Rock Band Unplugged Review

By Paul Semel - Posted Jun 22, 2009

With music games making more money these days than most countries, it's hardly surprising that they'd bring Rock Band to the PSP. What is surprising, in a pleasant way, is that rather than try and replicate the "you're a rock star" feel of the other games, which worked so badly when Guitar Hero came to the DS, they've decided to make it more of a rockin' puzzle game.

The Pros
  • Is a fun variation of the regular game.
  • Recalls Frequency and Amplitude.
  • No hand cramp-inducing peripheral.
  • No pop crap or house bands.
The Cons
  • Doesn't make you feel like a rock star.
  • No multiplayer.

With music games making more money these days than most countries, it’s hardly surprising that they’d bring Rock Band to the PSP. What is surprising, in a pleasant way, is that rather than try and replicate the “you’re a rock star” feel of the other games, which worked so badly when Guitar Hero came to the DS, as you'll see in this review of Rock Band Unplugged for the PlayStation Portable, they’ve decided to make it more of a rockin’ puzzle game.

Rockin’ In The Free World

rock band unpluggedAs with every music game, Rock Band Unplugged has you following along with the bouncing notes, hitting the corresponding buttons as they pass the frets on a fretboard. Hit enough notes in a row and, yeah, well, you know the drill. Visually, it looks the same as its console counterparts, has the same kinds of bonus challenges (win a van, do a benefit show for more fans, etc.), and has the same open structure. Which means you’ll have to play some songs over and over and over….

Except that instead of playing this game with a mic, a guitar-shaped controller, or a miniature drum kit, you following along with the buttons on your PSP: the triangle for green notes, circle for blue notes, and up and left on the directional pad for red and yellow notes, to be specific. You also, at any given time, play one instrument, with notes in a row grouped into phrases. Nail all the notes in a phrase, and the instrument will play on its own for while which doesn’t mean you get to just sit back and flirt with a groupie. You have to switch to another instrument, which you do by hitting the shoulder buttons.

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What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?

Rock Band UnpluggedIf you don’t nail all the notes, though, the game creates a new phrase, so you can try again. Except that if you miss a couple phrases in a row, the notes will start flowing on another instrument. As a result, screwing up doesn’t just ruin your score, it ruins the song as well, since, if you’re trying to nail the vocals on a song, and don’t do it right away, you’ll find it’s become an a capella track before too long.

You also can’t pull a Lemmy or a Geddy or a Sting and just swap between the bass and vocals. Once you’ve got an instrument going on its own, it goes for a while, so you have to be like a street corner one-man band and play every instrument. Which isn’t that big of a deal since, aside from slightly raising the volume on whatever instrument you’re playing, the game plays the same whether you’re on bass, drums, vocals, or guitar.

While this all might sound kind of weird, it actually weirdly works, albeit more as a fun puzzle-ish game. Granted, hardcore puzzle-heads won’t agree with this assessment, since there’s no mental challenge, but if you’re not a puzzle purist, you’ll see what we mean. If anything, Unplugged recalls 2001’s Frequency and 2003’s Amplitude, the trippy musical games the Harmonix guys made before they took a cue from GuitarFreaks and made 2005’s Guitar Hero. As a result, while this has some songs that have been in music games before, here they feel exciting and new.

Let The Music Do The Talking

Rock Band UnpluggedIf Unplugged has a failing — and if it didn’t, it would be getting five stars instead of four — it’s that the game has no multiplayer modes. You and three friends can’t play with each of you on the same instrument for a whole song, and you and your BFF can’t play a two-player guitar solo showdown. Why the developers didn’t take a couple extra months to put them in, we don’t know. It’s not like they had to get this out in time for the movie or anything.

We have the usual compliment of R&B (The Jackson Five’s “ABC”), punk (The Dead Kennedys’ “Holiday In Cambodia), alternative (Nirvana’s “Drain You”), and rock both contemporary (AFI’s “Miss Murder”) and classic (The Who’s “Pinball Wizard”). And while some might feel having such an eclectic mix guarantees that there’s something for everyone, you could also say there’s not much for any one person.

That said, the game gets huge, huge kudos for not including any pop crap (The Smashing Pumpkin’s “Today” notwithstanding), which never work as well in these games as well as rockier stuff, and for also not including any songs by the Harmonix employee’s crappy bands, which never work…in these games or on their own as placeholders.

More Than A Feeling

Admittedly, playing a music game without the faux instruments won’t make you feel like you’re rocking out with the band…unless your concept of being a rock star has been so warped by reality shows and celebrity blogs that you think texting on a blackberry like Pete Wentz is “rocking out.” For those of you who don’t need a faux ego boost and for those who can take this for what it is, Rock Band Unplugged is pretty electric.