Through The Years | Take a Look Back at Harmonix’s Rock Band

Despite popular belief, music games are far from dead. Rock Band is still holding strong, and newer titles like Dance Central add more ways to game and jam at the same time. Starting with the original title, Harmonix continued in its efforts to innovate the music game genre, succeeding with each entry. With Rock Band Blitz releasing this coming Tuesday, iGo Gaming is going to take a look through the years of Harmonix’s history with their critically praised Rock Band series. Let’s hit the same time machine Harmonix is implementing in Dance Central 3 and take a look at the past…

2007: The First Music Game to Introduce Drums – Rock Band

As most know, Harmonix originally worked on the Guitar Hero series, up until Guitar Hero Encore: Rock the 80s. It was then that they stepped onto the steps of a new boat to create something innovative with the same stylistic concept of Guitar Hero. Rock Band did just that, introducing drums and vocals in addition to the guitar and bass. Gameplay was very similar to Guitar Hero titles – players must hit a note coming down a highway as it hits the strike zone and launch Overdrive to double up the score. However, the addition of drums is what made this title unique. A drum controller, which featured many aspects of an actual drum set.Players must strike a drum pad to the beat of the song, along with stomping on a bass pedal to simulate the bass drum. It was an innovative way of gameplay that started the trend in future Rock Band and Guitar Hero titles.

Players were also given the ability to sing along to the many famous rock songs. Vocal gameplay was pretty much what one would come to expect – match the pitch and tone to that of the song playing. While this isn’t exactly a new formula – seen plenty in karaoke games – it was the idea of gathering four players up to create a band of video game rockstars that made this game superb.

The game’s “Band World Tour” mode is Rock Band’s main career, focusing on a cooperative gameplay style. Gather up four of your best friends and jam the hell out to the game’s setlist. During certain sections, players were given the ability to make choices for their own benefits, stuff similar to that in the actual music industry. Some examples of these would be to perform benefit concerts or “sell-out,” resulting in losing fans. This formula only further expanded in future titles and iterations.

Rock Band was also the first music game that gave players the ability to customize their own rockstar to their liking, including various instruments and clothing. It made for a unique rock band simulator, rather than a music video game. This idea would only evolve further with Harmonix future efforts.

2008: Improved Controllers & Career Changes Make Up Rock Band 2

A year later, Harmonix released Rock Band 2. The sequel saw some changes to the game’s career mode, and a setlist composed of master recordings, whereas the predecessor was made up of cover bands. Harmonix also used this sequel to create new instrument peripherals, improving from the mistakes of the first batch.

The biggest change was seen with the game’s drum set. While almost identical to a set of electric drums, the peripheral lacked one thing – cymbals. Harmonix changed that this time around, adding a set of cymbals to the drum set. The drums were also changed in which they added velocity sensitive sensors, meaning the louder the pads are hit in the real world, the louder they would sound in-game. It was a fantastic piece of work, and sounded awesome when performing those drum fills before hitting Overdrive.

One of the more popular changes would have to be with the game’s Tour mode. While the original career mode was already a great way at feeling like players were a part of a band, Rock Band 2′s Tour mode made improvements that gave players free will to perform as they feel. In the original Rock Band, players were forced to either take part in a Solo Tour for each instrument and wouldn’t get the band benefits in the multiplayer experience. In Rock Band 2′s Tour mode, players are now given the ability to partake in Band Challenges, which range from performing band specific setlists, difficult songs on specific instruments, etc. Throughout the career, players are awarded with fans, cash and even new vehicles utilized to travel across the globe and perform various gigs in different cities. The songs played throughout the career are then unlocked in the game’s other modes. One of these modes is the addition of Battle of the Bands.

In Battle of the Bands, players in a band can partake in a score battle against other bands, seeing who can perform better a the many songs in the title. If the band’s score is beaten, the players will be notified next time they log in. This helps add to the band simulator idea Harmonix has been looking to start. Imagine getting on stage, battling it out against another band. That is the image Harmonix was trying to convey, and they succeeded.

The game’s setlist was also composed of nothing but master recordings, but that was only the start of the music selection. Players were given the ability to export the songs of the first game into Rock Band 2, greatly improving the amount of songs players can play in Rock Band 2. This is only in addition to the hundreds of songs released as DLC. And that was hundreds at the time, this changed greatly as the time passed. Harmonix decided to take a break from main entries to focus on something a little more classic. A huge deal for fans everywhere, Harmonix gathered some familiar faces one year to announce their biggest project to date…

2009: First Band Specific Rock Band Title Gathers The Beatles

Known as one of the greatest rock bands in history, fans were utterly shocked and incredibly excited to see Harmonix take stage at E3 with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney of The Beatles to announce their first band specific title – The Beatles: Rock Band. Unlike the competition’s band specific title, Harmonix compiled a setlist of purely Beatles titles, bringing together favorites among all the fans. However, Harmonix wasn’t looking to just make a Beatles Rock Band title with no innovation. They made sure to utilize changes, and include many unlockables that a Beatles fan would love!

Gameplay stuck to the usual formula, with some removals to keep the Beatles ideas in. For example, drum overdrive was no longer activated by performing a drum fill, instead hitting notes in succession and then hitting a final note to activate. Also, Overdrive was changed to Beatlemania, which was pretty much identical, minus a few design changes. Booing, crowd singing, etc. were removed from the title as well. For the guitar, the whammy bar doesn’t alter the sound of the held note. However, these removals weren’t anything drastic, and hardly even noticed through gameplay. The biggest change to gameplay was with the vocals mode.

Like The Beatles, players were given the ability to perform vocals in a new way – harmonies. This changed the usual four player cooperative experience into a six player affair. Harmonies required players to sing multi-parts in songs in the various pitches required. It was truly unique, true to The Beatles and a lot of fun to do together. Harmonix also released a beautiful looking limited edition version of the game, complete with instruments peripherals based on actual instruments used by The Beatles -  a Rickenbacker 325 guitar, a Gretsch Duo Jet guitar, a Höfner bass and a Ludwig drum set.

The game’s career mode was changed into a Story mode. Although an actual story wasn’t necessarily told, the game took players through the years of The Beatles’ career. The game’s venues were based on actual places of Beatles history, such as the Ed Sullivan show, Abbey Road Studios, Shea Stadium, etc. Other songs are performed through dreamscapes, representing the Beatles’ studio years and presented a psychedelic environments, such as an underwater reef for ‘I Am The Walrus’ and a beautiful sun-filled garden for ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ The Beatles: Rock Band made sure to feel like a Beatles game from the top to bottom, representing them in the most perfect way

Players who perform well are not only awarded with Gold Stars and a high score this time around. Harmonix made sure to include some unlockables that would make every Beatles fan rejoice in happiness. Players can earn various items of Beatles history by performing well. These include things such as photographs and video clips of The Beatles, provided by Apple Corps. to provide “splashes of history.” If Harmonix was trying to reach out to Beatles fans everywhere, they sure as hell succeeded, with love from them to you…

2009: Rock Band Goes Portable

Harmonix saw it fit to finally release a portable addition to the Rock Band family, once again changing things up a bit. Rather than focusing on any outside peripherals and controls, Harmonix created a unique way to bring that Rock Band gameplay to Sony’s PlayStation Portable.

Rock Band Unplugged, as it was called, had a single player play as all four instruments. How did this work? It was rather simple, players were tasked with playing notes of the selected instrument using the PSP’s face buttons. Once the highlighted section was complete, players then use the shoulder button to switch to the next instrument. Utilizing this method, players build up streaks and a multiplier. If an instrument misses too many notes, that instrument fails out, which would cause the entire band to fail out if they are not saved in time. Overdrive is acquired the same way is always, and may be activated by pressing down on the D-pad or the X button. When done, all band members who failed out are saved. During solos, players are automatically switched to the corresponding instrument.

Two new modes were also added to Rock Band Unplugged – Band Survival Mode and Warmup Mode. In Band Survival Mode, tracks aren’t being played, therefore the Crowd Meter continually drops. In Warmup Mode, only the currently selected instrument track is dropping as notes are missed. Unfortunately, multiplayer was left out of Rock Band Unplugged. The same formula was used for DS version of LEGO: Rock Band and Rock Band 3.

2009: Rock Band Goes Family-Friendly With LEGO: Rock Band

Rock Band was always a party kind of game, and family oriented experience. Gather some friends and family over to start jamming out with plastic instruments. Well, in 2009, Harmonix thought it was time to go a bit more into the plastic portion and create a family-friendly experience with LEGO: Rock Band. And, despite the ridiculousness of the idea, it was a fantastic entry into the series.

Like most entries, the gameplay was pretty much the same. Changes include a Super Easy mode, which was made to cater to the younger players who find it a little to difficult to match colored notes, even on the game’s Easy difficulty. With Super Easy mode, players can hit pretty much any notes and do pretty much anything without a worry at all for failing out. Failing out was also changed up to cater to the younger audiences. When a player misses too many notes, they lose studs. However, players can earn those studs back by performing well during a Stud Recovery section. For the players that are a bit too impatient, LEGO: Rock Band introduced a Short Song mode. This mode basically cuts the song, removing long intros and outros in a longer song.

LEGO: Rock Band’s career mode was also structured very differently, introducing a happy-go-lucky story with that LEGO charm. Players, of course, are tasked with completing songs in a setlist. However, at the end of that setlist, players are tasked with Rock Power Challenges. These challenges task players to perform well in a song to complete a task at hand, such as scaring away ghosts to the classic ‘Ghostbusters’ theme. This all creates a unique way to rock out, and is a laugh to watch while playing through some pretty nice tunes.

This brings me to the 45-song setlist. The setlist was compiled of family-friendly songs that kids of any age can rock out to. This doesn’t change the idea, it only provides for a more robust catalog. Classics like ‘The Final Countdown’ and ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ make the cut, along with more kid-focused tracks like ‘Ghostbusters.’ The art style is the big change here, obviously, with the new LEGO look. Studs awarded to players can be used to customize their ‘Rock Den,’ complete with various posters and objects that can be moved around. Its a pretty cool way to build around that LEGO twist. This new look transpires to some even crazier thoughts, such as a LEGO replication of the classic band Queen. It was a pretty nice change for the series, and was sure to catch the eyes of the many young ones out there.

2010: The Launch of the Rock Band Network

Harmonix already had a strong catalog of music to provide replayability with their titles for years. However, that didn’t slow them down in the least bit. In March of 2010, Harmonix launched the Rock Band Network. This allows for players to create custom tracks that can be added to the Rock Band DLC library. Unlike the competition, Rock Band Network gives players full tools to completely develop a full song into the title, complete with vocals the such. Of course, to avoid copyright infringement, the Rock Band Network uses peer review to check for profanity, copyright and the such. Software tools to help with this authorization include a modified version of REAPER and Magma.

Rock Band Network was created in hopes to get other bands on the horizon, as well as provide record labels and bands to provide songs that Harmonix would not be able to reach on their own. To this day, Rock Band Network’s library continues to evolve, especially with the newest update RBN 2.0. This update gives players the ability to create songs with keyboard support, pro drums and vocal harmonies – features seen in the later Rock Band titles.

2010: The Second Band Specific Title is a Bit More Punk – Green Day

Before finally releasing their third main entry to the series, Rock Band let loose one more band specific title, this time a lot more punk-heavy with Green Day. Harmonix stuck to The Beatles: Rock Band’s formula with this, however, overlaying it with a more punkish style. Despite the formula being almost identical, several changes that added the Beatles feel to the last game weren’t included this time around. Overdrive was still Overdrive, and the venues weren’t as unique and historical as The Beatles: Rock Band. The venues included were an original spot –  The Warehouse – to replicate Green Day’s earlier years, The National Bowl for the American Idiot era and The Fox Theatre for 21st Century Breakdown. This is a lot smaller when compared to the various spots, and even the unique dreamscape venues in The Beatles: Rock Band. However, this didn’t drag down the concept.

One great feat for Green Day: Rock Band was the fact that Harmonix managed to gather three whole albums into the game – Dookie, American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. Harmonix paid grave attention when creating the band member’s avatars in this title. Sheer examples of this would be with the member’s tattoos and paying mind to when they were done, to make sure they aren’t included during wrong time periods. Even Billie Joe Armstrong’s hair color changes for each venue and time period. Instruments change up, and the band’s style is clearly different for each period. Harmonix made sure to work well with what they had, and they were hard at work to create a Green Day experience, just like they did with The Beatles. Minus the skips in Green Day’s history, Harmonix created a successful Green Day music game.

Like The Beatles: Rock Band, Green Day: Rock Band packs a bunch of unlockables for Green Day fans out there. These include concert footage, studio sessions and photographs, all unlocked through performing well and game challenges. Previously released Green Day DLC are compatible with Green Day: Rock Band and the songs in the title are even capable of being exported into other Rock Band titles, such as Rock Band 2 and LEGO: Rock Band. It was after this that Harmonix thought it was time to take the next huge leap for the series…

2010: Innovation to the Highest Level – Rock Band 3

Music games were on the decline. Sales dropped and series were being milked left and right. This, however, didn’t slow Harmonix down. Instead, they only took a giant leap of faith with the next main entry into the series – Rock Band 3. Innovation doesn’t begin to describe the changes seen in Rock Band 3. Remember when I said Rock Band was said to come a band simulator? This is what I was building up to.

Starting with one of the biggest changes – the addition of a seventh band member. Players are now given the ability to play with a keyboard peripheral. A full 25-key peripheral was designed for use with this game. The basic modes is pretty much similar in vein to the guitar’s playstyle, albeit with more note spacing. However, this is all set to change with the game’s huge leap in innovation – Pro mode.

Rock Band 3′s Pro mode was built with one idea – teach players how to really play these instruments. Pro guitar requires a special guitar controller which features over 100 buttons, made to replicate the play style of a real guitar. The strum bar was also replaced with a “string box,” which is composed of six stainless steel strings that must be strummed according to the notes being played. Pro drums requires the cymbal extensions introduced with Rock Band 2. Instead of being able to use a cymbal whenever a player feels, players must now pay mind to a different, circle-shaped note to strike a hi-hat or crash cymbal. As for the series’ newest instrument – the keyboard – players are now tasked with utilizing all 25 keys, teaching players what it is really like to play an electric keyboard. While this is a worthwhile experience, and a surely inventive one, it was also an expensive idea.

The game’s career was also, once again, revamped. The career mode packs over 700 career goals, which only grows as a player’s setlist does. Players are also tasked with band challenges, which have been seen in recent iterations of Rock Band. However, this time, things are different. For starters, challenges are a lot more skill based. Examples of these include hitting a certain number of streaks, using Overdrive a certain amount of times, etc. After each challenge is completed, players are awarded with spades that are used to unlock the next gig and so forth.

Rock Band 3 also made menus a lot more navigable. Rather than having to return to cumbersome menus, players can drop in and out at free will from any menu in the game. Players are also free to change difficulty from the pause menu when in the middle of the song. Rock Band 3 made it easier for players to freely play the game, while giving the hardcore players more to play with thanks to Pro mode and the inclusion of the keyboard. Along with the incredibly massive catalog of DLC (its over 3000!!!), Rock Band 3 gave Harmonix some breathing room for the coming years…

The Future of Rock Band

Harmonix has taken a break with the series, focusing on its newest series – Dance Central. However, this does not mean the series has been cancelled. Harmonix continues to support Rock Band 3 with DLC every week, and Rock Band Network only adds more tracks to the mix as well. No word has been said on future iteration of Rock Band. Nothing has been said about any other band specific titles or a Rock Band 4. However, what is coming is Rock Band Blitz. Rock Band Blitz utilizes the play style of Rock Band’s first handheld title Rock Band Unplugged and takes it to a new level with unique power ups and visuals. The game is set to release on August 28th, this Tuesday. Be sure to check back at iGo Gaming for a review of the game shortly after. We look forward to more Rock Band and on expanding our setlist. What would you like to see in the future of Harmonix’s Rock Band? Let us know in the comments below.