After spending some quality time playing the Beatles: Rock Band this week, my empathy for Pete Best has gone way up. He was the drummer the Beatles fired -- making way for Ringo Starr -- just as Beatlemania was about to erupt, at least in part because he didn't have the musical chops to keep up with John, Paul and George.
I know the feeling in a whole new way now: These guys were good.
That's hardly a news flash. But one consequence of actually attempting to replicate their words, melodies, harmonies and rhythms in Rock Band is a more visceral sense of just how inventive their music was -- and remains, even 40-plus years down the long and winding road.
The genius of the new game, however, is that despite the cold realization that most of us would deserve to get booted just like Best, you still wind up feeling like a member of a truly special circle.
The review copy that recently arrived -- it's due out on Wednesday -- was the limited edition "premium bundle" (list price: $249.99) including the software disc (also available on its own for $59.99), the guitar and drum controllers modeled after Paul McCartney's Hofner bass and Ringo Starr's Ludwig drum kit, one microphone and a mike stand. Harmonix, the MTV Networks subsidiary that developed the game, also offers additional controllers modeled after George Harrison's Gretsch Duo Jet guitar and John Lennon's Rickenbacker (also sold separately for $99.99 each).
The software will work with other controllers for Guitar Hero or previous editions of Rock Band. You just won't feel completely fab using them.
The setup was fairly straightforward, although anyone using a game system that isn't connected to the Internet might face a hiccup in getting started: My Sony PlayStation 3 had to be updated with a newer version of its own software before I could load the game. Fortunately, it took only a few moments to upgrade.
The Beatles: Rock Band software constitutes a quantum leap forward for the music video game, both in its more humanized graphic representations of the main characters, and in the seamless merging of visuals and gamesmanship with the creative spirit at the core of the group's music.
The different environments in each portion of the game include period-representative instruments, clothes, haircuts and architecture: Liverpool's bunker-like Cavern Club, the dazzling stage set used on "The Ed Sullivan Show," the wide-open spaces of Shea Stadium, the cluttered, industrial look of the Apple Corps rooftop in London where the Beatles performed their final public concert.
As an amateur musician who enjoys interacting periodically with other players in a group setting, I've had a gripe about Rock Band since I first tried it. Even though you may be participating simultaneously with other players, the game doesn't allow for truly engaging with the other players. While playing, you're so focused on the graphics that you don't want to take your eyes off the TV monitor or you'll blow your part.
The Beatles: Rock Band doesn't eliminate that; the trade-off is in the way the points and rewards have been structured to foment a group experience. There is, for instance, a "Don't Let Me Down" trophy -- one of 52 that can be won -- for rescuing another player who fails out of the gate. (And there's a no-fail option that avoids the issue entirely.)
Additionally, in other games, players score points that translate into money they can use to buy new equipment, clothes, private jets and other rock-star essentials. It's reassuring to report that in the Beatles: Rock Band, money can't buy you love, or anything else. You score points that translate into various rewards and trophies, most of which illuminate some aspect of the Beatles' music, career, their personal lives or the creative process.
At the basic level, anyone who plays a song competently enough to earn three (of a possible five) stars will unlock a vintage photo, with a snippet of information about that song or that period in the band members' lives.
Scoring five points usually unlocks two photos, and when an entire sequence of songs, or "challenge," is completed successfully, the play moves chronologically forward to the next phase in the group's career. Other available awards include video clips and bonus recordings.
My teenage sons have quickly become adept at Rock Band since I got it for them last Christmas, and they were more than willing to help me research this new version. Alec, my 17-year-old, is a Beatles enthusiast who can quote chapter and verse on the guitars used on Ed Sullivan versus what they played at Shea Stadium. Not so much for Harrison, who is 13. He's more interested in hard rock and hip-hop, which made his reaction all the more impressive when I loaded the software disc.
When the first screen images appeared -- computer-rendered representations of Ringo's drum kit, a Gretsch electric guitar, the Hofner bass and a Vox amp, next to a couch and a few teacups -- it was Harrison who volunteered "That's cool!" Then came an introductory animated sequence he deemed "awesome."
One of the things I like about Rock Band in general is that the drum controller is actually fairly similar to practice pads that some drummers use. In a section of the game where a drummer can practice different beats, a player can develop skills that would translate to playing real music.
The Beatles version kicks that up a couple of notches with a bank of some 80 "Beatle Beats" as played by Ringo in various songs. They can be practiced at reduced speeds up to full tempo until the student masters them. Many are quite intricate, and a player could learn something about music in this mode.
Ditto the vocal training tutorial. Because the Beatles introduce harmonizing into the world of Rock Band, this version takes a leap forward with a basic harmony tutorial. Like many aspects of the game play itself, the feedback is relentlessly positive. There's no getting booed off the stage like you can in Rock Band 2, and no cutting remarks in the tutorial if your harmonies are less than spot-on.
Harmony, in the end, really is what the Beatles: Rock Band comes down to. It's an adventure in collaboration, not competition; a celebration of innovation, not acquisition.
When you look at it that way, it's no wonder that when the game's developers showed it to McCartney, Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, their response was "Yeah, yeah, yeah."