For A Single Generation We Were All Rock Stars

For A Single Generation We Were All Rock Stars

Two hours earlier, I bought Rock Band.

The box was heavy. Lighter than I expected, but still heavy. The edges of the cardboard dug deep into the flesh in my arms. This was way more work than I thought it would be. No video game was worth this effort. Surely.

Would I make it through customs with this unwieldy box of plastic? I couldn’t say for sure. I stood in Las Vegas Airport, minutes from check in, sweat dabbing, dribbling down on my forehead, tension in my gut. What am I supposed to do with this thing? Can I even leave the country with it? Is this legal? Technically no. Actually, I don’t know… I wrapped the box in two plastic bags and sealed it with tape to secure its safe passage across the pacific.

Finally, check in. No questions asked. The box and my luggage securely checked to Sydney. 20 minutes later I would be stopped and searched in customs. For some fucked up reason they would find traces of dynamite in my carry-on luggage — no biggie — my brand new copy of Rock Band was already trundling its way to the plane that would carry me home.

In 16 hours I would be a fully fledged, virtual Rock Star. In my own mind. Eyes closed, teeth biting my lower lip in a weird pleasure as I clumsily clicked my way through the solo in Detroit Rock City

Months before, I was lucky enough to see Rock Band early, in the form of a trailer.

Fresh faced 20-somethings rocking out to ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ in a sanitised white room. It looked ludicrous: catalogue models pretending to be rock stars in their tight fitted jeans and Colgate smiles. I also fell completely in love with it.

In love with the idea of it. Of taking the base concept of Guitar Hero and creating something ‘grander’. The progress mirrored that of the bedroom strummer. As a surly teenager you buy a guitar and practice alone in your room but what you really dream of is playing in a band, in front of thousands of screaming fans. In that sense Guitar Hero was just prologue, Rock Band was the real deal.

The launch of Rock Band in Australia may have been one of the most brutally mismanaged things I’ve ever witnessed in my time as a game journalist — hence the stressful episode in Las Vegas airport. By the time Rock Band was officially launched locally, I had been playing my imported version for a year. In that time EA had squandered a 12 month advantage and Activision was already playing catch up with Guitar Hero World Tour: featuring better instruments and a brand name that resonated more powerfully with mainstream punters.

But Rock Band was always the better game, it made the process of playing together as a band more seamless. Developers Harmonix had a better handle on song choice, what worked, what didn’t work. For the better part of a year it was the centre piece of my apartment. ‘You have to play this,’ my wife — a non-gamer — would say to absolutely every single person who walked through our front door.

Every single party. Every time a family member came for dinner. Any excuse. It’s possible that I spent more time playing Rock Band and its subsequent iterations than any other video game released this generation. The game was a constant in my life. Sometimes it was just something we did whilst other events were happening: BBQs, birthday celebrations. At other times it was the absolute reason for the party to begin with. ‘Come to our place,’ we’d say. ‘We have the Queen track pack’.

I can’t say for sure but, all up, I think I had around 500 Rock Band tracks in my collection. The ability to import tracks from previous games in the series — in addition to discs like LEGO Rock Band, Rock Band AC/DC — stole a significant chunk of my PS3 hard drive. Combine this with an unhealthy addiction to the Rock Band store and you have a ludicrously sizeable collection of tracks. It was almost impossible to manage. My HDD held an ungodly amount of music, to the point where people could shout out, ‘hey, does it have [insert song name here]?’ and I could usually answer in the affirmative.

Rock Band was — I’d argue — the greatest party game ever conceived. Part jukebox, part karaoke. A novelty to those playing for the first time, a well-balanced game worthy of mastery in the hands of experts. I played Rock Band alone. I practiced and learned like I would with any other game of note, but playing as part of a group? That provided genuine, joyous synergy. In many ways Rock Band was a finally tuned co-operative experience. You could have a novice drummer on easy, battering away out of time. If he failed miserably he could be rescued by the dextrous guitarist playing on expert. It felt good to rescue your fellow player and it felt good to be rescued — back into the fray with a glorious chance at redemption.

It was a game, it was a performance. A chance to bond over a shared love of music. A chance to talk about music, interact with music, remember your old favourites, introduce old or new songs to different generations. Rock Band was more than a game, it was a shared cultural experience. When you played Rock Band you were singing songs around a campfire. It was a seamless, perfect extension of that communal feeling expressed in video game form. It was, to coin a phrase, fucking awesome.

But it will be forgotten. I all but guarantee it. In 2013, as we make way for a new wave of technology, Rock Band is already a relic. In both the metaphorical and literal sense it is gathering dust. A drumkit lies unplugged in the basement/garage/spare room of almost every gamer and it’s difficult to see a future in which it can be resurrected.

It will be forgotten. Games like Red Dead Redemption, Super Mario Galaxy and Dark Souls will top the lists of games released in the last decade. We’ll reminisce about Mass Effect, BioShock, Grand Theft Auto V, The Last of Us. We’ll talk about those moments. Those singular, traditional video game ‘moments’. We’ll lionise them and we will ignore games like Rock Band.

Because Rock Band has a legacy forged in plastic. Its forebears were fads like Dance Dance Revolution and Drum Mania. Even at its peak no-one never really believed it was a genre that could permeate or sustain itself. In that sense Rock Band always felt disposable. As though it was designed and built to be forgotten.

And, make no mistake: we will forget. We’ll forget that, for an entire generation, we were all goddamn rock stars.


  • I always had friends asking that I bring along my Wii and GH kit whenever they’d have a thing at their place. So many times I’d cart in my pile of stuff, but I’d rarely enjoy it all that much. Nowhere near the amount the others did. I always got most enjoyment out of playing by myself at home, working to get through each song as they got harder and harder.

    I really wish Guitar Hero just stuck to what it used to be, instead of trying to follow Rock Band down its path. While having drums to play was cool, nothing beats jumping on GH3’s co-op with a friend, then trying to battle our way through a song on expert. None of these games since then have managed to deliver anything like that.

    • Completely agree. I caved and got the full set for World Tour, but after trying drums and vocals, I always just went back to guitar, eventually selling the drums and mic to some guy on the other side of the country (damn, shipping is expensive; thank god for bus couriers!).
      GH did one thing and did it well. And it introduced me to so many great songs and artists. Maybe once a year, I’ll go back to it, rock out until my fingers ache, and remember the days of spending entire afternoons just playing song after song, then suddenly realising it was 2am.

  • Rock band was the tipping point for this gen for me. Two of my greatest loves combined, music and gaming. My wife, who is a fervent non-gamer, would happily join in singing her guts out while i bashed away on the plastic drums for hours. Any gathering of any size would eventually lead to a drunken Rock Band session. I worked hard and sweated in the heat of summer just practicing towards that elusive perfect score on expert. I can’t think of any other game with that sort of appeal.

  • Rock Band was an incredible game, I’d argue one of the most significant games of the generation, for a lot of the reasons you mentioned. It’s also the only case I know of of a game genre (band games) being conceived, hitting its peak and then declining and eventually dying completely during the space of a single console generation.

    • Guitar Hero was originally a PS2 release. Right at the end of the life cycle. And there were arcade games before that.

      Admittedly, the plastic instrument games only seemed to be big during this generation. Guitar Hero was more of a novelty than the later ones that exploded all over Kmart in a shower of plastic peripherals.

      • Guitar Hero was a Guitar game, not a Band game. I mean if you’re going to be technical like that then Guitar Freaks predates it and you could argue that drum games like Taiko no Tatsujin existed too. I consider Guitar Hero to basically be a precursor.

  • Busted it out a couple of months ago having not played it in a year.

    You pretty much couldn’t get @rize and myself off it once it was turned on.

  • Rock Band could be my favourite game of all time. I imported the original game in June 2008, and I have played it at least once a week since.

    I’m all about the drums, I guess that’s why I wasn’t as attracted to Guitar Hero. I went from awkwardly flailing and missing pedal notes to the top 5% of the leaderboards. I have a yamaha electronic drum kit hooked up to rock band permanently in my garage. I’m slowly making the transition to the real thing.

    It’s good to see that the Rock Band franchise gets appreciated on Kotaku. It never gets the respect it deserves here in Aus because of the horrible launch issues.. We never did officially get Rock Band 2.

  • Why was Rock Band 2 never released here in Australia? I bought an NTSC U Xbox 360 to play it years ago (before it was released on PAL in the UK/Eur)

    • If I had to guess, I’d think Harmonix couldn’t come to terms with Albert Music, who are the record label for AC/DC in Australia, for the rights to Let There Be Rock. The AC/DC track pack was a different deal, as it was the audio from the Live at Donington VHS/DVD.

      A common refrain from Harmonix staff members on Twitter is “Licensing is hard.” This, I would guess, is but one example.

  • I know it’s heretical, but while Rock Band ended up with a much better catalogue of songs (and so I’m sure in the end I played Rock Band games for more time than Guitar Hero games) and was first to market with non-guitar instruments, I always preferred Guitar Hero for two reasons:

    1. In solo play, they had well-selected challenges for each song, and quests to do. In Rock Band challenges were blatant afterthoughts.

    2. I always way preferred the Guitar Hero style of notes to the thin little blocks on the Rock Band tracks.

    But vocals were always handled much better in Rock Band than in Guitar Hero, so there’s that.

    My greatest disappointment in music gaming was getting an adapter so I could play Pro Keyboard on Rock Band 3, only to discover their shameful coloured notes system for “pro keyboard” meant that actually being able to read music and play real keyboard was a disadvantage as you had to retrain yourself to “read” their system. So gutted.

    My other greatest disappointment was both franchises effectively dying.

    My 3rd greatest disappointment was that we never did get “Rock Band: Pink Floyd”.

    Here’s hoping that after an appropriate period of mourning, music games return in the next generation.

  • I am a Rock Band tragic. I imported it from the US, have a couple of the Logitech full sized guitars for it (on special at $60 each) and even imported the Strat that worked with expert mode.

    I have sold my 360 and all its games, and have sold all my ps3 games – apart from RB1, 2, 3, Lego and Beatles – I will dust them off from time to time I hope.

    An awesome, awesome game. Great write up to do it justice Mark.

  • I personally think Rock Band and Guitar Hero had their own sets of strengths and weaknesses, and neither of them was an inherently “better” game than the other.

    Guitar Hero is often criticised for releasing too many games and over saturating the market, and while that may be true, it’s not as if Rock Band didn’t do that either (Lego, The Beatles, Green Day etc all come to mind). It can be argued that RB had the better downloadable song catalogue (it was definitely bigger the GH’s), but at the same time they never figured out how to do DLC on the Wii whereas GH found a way to utilise the sd card functionality. In all, the setlists of each game actually ended up very very similar in many cases.

    RB’s introduction of the drums and microphone was a revolutionary step, and GH no doubt saw that and followed suit. As a real life drummer myself though, I found RB’s drumming incredibly frustrating…specifically the way overdrive was activated by playing a fill at random points in a song where it often made no musical sense to be doing so. If you decided that no, you didn’t want to activate it at that time, it kept throwing them at you over and over until you DID activate it. I found GH’s method of activating star power – by hitting both cymbals at the same time – much more intuitive. You could activate it almost whenever you wanted to, so you could save it for those sections of the song where you knew you’d get the maximum points possible.

    GH also introduced a number of unique concepts – double kicks and open bass notes for example, which RB never did. RB eventually introduced the “keytar” in RB3 as well, which was an interesting concept. RB was the first to do character customisation, which GH eventually also incorporated.

    Mark mentions the debacle that was the RB launch in Australia, and this tbh really put a sour taste in my mouth after I was initially very excited for it. 12 months it took them to release RB here, and RB2 *NEVER* was officially released here (despite being released in NZ, where I imported my copy from). RB3 also experienced unreasonable delays, and this was just unacceptable. I ended up going for GH over RB, almost simply due to the reason of availability.

    Eventually though, I looked at all my plastic instruments and games and thought – “You know what? I’m done…” and went ahead and sold them all, and haven’t looked back. It was fun while it lasted, but the games definitely ran their course.

    • Rock Band IS better because of the song selection and the ability to transfer those songs to later iterations. Guitar Hero wants you to pay for the same songs multiple times.

  • God, I spent way too much money on this. Hundreds on DLC. Half a thousand on importing a Rock Band 3 Fender Squier. Midi adapter for my keyboard. Wireless keyboard. Three plastic guitars. Microphone. Every game for importing the music. Luckily, a month back I actually found a full working drum kit on somebody’s front lawn – out for the verge side collection!

    Worth every penny – I still whoop it out every couple of weeks, whether I’m in the mood for keyboards, drums, plastic guitar, real guitar, or karoake. Brilliant game, and Harmonix are an amazing model of a passionate, engaged developer motivated by more than money.

      • To be honest, not really worth the $500… but that’s mostly because Rocksmith came out so soon after!

        Aside from that though, it really is great, after a bit of fiddling to get it to work. For me I’d always fantasized about playing with real instruments. If you’re interested you could still get a pretty awesome ‘pro’ experience from the much cheaper pro guitars (the mustangs).

        I’m very glad to have it there but I do seem to spend more time thinking about it than actually playing it.

        • I’d rather just play one of my proper guitars. Rocksmith is tempting, but I haven’t taken the plunge yet. Hopefully the new one has addressed the lag, that might do it for me.

          • It’s a good decision to go with Rocksmith instead. You’re familiar with how your lag largely depends on your AV setup, yeah? Rock Band potentially had issues with that too in Mics and Drum Fills.

  • Technically, we aren’t done yet. There’s still songs coming out, both through the RBN (which 360 never got here, because of XNA restrictions; however, there’s nothing stopping you creating an account with a US address) and the customs scene (the biggest group is the Customs Creators Collective, which is putting out songs weekly).

    On a personal level, I imported the Squier, the RB3 drums, a Mustang controller, the keyboard – and that was just for RB3. I’m now using an electronic drumkit, with all the games imported and nearly 1500 songs. I’ve also spent far too much on this game – but I reckon it’s all worth it for those moments when I nearly FC Enter Sandman on Expert Pro Drums, or belting out Livin’ on a Prayer in a full band.

    I’m hopeful it will come back around in a few years, but until then, we have plenty to keep us going.

  • I sank an inordinate amount of time into GH. My first impression at a friends place was “meh, I don’t get it” but because I don’t like being bad at video games that people I know are better at, I bought the thing myself. I then proceeded to become infamous as that guy nobody would challenge anymore. That guy who played expert, drunk, with only 3 fingers and would usually wipe the floor with people. That guy who could play La Grange whilst not even being in the room. It is fair to say I am not that guy anymore due to years of not having played it but if the occasion to break out the plastic gibson crops up, I am all over it. I believe I still have 2 PS3 guitars in a box somewhere but no games to go with it :'(

  • My whole music game experience began and ended with the Singstar games on the PS2 – I played GH once and really liked the drums but couldn’t stomach the idea of buying that much plastic for one game!

  • My first experience of both Rock Band and Guitar Hero were at parties (oddly enough, so was Wii Sports and Singstar). All these games are ripe for non-gamers and for parties, and I was surprised and happy to see non-gamers clamouring for a go and enjoying themselves. It was fun and enjoyable, and more than anything besides the Wii Remote (and it’s descendants, Kinect and Playstation Move), ushered in gaming to non-gamers and widened the spectrum.

    And for those that missed it – LiPS is still the best Karaoke game.

  • I will NEVER forget. Between GH and RB I have over 600 songs. My friends and I still rock out with a few drinks at least once a month. Usually more. Wish I used the drums more, but the wireless mic and two guitars get a good workout.

    EDIT: Totally shed a little tear while I was downloading American Pie from the Rock Band store. It was a fitting end.

    Still a ton of stuff I wish was there, though.

  • I ended up selling all my Guitar Hero / Rock Band stuff because I never played it anymore and the instruments were taking up too much space.

  • Yes, god forbid any of you should have actually have learnt to play, and to have formed actual real bands. God forbid.

    Bunch of posers. Rock band is one level up from playing a tennis racket in front of them mirror with all your mates. Except much more expensive.

    Why not consider actually seeing actual people play in actual gigs? But whatever, you’re too busy being posers aren’t you all?

    Don’t forget to tell your mates that you can’t afford to see them perform, because you used the money to buy fake insturments, but totally aren’t posers.

    Last time I bother reading Kotaku. I know you won’t miss me and believe me the feeling is mutual. I expect this kind of faux-journalism from Plinkett or Bashcraft – not Serrrels. Goodbye, I apparently never knew thee. You ****ing posers.

  • I had Rock Band within 2 weeks of being released in the UK. Screw our local importers. I’d rather send my money overseas.
    Rock Band was superior to Guitar Hero in almost every way. The UI was better, the instruments were better, the songs were better. Guitar Hero turned into a money factory for Activision. A new version every 3 months with no compatibility to older versions. No thanks.
    Many hours of my life were spent feverishly mashing away on those little plastic guitars. I got pretty good at the drums too. I can’t sing for shit though.
    Rocksmith is where it’s at for me now.

    Anyone on 360 have RB3 and want to play?

  • i wish i had stats for rock band, 1,2 &3 as i would wager that i spent more time on those 3 games then not just any game this generation but quite possibly ALL other games this generation.

    there was not a single time people would come over and we wouldnt play.
    we still do from time to time. and in fact if it wasnt for my lovely baby daughter id say we would still have all night sessions.

    i was the first of my friends to get a house and for about 3 years there weren’t too many weekends without a rock band session finishing at 2 or 3am.

    2 of my mates chipped in together and got the ion drum kit.
    i had the wood Logitech (GH guitar) we got the Beatles kit.
    we all had microphone stands and wireless mics. hell me and a mate even got the full on pro guitars for RB3
    it was fantastic fun.

    i really do miss it and i know that i wont forget it but that more than likely your right and it will be forgotten in terms of best games of the generation

  • Bought Rocksmith 2014 yesterday. I figured I’d been playing Rock Band’s plastic guitar for long enough, and it was time to learn the real thing.

    It’s awesome.

    But, not too long later, I found myself popping RB3 in and jamming on the drums. Rock Band 3 is probably my fave game of all time, and nothing is ever gonna change that.

    The only thing I’m worried about is instruments. How long until our instruments break, and no-one stocks them anymore? Until that day I ain’t ever gonna stop playing.

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