There’s been a lot of hubbub surrounding Sept. 9, 2009, Entertainment Weekly dubbed the day as “the reinvasion of The Beatles,” a title that’s well warranted with the long-sought remastered release of the Fab Four’s entire work. These Baby Boomer-baiting sets carry a hefty price tag ($300 for the box) and an impressive amount of work—each album has been completely restored and enhanced from the original tracks, a process that took over four years. And the work hasn’t just been for show—even the most inept audiophile will have an easy time appreciating the difference between the originally muddy “Within You Without You” and the newly polished version.
But this time the interesting part of the invasion actually comes from America’s own Massachusetts, in “The Beatles: Rock Band.” Famed video game developer Harmonix landed the big one in 2008 when the company secured the rights to create a music game based on the most celebrated band of all time. It’s quite the honor, actually. Publishers EA and Activision have been scrambling for years to secure the Beatles license for their music games, and surviving members Paul McCartney and Ringo Star have been reluctant to attach the classic name to any product, especially something as gaudy as a video game (when a demo was first presented to McCartney a few years back, he called it “a couple of grownups looking very foolish with these little plastic guitars playing to a screen”).
Usually known for their over-the-top rock antics from the Rock Band series (think purple Mohawks and foot-long spiked jewelry), Harmonix has brought a lot of reserved class to “The Beatles: Rock Band.” Beautiful CG dreamscapes uniquely inspired by each individual song place players in a Yellow Submarine-like fantasy. Tunes like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” look absolutely influenced by whatever hallucinogenic might have been around, true to the song’s namesake (even if that particular theory has been outright denied by McCartney and company).
Unlike other single band-themed music games (“Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” and “Guitar Hero: Metallica”), “The Beatles “is more than just “Rock Band” with a robotic Lennon thrown in. All of the game’s 45 songs are remastered tracks from the titular band with no annoying, needless filler present in the Guitar Hero offerings. “Story mode” starts “The Beatles” off in cramped Liverpool pubs before taking the band on a historical world tour that stops for famous shows like 1965’s Shea Stadium concert and ends at the Beatles’ completely depressing final performance on top of the Apple Corps building in London. Little touches like the quick banter between songs make the experience truly authentic; for example, Ringo can be heard complaining about blisters after a set.
The care and respect that has been put into “The Beatles: Rock Band” is tremendous, especially when you consider the atrocities Activision has committed against their game’s famous faces. “Guitar Hero 5” features a clumsily animated Kurt Cobain, who can be set to play and sing any song on the title’s extensive catalog. If you ever dreamed of seeing the famous grunge artist sing along to Coldplay, now’s your chance. Kurt’s spinning in his grave like Nevermind in a teenager’s CD player.
Not that “The Beatles: Rock Band” is without its faults—the disc only ships with 45 songs and many Beatle’s mainstays are curiously absent, like Let it Be, Help, and Yesterday. However, the promise of future, albeit expensive, downloadable content (like Abbey Road, available next month) looks like it will fill that particular hole. Also, for understandable licensing reasons, none of the songs on the new disc is exportable to any other” Rock Band “games.
But I digress; The Beatles: Rock Band is the best music game since 2006’s Guitar Hero II—an earnest, love-filled effort that stands above the mass of musical cash-ins that have littered the past three years.