Harmonix is a developer that has been working on music games since the early 2000s. Titles like Frequency and Amplitude weren’t as widely known as most other PS2 titles, but they paved the way for Harmonix’s more successful later titles which include the original Guitar Hero I & II, Rock Band, and their upcoming The Beatles: Rock Band.
Rock Band Unplugged is Harmonix’s fray into the handheld gaming market. The art style, graphics, and tunes are reminiscent of a full fledged Rock Band game, but the concern of most gamers were how the controls would work on the PSP. Do music-based games only succeed if you have a plastic guitar in your hand, or could they possibly work with a more traditional control scheme?
When you first turn on Rock Band Unplugged, players will be amazed by how well Harmonix adapted the Rock Band experience onto the PSP. The sights and sounds we all come to love from Rock Band are all there. In fact, the game seems like it’s more of an adaptation to Rock Band 2 than the original Rock Band. This would seem like the more logical choice as Rock Band 2 offered a number of improvements over the original title, one example would be the listing of individual difficulties to their respective instruments when selecting a song.
In the console versions of Rock Band, you would create your own character and have them perform with whatever instrument you’d like. Even though your character was part of a band, the player’s focus for new clothes, instruments, and style was only prioritized to your character. In Rock Band Unplugged, since the gameplay has you playing through all of the individual instruments, you create a band and upgrade them whenever you think they need a new look. The amount of customization is nearly identical to the console version. Hair, clothes, and instruments can all be upgraded in Rock Band Unplugged.
As I briefly mentioned earlier, Rock Band Unplugged has you playing guitar, bass, drums and vocals all at once. This might sound overwhelming to most people, but the way Haromix handled it will keep your sanity in check. The game has you playing particular phrases of a song. When you complete a phrase, the entire track will auto-play for a certain amount of time. This allows you to switch to another track using the R/L shoulder buttons to complete another phrase from another instrument. As you’re playing, you can hear instruments going in and out from the song, which is a reminder that you need to switch over to that track to try to finish the phrase. If one of your instruments fails, the section of that song will be completely removed from the track until you can either save the instrument by using star power or finish the song.
During gameplay, players will notice the music focusing on particular instrument tracks you’re currently playing (ex: when you are playing the vocal track, that track will be louder than the rest). I found this to be helpful as singling out your track from the rest can really help you follow along to the rhythm, which is vital to being able to play it amidst all of the other tracks. The controls are also pretty easy to get a grasp of, although it might take most people a couple of play sessions to get a feel for the button layout for each required note. Once you pass the learning curve, you might shock yourself on how quickly you can play the notes.
I was surprised to find that Rock Band Unplugged doesn’t include any multiplayer whatsoever. Rock Band & Rock Band 2 are party focused titles, so I would have assumed Unplugged would have allowed for some kind of multiplayer, if not online, then at least locally. The exclusion of multiplayer by no means makes this a less than worthy game. I just feel it really would have been the icing that is already a quite impressive cake.
Harmonix did include an extra game mode called “Band Survival”. In this gametype, you play all of the tracks to a song at the same time. Completing a phrase to auto-play a track is completely removed in this mode, so the player needs to balance all of the tracks at the same time. This can be quite a challenge as it forces you to constantly keep an eye on the fail-meter located at the top-left of the screen to keep all of your tracks within a safe level of play.
FINAL THOUGHT: Rock Band Unplugged might be as addictive, or even more addictive than its console counterparts. With it’s easy to grasp gameplay mechanics and great choice of fun song titles to play to, it deserves as much attention as any other music game out on the market. The only thing that felt like it was missing was multiplayer, but it’s still a solid title without it.