DS music game fans have a pretty good selection for a portable, with Nintendo’s own stellar Rhythm Heaven and Activision’s Guitar Hero and Band Hero outings eager to put your rhythm skills to work. Harmonix’s Rock Band series has now taken the handheld’s stage for the first time in the bricked-out form of Lego Rock Band; should it stay or should it go?
Unlike Guitar and Band Hero DS, Lego Rock Band doesn’t bother with miniature plastic instruments that won’t work with the DSi. Gameplay follows Harmonix’s pre-GH music games Frequency and Amplitude by assigning face buttons to each of the four note colors and allowing players to juggle instrument highways with the shoulder buttons. It may not sound like much, but it’s a design that works really well once you get into it and can prove to be plenty hard on higher difficulty levels.
More experienced gamers won't find much of a challenge outside of Hard or Expert, which makes sense considering the Lego theme is supposed to help aim the game at a younger audience. If you're a grizzled rhythm game veteran then you likely won't risk failing out of a song very often, but it's still kind of a rush to nail complicated highway sections and seamlessly jump off to the next instrument without skipping a note. There's even a new Super Easy difficulty for the very young or rhythmically incompetent so everyone, regardless of skill level, will be able to have a good time.
What’s new for the DS vs. the console versions is the inclusion of purple notes and the goal of keeping band members happy. Purple bricks pop up after consecutively hitting a certain amount of notes and act as multipliers; hit one and the member whose highway you’re on will become happy and notes temporarily go transparent to allow you to jump to another instrument and keep jamming. Band members’ cheery faces eventually start to blink, meaning their happy time is about to run out and kill your multiplier if not addressed. Successfully juggling all four instruments is the only way to rack up multipliers and earn those precious stars that unlock more gigs and venues in Career mode.
Career mode works just the same as it always has in Rock Band: earn stars and fans by thwomping songs and unlock new venues. The big new addition here is event performances; after completing all gigs at a venue you unlock an event where, by the power of Lego rock, you accomplish certain tasks, like getting rid of a pesky ghost. Instead of juggling highways the event merges the best bits of all instruments into one, which is a nice change of pace. Also new for Lego Rock Band is decorating your hangout; you can unlock furniture and feng shui the place up. It's a nice little customization extra but it doesn't have any impact on anything and feels somewhat pointless.
It all largely works fine, but there are some weird omissions here compared to Quick Play. For instance, artist names aren’t visible until you’ve chosen to play the song, nor does a short preview of the song play when you highlight it. Song names aren’t always as obvious as "Ghostbusters" and you may wind up picking songs you weren’t looking to. There’s also no background music when browsing the menus in this mode but there is in other parts of the game, which makes Career mode feel somewhat empty. Quick Play mysteriously has none of these issues.
With only 25 tracks and way more gigs in the Career mode, song repetition is harshly unavoidable. This has been a problem in music games since the dawn of career modes, but since this has one of the smallest soundtracks in the genre it’s much more noticeable. A lack of DLC support won’t help this problem down the line either, and those who find themselves not interested in replaying the pop/rock soundtrack may find the whole experience short-lived.
That being said, the 25 tracks included are a blast to play with plenty of clever and fun fingerwork, and if you happen to like the songs (which you probably will) you won’t care so much when they come up for the umpteenth time. Sound quality is good through the speakers if a bit tinny, so to really experience the game you need to pop in those headphones. Also nice is that you don’t have to slog through Career mode to unlock any tunes, so if you just want to jump right into Jackson 5 or do your best Gob Bluth impersonation to Europe's "The Final Countdown" then have at it. Some songs may get stale, but others never get old either.
The signature tattoo art style that the Rock Band series is known for is still in place, but everything that could be bricked has been. And it isn’t only generic pieces or converted Rock Band attire, although there is plenty of that. Tons of classic Lego series themes like pirates and space are in, making DS character customization, the best non-music part of Rock Band, stand tall next to its bigger siblings. There are even minifig versions of David Bowie, Queen, Blur and Iggy Pop that come out whenever you play a song of theirs. Everything is rendered in 3D too and looks as good as it can reasonably get on the DS.
Career mode isn’t the only home to oddities. Text can be ridiculously small and difficult to read; Backbone programmers must have the eyes of hawks if they didn’t have a problem with it during development. Unlockables don’t tell you what you have to accomplish to get access to them. There are also some heavily compressed FMV cutscenes included that look like crap. The actual scenes are funny in that Lego-game kind of way, but the compression is so heavy that these clips come across as cheap animated GIFs with silly noises.
Few licensed games make as good a use of their source material as Lego Rock Band. The Danish toy line may at first seem like a bizarre match for the series, but it’s a charming fit that those who have ever built a plastic pirate ship can’t help but smile over. The soundtrack may be relatively short-lived for some and the career mode certainly isn’t perfect, but the gameplay is so much fun that it’s easy to overlook some of the game’s shortcomings. It may have some tough competition, but Lego Rock Band is certainly one of the best music games on DS that anyone can enjoy.