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Behind the Music: Rhythm Games From Rock Band to Love Live

Earlier this week, something peculiar happened. Harmonix announced new downloadable content for Rock Band 3. 1)It was officially released Tuesday. Two years ago, this wouldn’t be that notable. For over five years, from November 20, 2007 to April 2, 2013, Harmonix released DLC every week for their Rock Band series. By the time the last planned song, Don McLean’s “American Pie,” was released, there had been over 1,600 songs added to the library, including twenty-five full albums. 2)Several songs have since been removed from the store due to licensing issues, but remain playable for those who have already purchased and downloaded them. It seemed that with “American Pie,” Harmonix was ending the Rock Band section of their history, having focused on their Dance Central series since then. Now, it suddenly seems like Rock Band is back. No Rock Band title is compatible with a next-gen system as of this writing. Is that going to change?

When it comes to video game series introduced during the previous generation of consoles (360, PS3, Wii), the Rock Band series is one of the best. Though the high costs associated with purchasing multiple peripherals for a single game admittedly made Rock Band sort of impenetrable, it was an investment worth making. Plus, Harmonix made sure that all previous peripherals would work with Rock Band and its future titles. And, of course, they supported their games for years on end with tons of DLC.

It’s probably necessary to clear up some misconceptions that hover around the Rock Band series. I’ve had many friends of mine assume that it’s a “rip-off” of Guitar Hero. Not quite. Harmonix developed the first two Guitar Hero games in tandem with RedOctane. Then things changed. Activision bought RedOctane and the rights to the Guitar Hero name in June of 2006, subsequently assigning development to Neversoft (Tony Hawk series) instead of Harmonix. Harmonix got bought by MTV Networks in October of that year. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock and the first Rock Band game came out within a few weeks of each other in late 2007. GHIII was, of course, guitar-only and its selling point was the presence of “Legends of Rock” like Slash and Tom Morello. RB’s selling point was the ability to play as a full band.

In classic Robert Frost style, the two paths these games took are telling of the mindsets behind them. Rock Band 2 focused on fixing technical and stylistic problems from the first game while also working to expand the setlist and continuing the focus on consistent DLC. Guitar Hero: World Tour joined the full-band party and expanded the roster of celebrity likenesses to include Jimi Hendrix, Ozzy Osbourne, Zakk Wylde, and others. You see, of course, where this is going. If you don’t, all you need to know is that Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain were in fucking Guitar Hero 5.

Activision closed the RedOctane division down in 2010 and the final entry in the GH series, Warriors of Rock, opted not to include any likenesses of actual musicians because of the fallout from putting Kurt Cobain and Johnny Cash in a video game. Meanwhile, Rock Band 3 let you play with real, actual instruments (“Pro” mode) so that you could learn music while playing the video game, as well as adding keyboards. Though I never shelled out for the Pro guitar or anything, I love the concept. I do have to admit we used the keyboard controller maybe like three times, though.

The simplest way to read into the different paths those game series took is in the band-specific side games that were released. Guitar Hero had three: Metallica, Aerosmith, and Van Halen. Rock Band had The Beatles, Green Day, and LEGO Rock Band. One scope is narrow while the other is broad. Activision and Neversoft really went all-in with the “metal” characterization of their game while Harmonix only managed to make a game about The Beatles, featuring The Beatles, and with music performed by The Beatles. Speaking as someone who’s not even really a Beatles fan, The Beatles: Rock Band is a great game.

It’s really heartening to see that Harmonix seems to be turning to Rock Band again, even after a successful Kickstarter campaign for a remaster of their old game Amplitude for PS3 and PS4. Some of my best memories from high school come from long, winding RB sessions. The band I played with kicked members out and added new ones. I started as a guitar player and then fell in love with drums. Our bass player got to experience lead guitar for a while before being shuffled back to bass. Our vocalist never showed up to a practice.

Rock Band even sort of influenced our “real” band. I’m using pretty massive scare quotes here because even though we had a band with a name and we had instruments and stuff, we never actually ever played a song. Our RB band at the peak of its powers had me on drums, Official Game Losers NBA Correspondent Whenever He Actually Writes An Article DeShawn Brown on bass, and a pair of our friends on lead guitar and vocals. Our vocalist had been an All-State school chorus singer since basically elementary school and our guitarist played real guitar and was pretty good at it, as well as the fake guitar. 3)Yes, he could play “Through the Fire and Flames.”

We liked playing together as a fake band and we were pretty good at it. We also had a penchant for shuffling through band names like no other. Massive Dish Rock, Wednesday No More, Pretty Tall For A Girl, Science Fair Rejects, and The Serious Thought. 4)I loved this last one but no one else did. Eventually we realized something. Maybe we should become an actual band? I had a drumset my dad bought on a whim a while back. Our guitarist had several guitars. And microphones are pretty easy to come by. Our bass player just needed … an actual bass.

So we pooled money together and bought him one for his birthday. Surprise!

That gift was intentioned to make us serious about actually working on our band. We had a few rehearsals and were on track to, get this, play a cover of “Lose Yourself” during the talent show during senior year of high school. But as so often happens, drama tore the band apart and Science Fair Rejects never played a single song.

Rock Band 3 is probably the pinnacle so far of rhythm games. In truth, the seventh generation probably saw peak rhythm game as Rock Band and Guitar Hero competed. The rhythm game genre has its roots in the late 1990s, as games like PaRappa the Rapper, Beatmania, and Dance Dance Revolution used music to expand what was possible in video games. Rhythm games took a while to catch on in North America, but titles like Harmonix’s Frequency and Amplitude as well as Vib-Ribbon for the PlayStation and Donkey Konga on Nintendo GameCube gave it a strong footing.

And though the “death” of both the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series in the past several years might lead some to believe that the rhythm game fad has passed, mobile phones and gaming devices have made it stronger than ever. One of the best rhythm games of the last decade, Elite Beat Agents, was released for Nintendo DS. And smartphones are basically where rhythm games live now.

Some of the most popular games in the early history of the iPhone came from the Tap Tap series. Tap Tap Revenge 3 hit #1 on the App Store overnight when it came out in late 2009. Combining simple, rhythm-based gameplay with tiered difficulties and Top 40 tracks proved to be a good formula, though one that for some reason didn’t last. Tapulous, the company behind Tap Tap, was bought by Disney in 2010 and folded in January of 2014, pulling all of their games from the App Store. It was fun while it lasted.

A game both similar to and different from Tap Tap has been making waves stateside recently. The game, developed by KLab, distributed by Bushiroad, and titled Love Live! School Idol Festival is one part of a much larger multimedia shenanigan. It’s similar in theory to Gorillaz; real people make the music but animated characters perform it. These characters have decided to become idols in order to save their high school from shutting down. It’s a cute concept, two seasons of the anime have already aired, and the songs released by the characters’ idol groups perform very well on the Japanese charts.

The game is similar in its skeleton to Tap Tap games. Music (in this case, the aforementioned songs released by the characters’ idol groups) plays and you’re tasked with using your two free fingers to tap and hold to the beat. The key difference is that while Tap Tap was played vertically and tasked you with taking care of three columns, LLSIF is played horizontally and there are nine columns to keep track of. Though it sounds daunting, the learning curve is about the same. It, like any other well-made rhythm game, is very fun and hard to stop playing.

Buoyed by its localization last summer, LLSIF is doing pretty good for itself in the US App Store—it’s the fourth-highest grossing music game. That said, it’s obviously doing much better in Japan: it’s currently the ninth-highest grossing app overall. Like countless other games on the App Store, it is free to download and free to play, but you’re just as free to use real money to purchase things within the game. Also like countless other games, you have a finite amount of energy (LP) to spend on playing songs; when you run out, you have to wait in real time for the meter to fill back up. The game’s premium currency is Love Gems and their most basic use is to refill the LP meter entirely, which costs one Love Gem. Continuing your progress in a song that is failed costs the same.

The real worth of Love Gems, and the real reason this game makes so much money, is the game’s heart and soul: the idols themselves. What makes this game so brilliant is that it is also, in a manner of speaking, a trading card game. The nine columns I mentioned earlier are filled by various characters, some created specifically for the game. Based on their rarity, level, and specialization, they serve to increase your scores, thereby increasing the rewards you earn for performing well.

The characters take the form of cards, for lack of a better term. They cover four tiers of rarity: N, R, SR, and UR. Rarer characters obviously have higher stats. 5)It’s important to note here that tiers R and above consist of different versions of the main nine characters. The N tier is comprised mostly of characters created specifically for this game. Two of the same character can be combined, or “idolized,” into a version of that character with another outfit, better stats, and higher level caps.

Here’s where yet another dimension enters the game. Once you have idolized a character, you can maximize your bond with that character by performing well on songs while that character is in your group. 6)You can build bonds with non-idolized characters, but the cap increases once they are idolized. Once that bond is maxed out, you unlock a side-story for that particular character. For the N-tier characters they’re rather short, but they do offer characterization unavailable elsewhere. The main nine, having different cards of themselves, offer deeper immersion. For each side-story that is completed, you earn a substantial amount of G (used for idolizing) and a Love Gem. Most of these side-stories read rather like dating sims. So yes, this is a combination rhythm game trading card game and dating sim lite.

If you’re wondering why I keep crossing out the word “trading” it’s because of my main criticism about this game: you are unable to trade the cards, which is a pretty important thing in a trading card game. Instead, the only ways to get new cards is through either playing the game (which offers only N-tiers), using Friendship Points (non-premium currency achieved through adding friends and performing well on songs; this method has a low chance of giving you an R-tier), or spending Love Gems. You can get Love Gems through standard gameplay, but they are scarce. But spending them is literally the only non-event way to get cards of SR and UR rarity. 7)The game is transparent about your odds of getting a given card. You have a 90% chance of getting an R, 10% chance of SR, and 1% chance of UR.

It costs five Love Gems per card purchase, or fifty for eleven. In real world money, Love Gems cost anywhere from ninety-nine cents for one to thirty bucks for fifty. The lack of a trading function is obviously calculated, in one sense to prevent fraud and in another sense to make it more of a necessity to fork cash over to buy the best cards. Those SR and UR cards have sky-high stats and very good art. But boy, they’re hard to come by. 8)I was lucky enough to pull a UR with Love Gems I had saved up through playing the game.

If you want a review of LLSIF, you’ve got nothing to lose by trying it. 9)It’s also available on Android. Even if you don’t know the first thing about any of the characters, have fun playing a rhythm game with some J-Pop songs! Maybe you’ll learn something about friendship along the way. I sure did.

Rhythm games have grown rapidly in the past fifteen years to cover quite the wide berth, from games with full-on instruments to smaller games featuring anime girls on your smartphone. That’s not to mention games which generate content on the fly based on music like AudioSurf or games like Rez which generate music on the fly based on your actions. It’s relatively a fledgling genre, but there aren’t many other genres out there that offer the possibilities of rhythm games.

Notes   [ + ]

1. It was officially released Tuesday.
2. Several songs have since been removed from the store due to licensing issues, but remain playable for those who have already purchased and downloaded them.
3. Yes, he could play “Through the Fire and Flames.”
4. I loved this last one but no one else did.
5. It’s important to note here that tiers R and above consist of different versions of the main nine characters. The N tier is comprised mostly of characters created specifically for this game.
6. You can build bonds with non-idolized characters, but the cap increases once they are idolized.
7. The game is transparent about your odds of getting a given card. You have a 90% chance of getting an R, 10% chance of SR, and 1% chance of UR.
8. I was lucky enough to pull a UR with Love Gems I had saved up through playing the game.
9. It’s also available on Android.