

This may be one of the reasons that adolescents seem so interested in and enamored with music. It is one of the first markers that is freely chosen by the individual. Okay, maybe not entirely freely, as some of the aforementioned markers may limit exposure to or influence musical choices; nevertheless, it is most often a place that allows people to differentiate themselves from, at least, their parents.

Teens cling to their musical tastes — love of bands, genres, etc. — with a near nationalistic fervor. The choice of listening to and becoming an aficionado of hip hop, country, alternative, etc. says something about who a teenager is, what they like, and how they see themselves.

Thus, the notion of a game that uses a “battle of the bands” for its premise that allows players (unsurprisingly, given its rating from teens upwards) to pit groups of varying genres against one another for a battle of not simply musical but genre supremacy seems an astonishingly brilliant way of tapping into the rhythm game market. This is especially clever given the way in which that market has been so readily embraced in the last few years by some of the youngest of the current generation of gamers.

THQ’s approach to a market in which Guitar Hero and Rock Band are dominating is a smart one. Rather than rehash a style of game where the two aforementioned juggernauts have already succeeded, why not build on the mechanics and style that developers like Harmonix have established with their games by bringing both something old and something new to the mix?

In a nutshell, Battle of the Bands takes the now familiar scrolling note line, the “beat track,” long familiar to fans of games like Harmonix’s Frequency and Amplitude as well as more recently to players of games like the Harmonix designed and influenced Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and puts a Wiimote in the hands of the player in order to play and score that line of notes in time with the track.

However, the first twist on this now familiar approach to the genre is that your band is always sharing the stage with an opposing band (either another player or a computer opponent). Both you and your adversary play a given song, but — and here is the second twist — each band attempts to wrest control of the song themselves. Thus, the song changes hands and styles as it progresses. You might have a marching band and a country band playing a cover of “Brick House” at the same time. Not only is the song removed from its funk and disco roots to begin with, but, as it is played, its sounds shift from that of a full brass band to twangy guitars and twangy southern accents.

The pleasure of the game is much like the pleasure derived from jamming along with a favorite tune in Guitar Hero, but its additional pleasure is in giggling along to a marching band belting out a Ramones song or a mariachi band singing a Spanish-language and Spanish-influenced version of the Georgia Satellites’ “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.”

Additionally, there is the very basic identity component that allows you to transform music that normally you don’t identify with into a genre that is more to your liking. The Georgia Satellites a little too country rock for you? Turn them into a hip hop group.

At times, you’ll be amazed how the shifting tone of the lyrics of a song can so completely change their meaning based on the “attitude” of the genre (“Mama Said Knock You Out” becomes a whole different song when sung by a jug band). At other times, you’ll be amazed at how little those attitudes actually differ despite said differences (“Brick House” seems an awfully urban form of misogyny; When hicks sing it, it may be rural misogyny, but it ain’t that different).

The game boasts five major genre “styles” — country, hip hop, rock, ranchero, and marching band — but with eleven bands full of caricature-styled band mates, a number of more subtle differences still manage to emerge that even further differentiate group identity via the sub-genres of these styles. For example, the rock bands include standard hard rockers, a heavier metal group, and even a group that I would associate more with “death rock” or screamo. The country bands include a more traditional group of cowboy-ish artists that one might expect to hail from Texas and a band of hillbillies complete with a jug player that I think would be more likely be from somewhere like West Virginia.

This transformative element and the battle for a dominant sound leads to an interesting slate of songs. Other rhythm games that I have played usually leave me feeling mixed about their playlists. Some tunes I love but some songs are grating for me to get through just based on my own personal taste. Interestingly, this set of songs becomes almost universally palatable through its emphasis on difference. This is both because it is fun to hear certain tunes played in absurd ways but also because the game allows the player to make the song into something more familiar to their own record collection. It is easy to overlook the fact that you normally don’t like a given song since it can be played in a “familiar” way.

Such personal tastes may not be so easily accommodating to players only familiar with rhythm games played via customized controllers (à la the guitars and drums of Guitar Hero and Rock Band). The game plays through the Wiimote and is largely a very physical affair as a result (more physical, at least, than the guitar controller).

The movements of the Wiimote, which require you to flick it down, left, and right, and stab it occasionally at the screen to hit notes, may be less like taking on the role of a rocker than a conductor, which may lose some of the pleasure of the physical similarity that simulates taking on the role of a “guitar hero,” which seems in part to have drawn so many recently to the rhythm genre.

Such “baton waving,” too, takes a physical toll on the player as many Wii games seem to do. You may leave an extended session of Battle of the Bands with a rather sore upper arm from waving and waggling at the screen.

Nevertheless, the level of humor, style, and innovation and especially the fun of dueling musical identities up there on the screen serve as an engaging representation of the desire to both belong to something and to be willing to fight for it. Battle of the Bands suggests that musical identity, like other group-based identifiers like national identity, can lead to some sometimes spectacular and sometimes absurd battlegrounds for human conflict.

RATING 8 / 10