Looking Back: The Beatles: Rock Band

The Beatles: Rock Band is a deceptively iterative game. While it did make improvements to the Rock Band formula both subtle, improved hammer-on chords for example, and major, adding three-part harmonies, it was, at its mechanical core, Rock Band with an all Beatles set list. That does of course make it the recipient of the greatest-song-list-in-music-game-history-award, but it also allowed for the team at Harmonix to explore some new ground in the video game medium.

It was an attempt at a documentary video game.

Harmonix took an artist and created a game that examined their history and work. It’s most evident in the game’s story mode where they present each song in chronological order, breaking up the distinct eras in the band’s short career into chapters and threading each into loose narrative. Each era brings a change of appearance and venue for the Fab Four, all painstakingly researched and modeled faithfully. It all combines to present an accurate look at The Beatles’ live shows and meteoric rise to popularity, with each venue feeling significantly grander than the last.

Stranded in the Abbey Road Studio years without concerts to guide their visual representation, Harmonix needed to employ a more artistic method of visual presentation. Enter “dreamscapes”

The “dreamscapes” are visual interpretations of a song’s themes and moods alongside imagery found on the record sleeves. Here, much like The Beatles’ career, the songs take center stage. Gone are the throngs of wailing young girls. Gone are the dapper suits and skinny ties.

The result is what is by far the game’s most impressive element. The visualizations are bright and full of life, but most importantly reflect each song appropriately. The final joyous sing-a-long moments of “Hello Goodbye” see the band members happily dancing in their Lonely Hearts Club Band uniforms, locking arms and spinning around until dizzy. It feels right and Harmonix should be commended for faithfully representing the works.

The mechanics of the game offer an informational look into The Beatles’ music as well. Playing each song offers a deeper look into each band members’ part in the music. Ringo Starr’s many critics should take a look at his beats on expert difficulty. He is an incredibly consistent and inventive drummer, a fact that becomes much more obvious when it is visualized on the note highway.

The game ultimately succeeds at presenting an in depth look at the work of one of popular music’s greatest bands. It utilizes each sensory interaction of the medium to present an aspect of The Beatles’ art. If it fails in any way, it’s the distinct lack of conflict in the story. It’s well known how troubled the recording sessions of The Beatles were and how it all went down hill from there. Yet, that tension is nowhere to be seen in the game, including the historical documents, pictures and videos it offers up. This is partially a side effect of the specter of Apple Corp hanging over the project through every step of its development, but it’s just as likely due to the clashing tones this would create when juxtaposed with the game’s beautiful finale.

The Beatles: Rock Band is a reverent celebration of The Beatles’ music and career. It succeeds as a documentary examination of their music, but leaving out the drama that would go on to characterize the band’s final years renders it’s look at the band’s history a bit skewed. Still, it is a successful experiment in the use of the video game medium to present an informational and artistic look at the most influential band in the history of rock music.

About Matt Gerardi
Matt Gerardi is a journalist and musician. He also happens to write about video games.

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