So I spent the weekend playing Rock Band, the latest play-along-with-the-music game from the creators of Guitar Hero. Yes, it's awesome - a big, bombastic hulk of a vidgame that both restores one's faith in, and advances, the medium.
Like Guitar Hero, the object is to smack different colored buttons on an instrument-shaped controller in sync with corresponding dots on screen. It's oddly reminiscent of Space Invaders - the cascading blips on your screen that you have to eliminate. Except in this case you don't hit the fire button, you thwak your guitar or drum pad instead. You have three instruments to choose from: guitar, bass, and drums. You can also sing vocals, karaoke style, and your performance is measured based on your pitch and timing. Each song, like "In Bloom" from Nirvana or my personal favorite, "Wave of Mutilation" by the Pixies, can be a solo or multiplayer (band) affair.
My choice of instrument: drums. It's the least virtual one in the bunch. The "kit" is an early 80s looking electronic drum pad and stand, with four pads and a foot pedal. That means you're not just playing along virtually; you're really drumming. When you're deep into a song, the experience is weirdly transporting, like you're actually in the band. And of course that's what the best vidgames achieve - they rip a player out of his living room and put him in another world. And that's why Rock Band will be this generation's Space Invaders, a visceral and indelible experience that we'll be talking about, and replicating, for years to come.
One beef: the wires. My living room is an ugly snarl of cables, and the cumbersome hardware is going to be a problem once parents/spouses catch sight. The best hope for gamers is that the scrooges pick up a drumstick and play, not attack.