National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Now You’re With the Band

Music Games Come of Age


November 30-December 6, 2008 Issue | Posted 11/24/08 at 9:00 AM


Guitar games have been burning up the charts ever since Harmonix unleashed “Guitar Hero” three years ago. With its little plastic guitar controller and simple gameplay set to a soundtrack of familiar rock hits, “Guitar Hero” unleashed the awesome power of a million air guitarists upon the world.

Harmonix left its flagship series behind to create “Rock Band,” which added a microphone for vocals and a set of freestanding drum pads to the lineup.

Activision, meanwhile, acquired the rights to “Guitar Hero,” and continues to churn out a string of best-selling guitar games. Now it’s taking on Harmonix in a battle of the bands, as “Guitar Hero: World Tour” (Rated: T) goes head-to-head with “Rock Band II” (Rated: T).

“World Tour” adds drums and vocals to the classic “Guitar Hero” mix, but compared to “Rock Band II,” it comes up somewhat lacking in features. The musical element of both games follows the familiar format: colored patterns stream across the screen, and the gamer has to follow those patterns using the corresponding drum or guitar controllers. If you hit too many wrong notes, you lose the crowd — and may lose the game.

Since “Rock Bandalready worked out its kinks in the first installment, the second version feels like a more complete experience, allowing you to create a band that works its way up from dives to stadiums, builds a fan base, and even hires employees.

By comparison, “World Tour” feels like a freshman effort, with few of the band dynamics that make “Rock Band II” work. For most gamers, it will come down to the song lists, which have become big business as both publishers vie for major artists.

The issue for parents may be the lyrics of certain songs. Among inoffensive “Guitar Hero: World Tour” tracks like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney and Wings, are tracks like “Love Spreads” (Stone Roses), “B.Y.O.B.” (System of a Down), “Hot for Teacher” (Van Halen), “Freak on a Leash” (Korn) and others that contain more mature lyrics.

Add to that the usual amount of provocative, rebellious, sexual and borderline blasphemous lyrics that might crop up in any selection of guitar-driven rock songs, and you have a situation that calls for parental attention at the very least.

Since both games require you to finish certain songs to progress, and since parents can’t lock out songs they find objectionable, there’s reason for some caution with younger gamers, particularly since both the “Rock Band” series and “World Tour” involve players actually singing the lyrics as they appear on the screen.

“Rock Band II” does a better job of keeping the content under control. Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box,” for instance, has been cleaned up, and songs tend more toward mainstream hits like “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Pinball Wizard.”

Although a track like System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” isn’t going to please most Catholic parents, the half-baked political, philosophical, moral and religious musings of rock stars tend to be so incoherent and badly phrased that kids are unlikely to even understand them.

In order to address some of the concerns parents might have about Guitar Hero and “Rock Band,” Digital Praise decided to create its own clone with a roster of contemporary Christian songs.

If you have any experience with mainstream guitar games, then “Guitar Praise” (Rated: E) will seem a little rough. The visual experience is only fair, the guitar is not quite as well made, and the game comes only in a hybrid PC/Mac version.

Those caveats aside, however, it’s a pleasure to be able to say that the game largely delivers what it promises.

The roster of 48 CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) artists is rock-solid, with hit songs from TobyMac, Skillet, Todd Agnew, Kutless and many others for a grand total of 52 tracks. Clearly, “Guitar Praise” has none of the content issues found in other guitar games, and although the game has no vocal component, the lyrics are prominently displayed on screen to help emphasize the Christian message. If you’re looking for a wholesome alternative to other music games, “Guitar Praise” is the way to go.

Nintendo’s first foray into the music game genre for Wii couldn’t be more different. “Wii Music” (Rated: E) is a light family game more akin to “Wii Sports” than to any guitar game. You don’t play instruments by matching patterns, but by moving the Wiimote and nunchuck controllers to achieve a certain steady rhythm.

The game includes 60 different instruments, so you can slide your controller like a bow over an imaginary violin, shake it like a maraca, use a strumming motion for a guitar, and perform other intuitive movements to control the musicians and instruments on the screen.

Gameplay breaks down into a few simple categories as you play along with tracks or perform free-form jams. The minigames can be surprisingly tricky until mastered, with the standout being a handbell choir that can be played by up to four people at once, each person controlling two “bells” on a number of different tracks.

There are a few licensed songs, such as “Daydream Believer” and “Material Girl,” but the playlist is full of public domain tunes like “Yankee Doodle,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and others.

The music selections, coupled with the simple controls, make this game more appealing for younger gamers. (My 7-year-old daughter loved it. My 10-year-old son quickly grew bored.)

Still, there is plenty here to make this a good family game if everybody participates and more depth below the surface than may appear at first.

Thomas L. McDonald is editor-at-large of Games magazine and a catechist in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.