Rock Band: A Family Activity Video Game

When my kids decided to spend their accumulated Christmas money on the video game Rock Band, I have to admit, I rolled my eyes.
The game was expensive – $160! – and I could envision it going into the dust heap of things they thought they really, really wanted but then got bored with five minutes later.

So we bought it and brought it home. And not long after, I was hooked. So were they.

Rock Band for XBox 360 is kind of along the same lines as the immensely popular Guitar Hero. Developed by Harmonix Inc. and released for the 2007 holiday season, Rock Band expands on the music simulation concept tremendously.

In Guitar Hero, you can only play the guitar. In Rock Band, you can choose between a variety of instruments – guitar, bass, drums and vocals.

Needless to say, the thing comes in a big box. This is mostly because of the drum set. There is also the game, a guitar controller, and a microphone, plus various and sundry connections and cables.

Notes (or drum beats) appear on the screen; they are color-coded. You must play the right note at the right time. You don’t have to know how to read music, you just have to follow what’s on the screen. The better you do, the higher your score.

My sons immediately pronounced it “most awesome game ever made,” and latched onto the guitar and the drums. Myself, I wanted the microphone. I’ve long been a frustrated rock ‘n’ roll star trapped in the body of a mom.

Doing the vocals is kind of like doing karaoke. But unlike karaoke, you must hit the notes pretty closely or risk failing. The game wants the right pitch and duration. A little moving arrow shows you how close (or far) you are away from the note, and you can adjust accordingly.

It turned out to be big fun. When we all play together, it really feels like being in a band. It’s hard to do just one song – you want to keep going. Songs from all eras are included, from early Rolling Stones (“Gimme Shelter”) to present-day bands like The Killers (“When You Were Young”).

You can also tie into XBox Live, the online service, for a monthly fee and play with other rockers around the world. Haven’t done that yet, but it’s on my list.
My sons were amazed that good music existed back in previous eras, and even more amazed that I knew all the words to so many songs. It also gave me the chance to get more acquainted with current songs, plus some from the ’90s that had somehow totally got by me. Another plus: When you get tired of the songs that come with the game, you can download more (for a fee) via XBox Live.

I have learned a lot from this game – first of all, that for music-oriented families like ours, it’s a great way for us to have fun together and connect in a unique way. For instance, I discovered, to my surprise, that my younger son has a heavy metal soul, preferring Iron Maiden and Metallica to just about anything else. He and I tend to fight a little over song selection – heavy metal songs are not exactly the most melodious things to sing, although the guitar parts are quite awesome.

We fight a little, but just for fun.

You really do have to work together to be a band in Rock Band. One band member can “rescue” another who’s not doing well in the game, by playing particularly well.

I’ve never done well at a video game before, with the possible exception of Pong. Singing in Rock Band not only gave me the glow of pretending I was a rock star, but I could actually excel as a gamer, for the first time in my life.

I’m racking up those five-star ratings. Left and right.