As human beings, we like music. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. We LOVE IT. No matter what a naysayer might say (like Steven Pinker who calls it “noise”), we spend hours of our lives listening to it. How many times has a bad soundtrack decreased the sensation of something great? How many times has an awesome soundtrack feel like its icing on a cake? Don’t believe me? Go read Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia. Anyway, rhythm games need a strong soundtrack (and rhythm, of course), or part of the fun falls to the side. I got my hands on Ultimate Band, a rhythm game for the Nintendo DS. It may not live up to its namesake, but it’s a solid game nevertheless.
Ultimate Band puts you in the shoes as a rock star who’s going back to basics (unlike a certain pop tart). You are led by one of the last hippies in existence who looks a tad too demonic with his rose-colored glasses that cover his eyes. I feel like he’s going to leap through the screen and devour a soul or something. Anyway, you travel from place to place to fictional towns that love rock music. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere! OK, that sounds a tad too cliché.
I digress; Ultimate Band has you picking up the various instruments (lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar and drums) and playing your heart out — using other artists’ songs. These songs range from the 1960s song Out of the Night by the Zombies to the B-52s’ Rock Lobster to more modern songs like Steady as She Goes and All Star. Of course, it seems like the emphasis is on 1980s pop and new wave. (A time period of music that must die.) Not all songs are performed by the original group but are instead performed by some sort of rock band that was handpicked to sell records. It’s not bad; it just doesn’t retain the intensity and honesty of the original performers. On the plus side, all of the instruments sound properly tuned.
Since this a DS rhythm game, you’ll use the touchscreen exclusively to play. Notes travel from the top screen to the touchscreen. Your job as a chart-topping musician is to tap these falling notes in rhythm to the various songs. With the guitars, you have to move your thumb around the D-pad. This, oddly enough, is something I truly like about the game. It gives off the feeling that one is actually playing a guitar. Hit them consistently and you will rack up a higher score. This allows you to unlock achievements, costumes and genres (among other things) for creating your own music. Control wise, everything is rather solid. The notes are rather forgiving, though the bass guitar drives me nuts. Instead of “strumming” the strings [individually], you have to hit the notes as a chord. It’s just a little more difficult than the other guitars; although, ironically, it is a bit closer to playing a real guitar.
It is important to note that there is an opportunity to create your own music. No, this is not a joke. The game gives you a rather unique creation system. You select your instrument and then just play. For example, when you play the guitar, you can rotate through the different sounds; the game tells you on the top screen which note you’ll be playing when you play a guitar. Essentially, you can play through all the instruments and create your own crazed unique sound. Personally, I prefer banging away on a real instrument. However, if you’re not lucky enough to own an instrument, this could be a viable option.
Presentation wise, Ultimate Band probably will not impress anyone. It has its own cartoony feel. It looks decent, and the characters, when they do move, actually move rather well. Pretty much you’ll see the characters clapping their hands over their heads in a stadium. Selecting songs are placed in easy-to-access menus and can be quickly backed out of with a tap of the stylus. It’s really not that difficult to do whatever you need to do.
Audio wise, everything also is decent. The four different instruments sound properly tuned, so it won’t offend anyone’s ears if you’re musically inclined. But let me make this clear: I’m not that fond of the soundtrack. The band that covers the different songs just doesn’t carry the intensity and honesty of the originals. There are just not enough true rock songs (by my standards) to rock out to. How about a song from the White Strips? Sheryl Crow? Rocco Deluca? The Corrs? How about a little Garbage? But, on the bright side, the songs won’t offend anyone. And concerned parents can rejoice! You don’t have to worry about your children listening to something they shouldn’t, but I don’t know how appropriate it is for a kid to listen to Nine in the Afternoon.
Overall, Ultimate Band is a rather solid rhythm game. It didn’t impress me as much as some of the other rhythm games I’ve played. It just lacks that little bit of POP (you know, sort of like a balloon ...) and uber entertaining gameplay, but it’s a decent game in its own right. My problem with it is that it bores me. I know a bit too much about music for the game to keep me content.
So if you like rhythm games but don’t own many, check it out. If you find Guitar Hero to be a bit too esoteric and too hardcore, try Ultimate Band. If you have kids who love music but you cannot afford the few hundred dollars to purchase an instrument, then this could be a viable purchase for your family. Seriously, go to your favorite rental spot and see if this game is a proper fit for you. It’s really not a bad way to spend a few afternoons.