Release: Out now
The ‘Unplugged’ album has given many artists the opportunity to go back to basics, to revisit the simplicity of their formative period, before the fame and accolades and expensive new equipment forever changed them. In Harmonix’s case, this has meant dusting off some of its earliest and most daring game mechanics, those seen in the company’s hipster-favourite titles Frequency and Amplitude, before re-clothing them in the motif of its more recent success.
The decision is a masterstroke. Other handheld interpretations of peripheral-based rhythm action games inevitably feel like pale shadows of their inspirations. After all, tapping DS or PSP face buttons is devolution of the glamour and tactile thrill of a screaming (albeit plastic) Les Paul guitar or thumping Tama drum kit. So rather than compete with the spectacle of the headline act, Rock Band: Unplugged instead changes the rules, making the game a pure single-player experience in which you juggle multiple instruments at once.
The core mechanic is pure PaRappa: hit buttons in time with the music to trigger the song’s audio samples. Miss a beat and the sample won’t play, turning the flowing rhythm of the track into staccato disarray. However, here you need only nail a two-bar phrase to have that entire instrument channel filled in to play, temporarily at least, on automatic. At this point you switch lanes to, for example, the drum or vocal channel, filling in the note stream for this instrument until it too plays automatically and you move onto the next.
Like painting the superstructure of a giant bridge, your work is never done: just as you fill in a new channel so another one switches off. But settle into the rhythm of play, surfing instinctively across channels, seamlessly transitioning from a complex drum pattern to the long sustained notes of a vocal track, the effect is mesmerising. It’s very different to it, but this interpretation of rhythm action is no less valid than Rock Band’s play on musicianship and performance.
Unplugged exactly follows the visual template of console Rock Band, though, from the screen furniture on menus and loaders to the spandex-wearing characters that make up your band. Structurally, too, it apes its big brother. You form a band and tour the music capitals of the world, earning up to five stars and money for each performance, which are used to unlock bigger and better venues, gigs and equipment.
It’s a little familiar and tired by now, but on the positive side, the age of the franchise has granted Unplugged its pick of which tracks to pull from its groaning library of licensed originals. The result is a broad and happy range of music styles, from the bounce and chirp of the Jackson 5’s ABC, to indie favourite Float On from Modest Mouse and on down to the heavy stuff in System of a Down’s Chop Suey.
But, less than in console Rock Band, the choice of music is less important: here there’s no illusion of playing at being a rock star. Rather, you are here to play a videogame and one that tests more muscles than most rhythm action games at that. Despite now bearing the slightly sterile branding of a franchise juggernaut, Rock Band: Unplugged’s heart is genuine and soulful, evidence perhaps that, in game-making as much as music-making, it pays to never forget one’s roots.