So, on March 5th, an interesting thing happened.
Harmonix, who we all know as the creators of Rock Band (and the creators of Guitar Hero, for that matter) made a surprise announcement. Rock Band 4 is happening, and it's happening this year.
Lots of people were excited. My Facebook and Twitter (but especially my Facebook) lit up with anticipation over the continuation of the long-stagnant (read: dead) music game series.
As for me...well...I felt nothing.
Like, nothing at all. I went, "huh," and continued scrolling through Facebook.
Here's some backstory: Many years ago, I got the first Guitar Hero for Christmas. I plugged it in, turned on the PS2, and started jamming. Ah...kind of. I started on Medium difficulty, and barely made it through the game. Could not get five stars on Bark At The Moon. On friggin' Medium. Eventually, I progressed to Hard, then Expert, clicking that strum bar frantically (because you can't do hammer-ons in GH1, and do NOT tell me YOU can). Then I got Guitar Hero 2, and approximately 105 years later, I beat Jordan on expert. Guitar Hero 3 brought with it a wireless guitar, and an insane difficulty spike. I started that game on Expert and had little trouble.
In short, I got really good at Guitar Hero.
Rock Band was another Christmas gift, and again I immersed myself in the game, playing drums occasionally (and doing what could technically be called "singing") but I'd eventually settle for the guitar, because I'm a guitarist (in Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and real life). Rock Band and its sequels were a tremendous amount of fun; I'd play for hours, chasing high scores and watching my left hand swell and change shape in a slightly alarming fashion. I spent an...ill-advised amount of hard-earned money on downloadable songs I could play with plastic instruments. I just estimated how much money I spent, and oh GOD.
Also, I spent a fortune on this entire music game craze. I own: every Guitar Hero game, every Rock Band, six plastic guitars, both the GH and RB drum sets, two microphones, a plastic keyboard from Rock Band 3, and the Pro Guitar, also from Rock Band 3. I should also note, when I say every Guitar Hero, that includes the phenomenally awful DS games. Because that's Guitar Hero on the go! Except it isn't; it's impossible to play.
So, yes, I was one of those crazed fans.
How I spent my summer (and fall and winter and spring).
But here's the thing.
Harmonix had announced Don McLean's American Pie would be the final downloadable song for Rock Band. Later, they released more songs; however, American Pie hit Rock Band on April 2, 2013.
I had stopped playing Rock Band and Guitar Hero long before that.
Why? I don't really know. I could blame oversaturation like everybody does, but I was into More And More music games. Maybe I just got tired? I had seen everything there was to see here. I'd beaten Through the Fire and Flames so much, the lyrics had lost all meaning (heh heh, I love DragonForce). I had torn through Guitar Hero, Warriors of Rock with incredible ease; I beat Megadeth's Sudden Death on Expert the first time through. The new "hardest song" wasn't hard at all.
Rock Band held even less overall challenge for me, though Rock Band wasn't really supposed to be super-challenging. I confess I didn't really "get" Rock Band 3's career structure; it didn't seem to have one. Which, in hindsight, was okay. It didn't force you to play certain songs, you could just play. Regardless, I eventually suffered from franchise fatigue, and I would eventually...just stop playing.
I would then discover Rocksmith.
As you probably know, Rocksmith is a different kind of music game. You use a real guitar to play songs, and this way, with some effort, you're learning how to play songs in real life. Better yet, the whole process is "gameified" so you feel rewarded and feel like you're making progress.
I was intrigued. I thought to myself, "Here's a new challenge." I've played guitar for years, and I've gotten to the point where I could be considered "okay" with the ol' six string. Maybe Rocksmith could do something Rock Band couldn't-teach me how to really play a song or two.
And it has!
I haven't found my time with Rocksmith lacking. Quite the contrary; it's fun, you're learning, and Rocksmith 2014 has a very cool collection of songs.
So that was probably a contributing factor to my total apathy toward Rock Band 4.
A few days after the announcement, I suddenly knew what to do:
Play Rock Band.
I resolved to see for myself if I would want to play a new Rock Band, all this time after tossing my plastic instruments into the basement. I wanted to find out if I could still have fun standing in front of a TV with a toy guitar. Could I really find Rock Band fun again?
I went downstairs and selected a couple of dusty guitars-the Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock one and the classic Rock Band Stratocaster. After cleaning them off, and rubber-banding the busted whammy-bar so it stayed up, I got to work, popping Rock Band 3 into the 360 and starting.
Before cleaning. Dusty. Also was totally not kidding about that rubber band.
The first thing I notice is the game loading up all my downloaded tracks (again, there's a lot. Please don't make me say how many). The second thing I notice is my band, Runaway Dogs, is still wandering my Xbox 360 hard drive. Time for a reunion, I guess. There's my character, the fugly leather jacket dude who's Runaway Dogs' lead guitarist and founding member. He's the creative force behind the band, or at least he would be, if Runaway Dogs played original songs. They don't have my Ibanez in the game, so I go with a Schecter. Then I scroll through the song list. I figure the game is just like riding a bike, so I play Free Bird on Expert.
I fail spectacularly during the solo, the Rock Meter plummeting hopelessly to zero. Okay, so maybe it's not exactly like riding a bike. My hands have picked up all these nasty real-guitar-playing habits; these buttons feel clunky to me. The whole guitar feels alien, come to think of it. I'm rusty. Shake it off. I go on the hunt for an easier song. Ha, here's The Power of Love, by Huey Lewis and the News. Flashbacks of Back to the Future abound. I'm feeling confident, so I move on to harder stuff again, like Pride and Joy by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Battery by Metallica.
As I play, over the course of a few days, I find something strange happening.
I'm getting back into Rock Band. Not on the level I once was (though I can probably still beat you at it, haha), but against all reasoning and expectations, I am having fun. It's kinda like back in the day, when I used to play obsessively. I had figured I'd be tired of it still, yet here I am, rocking out.
Keep in mind, I do play the guitar in real life, and I play Rocksmith as well. Perhaps dedicating more time to learning an actual instrument meant Rock Band had less to offer me? Maybe that's how I felt at the time. It's the attitude most musicians had towards the rising popularity of music games: people should learn to play guitar for real instead of playing Rock Band, right?
But those people never understood what Rock Band was.
There's a serious difference between Rock Band/Guitar Hero and Rocksmith. Rocksmith is a music game, yes, but it's just as much a learning tool, meant to teach you guitar over time. It's entertaining as hell, and hugely rewarding in the long run. You put in the effort, the time, and the dedication, and maybe you'll be able to play Don't Fear The Reaper for real one day.
But Rock Band is about something different entirely. Rock Band isn't about learning music (although you are learning rhythm in a musical context). It's not gonna make you a better guitarist at all. But Rock Band is about near-instant gratification. It's about fantasy, or escapism. For the moment, when you're playing Rock Band, you are on stage playing in front of thousands of people. If you're like me, you let yourself slip away into that fantasy, and, if only for a moment, you are there, nailing that solo in front of your screaming fans. It's even better when you're playing with others in the same room, hitting the Overdrive all at the same time, and climbing the leaderboards as a band. I'm happy to report I still maintain a small presence on the leaderboards, and I've in fact beaten some old high scores my friends set way back when (sorry, friends).My fan count is climbing (Runaway Dogs has millions and millions of fans despite being a cover band), and, well...I'm having a blast playing again. Note streaks, perfect solos, gold stars, hammering the buttons like a madman for the Big Rock Ending...
It's that feeling of being an insane rock star. That's probably what real musicians were jealous of, no? That this previously walled-off feeling could now be had by all, albeit in simulated fashion. But so what? Like I said, it's not about learning crummy rock songs. It's about fun.
That's what Rock Band's about. Having a blast. And I am. And you know what? I'm excited for Rock Band 4. I'll kinda miss the keyboard, but I've always been the guitarist, so it's no biggie. And the fact that my...substantial amount of DLC will transfer is pretty sweet.
But yeah. I can't wait. Rock Band 4 can't come fast enough. I'm happy it's back.
This post originally appeared on Current Digital, where Brian White is an editor/haver of opinions. Find him on Twitter, catch up with his other article series here, and consider subscribing to his Patreon if you like his stuff.