Whatever Happened To My Rock'n'Roll Video Games

By Garrett Martin in Features
Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 4:00 pm
rock band 3 screenshot.jpg
that's me on the left

‚ÄčIt's so hard to say goodbye to yesterday. That's especially true for adults who love video games, or at least for this adult who loves video games. Do I need to get ready to say goodbye to music games?

Yesterday news broke that the price of last fall's excellently reviewed Rock Band 3 was slashed to $20 at retailers across the country after only five months on the market. Earlier this year Activision announced they were putting Guitar Hero on hiatus. Pity the poor 1970s rocker without a flush retirement fund. 

The only commercial bright spot for the rhythm genre in 2010 was Harmonix's Dance Central, a great game whose success exceeded Rock Band 3's and parallels the real-life shift from rock'n'roll to pop and hip-hop as the primary soundtrack for the youth of today. Not that I'm anti-pop -- popular rock music has been awful for decades.

I'm disappointed by the relative retail failure of Rock Band 3. It's a great game that anybody who's ever had a passing interest in the genre should experience. More worrisome is that it could potentially spell the end of the franchise. New Rock Band DLC works exclusively for Rock Band 3, and if the software's not in houses then the downloadable add-ons probably aren't going on hard drives. If DLC dries up we'll never get the krautrock track pack we deserve.

Also that would turn Rock Band from an active on-going concern into another piece of the past that I can't let go of. Nostalgia is so powerful that it almost cripples me at times. It's one of the reasons I play and write about games. It's also partially why I fell hard for Rock Band when it came out in 2007. That nostalgia was less for specific songs from the setlist (even now, despite hundreds of classics from three games and years of DLC, there are few that I strongly associate with pivotal moments of my life) then for the days of drunkenly making noise with my friends. 

Rock Band took me back to those sepia-toned days of the early 2000s, when a hard day's work meant sweating out last night's High Lifes while practicing down in Athens, Georgia. And by practicing I mean hanging out and playing maybe ten minutes of music every hour. 

Obviously Rock Band wasn't exactly the same. I played a cheap piece of plastic instead of an almost-as-cheap guitar, my wife replaced a half-dozen sweaty dudes, and I tore through $10 sixers of uppity craft beer instead of $12 suitcases of watery domestics. But in 2007 Rock Band captured just enough of what it feels like to jam with friends to compensate for the distance that made that impossible.

Those were different times for music games. Little plastic guitars permeated the culture so thoroughly that Hollywood hack Brett Ratner openly talked about making a Guitar Hero movie. Target sold Rock Band branded underpants. Within four years though the genre apparently lost its hold on the public.

Sales are down and new games might dry up but that doesn't mean the music genre is dead. Just as I'll listen to a favorite song thousands of times but see a good movie once, Rock Band isn't a game I can beat and then stick on a shelf. The connection is deeper, more personal, and will survive to some extent even when my 360 is old and obsolete. As long as me and my wife have that 360 and a house big enough for all those plastic instruments we'll keep covering the hits for all our millions of virtual fans throughout these fake video game United States.

Run Button is a new weekly column where Joystick Division copy editor Garrett Martin rambles leisurely through whatever video game issue bugs him that week.

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