Boots’ Top Ten Video Games of All-Time #4: Rock Band 2/3

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

Allow me to start from the beginning.

Growing up, I had two main passions in life: video games and music. Both of these creative art forms were simultaneously infused into my environment at a very young age and to this day, they both occupy a permanent space in my life. I love them both almost equally, but if I am being totally honest, music will always remain the champion.

As a child, I had access to a keyboard that my uncle owned. He was in a band and would often practice his synth work as well as fiddling on a guitar or bass from time to time. This led to me being inspired to learn basic melodies on his keyboard in my youth, and I would eventually self-teach myself guitar as I went through middle school.

Naturally, I had fantasies of performing onstage in bands or with my idols. I often wondered if I would have what it takes to succeed at the craft of rocking a live audience. Granted, I never really pushed for an opportunity at it, but it was fun to speculate.

Fast-forward to 2005. Harmonix borrows the formula from Konami’s Guitar Freaks and puts it onto the console market with Guitar Hero. After two successful titles, the studio abandons the franchise and returns to the scene with a full-band version entitled Rock Band. This new iteration had a few different features, but the core gameplay of jamming along to favorite popular songs remained intact.

I was never what one would call a songwriter, so my extent of musical talent was strictly in the avenue of “covering” my favorite bands’ work. What Rock Band did was not only give me an extended selection to do this with, but it also provided me with an ever-growing list of new tracks to choose from. The weekly DLC packs were hit-and-miss, but more often than not, I was happy with what was coming out and I know I spent a good chunk of change purchasing extra songs.

(That’s myself on the ol’ six str… uh, strum bar.)

While the original Rock Band was great, it really found its stride in its sequels. Gameplay didn’t change much from the core mechanics, but RB3 added the keyboard as an instrument and also implemented a Pro Mode which, if you had a special peripheral, would essentially require you to learn how to truly perform the song on a real instrument. I never made the jump into that stuff, but it was a nice touch for those interested.

But what I was interested in was just “playing” the songs and feeling good about it. Some people made the argument that the game should only inspire people to learn a real instrument, but my motivation in playing Rock Band solely centered on having fun. Was it an exact facsimile of guitar? Gosh, no. But what it did do was give me a good time along with the occasional challenge and the satisfaction of rocking out with my favorite songs and bands.

Could I ever hope to accurately play Dream Theater’s Constant Motion and be as good of a player as John Petrucci?

Fuck. No.

Jesus fuck, that fuckin’ guy.

As low-skilled as I was on real guitar, it never stopped me from playing those types of songs on the game, and I had a blast doing so whenever I did. It fulfilled my rock dreams, and that was all I had ever wanted from it. Of course, not every song was as difficult and some were maybe a tad boring, but I enjoyed the experience, regardless. It was even more fun when the developers would release an unexpected novelty song as DLC. A few of my favorites were the Eric Cartman (South Park) version of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” Parry Gripp’s “Girl At the Videogame Store,” and the Hockey Night in Canada Theme song.

Perhaps one of Rock Band’s greatest achievements was its propensity to introduce new music to all that played the game. There were so many songs/bands that I would’ve written off if I came across them in the real world, but playing them in Rock Band helped me respect the tracks in a more organic way. My first exposure to The Strokes left me thinking that they were likely something I wouldn’t be into, but I’ll be good-goddamned if “Reptilia” isn’t a killer tune.

I could go on forever about how hooked I got on these games. Rock Band got me so good that when RB2 came out, I played it for a minimum hour every day for what I swear had to be 2+ years. I probably hit well over 1,000 hours of total playtime, and I don’t regret a single second of it.

Of course, all of this doesn’t even include the local multiplayer modes that spawned a sizable movement in bars and homes alike. In fact, to this very day, Rock Band parties are still held at various gaming conventions around the world.

In the pantheon of music/rhythm games, this franchise is the masterpiece, in my opinion. Great gameplay and excellent music collided to make a compelling experience that most games have yet to accomplish, and I will always consider it as one of the best in all of video games.

And all it had to do was play into my two greatest loves.

…and speaking of novelty songs, let’s get Metal Gear Solid 3’s “Snake Eater” in the game. It deserves to be there.

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Boots’ Top 10 Video Games of All-Time #7: The PlayStation 2 Era of Grand Theft Auto

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

Blood fills my character’s eyes as I’m shot from point blank by my partner in this bank job. She runs off with the money and leaves me for dead, calling me “small time” as she turns away. Tried and convicted for the robbery, I’m being transported to the penitentiary to serve my time. This never happens, however, as a group of people attack the convoy that is moving myself and two other prisoners. They take one of the others with them and leave the remaining convict and I to fend for ourselves. A bomb goes off, destroying the bridge and creating an escape diversion. My new friend tells me of a place we can go to get changed and rest. I steal a nearby car and drive to the apartment, ditch my prison orange jumpsuit for a black jacket and green cargo pants, and we head off to get some work with a man named Luigi. Thus began my time in Liberty City…

It’s amazing how such a short and seemingly insignificant moment is the genesis of a franchise’s popularity. I had previously played Grand Theft Auto 2 and, while a great game with some interesting concepts, I was interested to see how it would translate from its top-down 2D look to a full 3D setting. It’s pretty safe to say that almost no one was disappointed with the result. Grand Theft Auto 3 became the benchmark for many games that tried to emulate the open-world genre, and that tradition carried on with its sequels, GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas.

Ambulance

Don’t mess up, don’t mess up, don’t mess up…

There was almost no way for me to get bored in these games. While there were a HUGE number of activities to take part in, the one I truly remember best from each game – possibly due to its annoyance level – is the Ambulance Missions. I’d go around picking up injured patients and bring them to the hospital, but holy crap, one slip-up and all that work for extra health would be lost. This happened on many occasions and I can vividly remember the rage. Of course, there were also the fun things. Story missions were almost always entertaining if not interesting, and I absolutely LOVED looking for all of the unique stunt jumps in each of these titles, especially after finding the superbikes.

Characters in the franchise are colorful and varied, and I had many favorites. The writing in these three games was top-notch and I enjoyed every minute of dialogue. Developer Rockstar Games even managed to land big name Hollywood actors for many of the roles, giving the games some outstanding performances.

Tenpenny Meets His Fate

Samuel L. Jackson plays the corrupt Vinewood cop, Officer Frank Tenpenny. SPOILER: He doesn’t win.

But it’s not even those things that stand out to me the most. It was the chance happenings, the unscripted events that occurred just by way of being in the perfect place at an opportune time, that made these games some of the most fun and memorable that I’d ever played. It could be a well-timed explosion, or a sweet maneuver from the cops, or even something as simple as discovering a dirtbike race on a mountain.

My clearest memory of the entire franchise comes from Vice City. I was doing a mission where I had to break a needed ally out of jail and, upon exiting the station, my wanted level was sitting at a nice four-star level. I ran to the street, eliminated a couple cops, and hopped into the nearest sports car. Being the rock fan that I am, I was happy to see that the preset station was for V-Rock.

Love Fist

The hottest Scottish metal and in all the land. From left to right: Willy, Percy, Jezz, and Dick.

As any GTA fan knows, the radio stations that are in the games make up some of the gaming’s most immersive experiences complete with original programming and full-fledged commercials. This specific occasion had Anthrax’s Madhouse on as I attempted to evade the police. The song was entering its final few beats as I just managed to get clear of the initial blockade, turning it into a legit high-speed chase. That’s when I heard a familiar series of notes…

There are famous guitar lines in heavy metal, and then there are riffs that reached a sort of god-like status. As I sped toward more open roads with the law on my tail, the opening riff of Slayer’s Raining Blood filled my ears and gave me instant goosebumps. I was already familiar with the song, but it had been a while since I’d last heard it. At this moment, blazing through traffic in hopes of finding a Pay-N-Spray quickly, the power of that riff combined with the intensity of the situation melded to form a perfect synergy. My adrenaline surged to a level I didn’t think was possible from a video game. In my head, the only expression I could muster was an excited “OH SHIT, OH FUCK!” I couldn’t form any other words. It was downright magical.

That’s what this newly-dubbed “sandbox” genre is all about. Exploring the world, finding those little gems of gameplay, discovering the in-jokes and easter eggs that the developers threw into the landscape. You can camp on a rooftop and fire at everyone, bet on horse races, fly a fighter jet (YES, A FREAKING FIGHTER JET!), deliver pizzas, or do like I did and just hop on motorcycle and travel around the entirety of San Andreas in one giant loop in about 12 minutes or so on all of its main highways. It seemed as if you could just live a life inside of Rockstar’s worlds, and I’ll be damned if some of us didn’t actually wish it were possible.

Looking back, it is way too difficult to decide which of the trio of PS2 titles is best. Each of them have a unique flavor that works perfectly. The Mafia-inspired tone of GTA3, the cocaine-fueled drug ring tale in Vice City, the early-90s Southern California Gang-like vibe of San Andreas; every game had something for me to connect with. All three had great storytelling, kickass characters, super fun gameplay mechanics, endless nods to pop culture from my childhood, and all of them heavily drew me into their worlds. For these reasons, it is only fitting they are all included as one entity, make the PS2-era of Grand Theft Auto my #7 favorite game(s) of all-time.

Fighter Jets!

I need a wingman. Where’s Goose?

PS – Grand Theft Auto IV? Not even close to living up to these games. Here’s hoping GTA V is as great as it appears to be.

Take A Look, It’s In A Book…

I’ve been trying to read actual books, lately. Shocking, I know, but I figure it will inspire me in some fashion. Besides, it makes for a good pastime while I reign on the Porcelain Throne.

Where I rule with an iron… fortitude. (Not my actual toilet)

I’m about halfway through Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas, which has actually been quite entertaining. It was recommended to me one night while on a Skype call with a group of friends and so I decided to give it a shot. The book tells the story of its titular character and his gift of being able to see the undead spirits around him; both the good and bad kind. It’s also a fast read, which I am happy for in my onset adult illiteracy.

Another book I recently picked up from the library is Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell. I had heard a bit of buzz about this one when it came out in 2010 and I figured – being about video games – it would be a title that is right in my wheelhouse. Little did I know what a struggle this book is to digest.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still planning on finishing it. However, I’m currently on the third of nine chapters and all I have gathered at this point is that the author hates video games. Everything he points out about them, especially when talking about extremely successful and popular titles, seem to give him a huge sense of shame and embarrassment. Even when he talks about a game he loves, Left 4 Dead, he finds a way to shape it into a down moment.

I’m hoping this elongated stretch of negativity is his version of a “rope-a-dope” and that things will eventually turn around in the end, but for now, his tone makes it a challenge to trudge through his work. It’s like having that friend who complains about everything and yet never does anything to fix it while you sit idly by, wondering what it is they actually do to have fun.

So far, all you’ve told me is why you don’t want them to matter.

For example, here is the final paragraph of the third chapter:

I once raved about Left 4 Dead in a video-game emporium within earshot of the manager, a man I had previously heard angrily defend the position that lightsaber wounds are not necessarily cauterized. (His evidence: The tauntaun Han Solo disembowels in The Empire Strikes Back does, in fact, bleed.) “Left 4 Dead?” he asked me. “You liked it?” I admitted that I did. Very, very much. And him? “I liked it,” he said, grudgingly. “I just wish there was more story.” A few pimply malingerers, piqued by our exchange, nodded in assent. The overly caloric narrative content of so many games had caused these gentlemen to feel undernourished by the different narrative experience offered by Left 4 Dead. They, like the games they presumably loved, had become aesthetically obese. I then realized I was contrasting my aesthetic sensitivity to that of some teenagers about a game that concerns itself with shooting as many zombies as possible. It is moments like this that can make it so dispiritingly difficult to care about video games.

If you knew me at all, you would know that an opinion like this makes me rage with high intensity. If you hate the medium and/or the surrounding culture, then why be involved at all? If it’s that tough for you to care about games because you have to justify them to others, then stop. Stop playing, stop partaking, stop torturing yourself and do something you actually enjoy. Also, try not to criticize others’ physicality in the process. It doesn’t add anything to your point, sir.

There’s so much critique out there of this nature spanning multiple forms of media that I consciously neglect so that I, in turn, won’t become of similar thought. I love video games. I always have and always will. Sure, there are some I don’t like very much, and I will discuss that when I feel a need to, but I will never let a differing opinion affect the way I enjoy the things I like. My enjoyment is mine, and I refuse to be embarrassed of it.

I just hope I can enjoy this book before it ends.