Sunday, November 8, 2009

With The Beatles....In 2009

“By reinterpreting an essential symbol of one generation in the medium and technology of another, The Beatles: Rock Band provides a transformative entertainment experience. In that sense it may be the most important video game yet made."

Seth Schiesel, the New York Times video game critic, declared this upon the release of The Beatles: Rock Band on September 9, 2009. In the field of journalism, this type of statement is viewed as hyperbole. And it is. However, Schiesel makes a somewhat valid point here about the importance of this new release. By blending icons of two generations (Beatles for old; video games for current), The Beatles: Rock Band is a far more important release for both music and video games than the fifth Guitar Hero or another Rock Band featuring LEGOs (yes, there is one).

But first, a short history. Practically every human being on the planet with an ear for popular music is aware of The Beatles. From their Liverpool days to the final rooftop concert they performed in London, The Beatles defined a generation and remain one of the most influential acts on the planet. John, Paul, George and Ringo created immortal albums such as Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul that remain ingrained into the public consciousness today. Thus, this Rock Band release is significant in its ability to bring The Beatles’ music to those who may not be that acquainted with their music already.

Nonetheless, the only thing people want to know is whether or not the game lives up to the hype or not. To an extent, it certainly does. The tried and true Rock Band formula is brought here with little change to the fundamental structure but many tweaks to the aesthetic style. The game is bright and organic, unlike many of the dark, dimly lit venues from Rock Band 2. The most famous venues of the Beatles’ career serve as backdrops for the songs, including the Cavern Club in Liverpool, Shea Stadium and Budokan. Once the Beatles moved past touring and fully divulged their creative element, they settled at Studio 2 in Abbey Road, which is where most of The Beatles: Rock Band takes place at. Here, each song starts in their expansive studio then transforms into a “dreamscape” based off the song that is being played. For instance, “Yellow Submarine” will feature nautical scenery such as huge waves and, of course, a yellow submarine. All of the songs at Abbey Road have an individual scene and while some of them are drab (“Getting Better” is merely flashing lights and Sgt. Pepper garb), the dreamscapes really set this experience apart from any other music game out there and really make this game a loving tribute to the band that brought so much to the world.

Furthermore, the set list is stellar even if it misses some key tracks. All points of their career are
touched upon, starting with “I Saw Her Standing There” and ending with, well, “The End.” “Dear Prudence” is a blast to play on any instrument, with difficult hammer-ons for guitar, a steady groove for bass, complex fills for drums and a soulful vocal part. Speaking of vocals, there is an innovative (and somewhat overdue) addition brought to this game: 3-part harmonies. As any Beatles fan knows, much of the magic behind their songs lies in the layered harmonies between John, Paul and George. For this game, three different microphones can be plugged in for different participants to attempt to harmonize with one another. It is not easy to do but it is very satisfying when the chorus of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is mastered with a group of people. While vocals are obviously tough merely because of the voices behind the songs, the rest of the difficulty on the instruments are a considerable knock down from other Rock Band/Guitar Hero games. The Beatles were not the technical masters of their instruments like Eric Clapton and Keith Moon of the day even if they still rank up there with the best. The creativity they had was unequivocal and, thus, why their songs were so captivating. I was able to 5-star nearly every song on Expert Bass or Hard/Expert Guitar, something I am rarely able to do in other games. However, the drums actually remain very challenging, possibly dispelling the naysayers of Ringo’s ability. “I Wanna Be Your Man,” from the early album Meet The Beatles, is shockingly hard, with an erratic beat and intricate rhythm that is laughably difficult. The note patterns on the whole are not as tough as other games but arrive at a good middle ground to cater to newcomers as well as veterans, leaving both parties satisfied in the end.

It is disappointing that such tracks as “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Hey Jude” are unexplainably absent from the game as well, but they will most likely appear down the road in the form of downloadable content. The full albums of Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul are planned to release before the year is over, and Abbey Road already came out with songs like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Oh! Darling.” Even with the missing songs, the library included in the game is varied and fun to play, which ultimately means the most in this case.

The Beatles: Rock Band is obviously a labor of love from the folks behind it at Harmonix. Every aspect of this game feels more polished and refined then other music games that have come before it. The fact that this game was made is still somewhat shocking considering Apple Corps, the Beatles’ studio, and their strict protection of the band’s name. They obviously oversaw many of the stages of production, making sure this was not slighting the band in any sense. Apparently they demanded more wind to be added to the final rooftop concert, seeking to capture that chilly day accurately. However, the history in the game is certainly a sugarcoated one, with nary a mention of the forces behind their breakup. Any fan knows those details though, and this game really serves as a tribute to why they were so great in the first place.

Of course, there are many out there who could care less about The Beatles: Rock Band but still eagerly awaited September 9th. That reason is because the remasters of The Beatles’ catalog was released on this day as well. Available in two different sets, stereo and mono, The Beatles’ catalog finally received the upgrade it has severely needed.

To those unaware, the 1987 CD versions of The Beatles’ music were released haphazardly in stereo, without much care or attention to detail. Fans for over 20 years have been seeking better forms of their music, found, of course, on vinyl. However, with the new release of these CDs, the LPs may not be the superior alternative anymore. I got an early holiday gift in the form of the mono box set and observed some of the differences between the remasters and the 1987 CDs.

Please Please Me, The Beatles’ debut, features a number of classic tracks but they usually were flat or lacking in energy. This is different with the remasters, with “Twist and Shout” being a great example. John, who recorded this song at the end of a daylong session, barely has any vocal cords left, giving it its famous, raw sound. The detail is fleshed out with this remaster, making it sound much more authentic and close to the original recording. One of my favorite Beatles songs, “Taxman,” was a rather shoddy track previously but is given new life with this facelift. The bass and drums are cranked up and sound drastically different. Some songs even change pitch or tempo, such as “She’s Leaving Home.” Raised a half step and sped up, Paul’s singing sounds more confident and less shaky than before. Listening to these songs on my PS3 hooked to a nice sound system, I really was impressed by the quality and overall vigor the songs captured. Even without a nice sound system, these songs are great on headphones or boomboxes because of the one-channel sound that mono is defined by. Truthfully, most of the changes are small but, overall, they create a new set of recordings that is really greater than the sum of its parts. Mono sounds very different from stereo and my time with the latter has been restricted to online samplings so I cannot properly gauge its quality. However, mono is the biggest jump from the 1987 set so this box set is probably the best way to buy the remasters considering that they are unavailable for individual purchase.

It is not often that a nearly 50-year-old act is given the spotlight in today’s fast-moving society, but The Beatles aren't your average band. As the top-selling band of all time, there was not much more ground that they needed to cover to gain more recognition or acclaim. However, they are now the feature of the best music game to date, one that is appealing to many who have been unaware of most of their work, as well as serving the ultimate fan service to the millions of loyal fans in the form of the new, remastered box sets. Even after the death of George and John, their influence remains strong. There will never be an act that can rival their impact again, but the fact that we can celebrate their work together, decades later, benefits all of us.

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