Ever since the launch of the first Guitar Hero, I have been a huge fan of rhythm games with fake instruments. In 2007, I ditched Guitar Hero for Rock Band and didn’t look back. Rock Band 2 improved upon an already fantastic music game experience, and I have gotten countless hours of fun out of the Harmonix series, much to the annoyance of my downstairs neighbors. When Harmonix announced Rock Band Unplugged, the first handheld installment of the franchise, however, I was not at all excited. I didn’t see the need to put this game on the PSP, and I began to worry that the developer was going to do the same thing that Activision did with Guitar Hero: milk all of the fun right out of it. As it turns out, I should have had a little more faith in Harmonix. While Rock Band Unplugged is no substitute for the real deal, it’s a solid portable rhythm game that was more addictive than I expected.
The obvious concern that pops up when discussing a portable Rock Band game is the control scheme. With no plastic instruments to plug in, this is a valid apprehension. The default controls use the left and up buttons on the directional pad, as well as the triangle and circle buttons on the right side of the PSP. Yes, there are four buttons instead of five, but that doesn’t necessarily make the game easier. Additionally, the shoulder buttons are used to switch instruments mid-song, since you are responsible for drums, bass, guitar, and vocals. Each song will be broken up into sections, which you’ll need to play properly on one instrument in order to move on to another one; play a portion correctly and the instruments will play themselves for a short time, allowing you to focus on one instrument at a time.
The control scheme isn’t as intuitive as it is in the console versions of Rock Band, and takes some getting used to. While the process of switching instruments is interesting, it also leads to some unique issues. Most notably, missing one note can actually ruin your entire performance, causing the instrument you’re on to continue playing while another one also begins to throw notes your way. Because of this, it’s easy to miss out on a five-star rating simply because of one tiny mistake, which can be very frustrating. Overall, however, I must say that the controls worked well, and though it seems a little strange to perform guitar solos with the d-pad and face buttons, it’s still immensely satisfying to pull off a challenging riff.
Rock Band Unplugged has 41 songs, about half of Rock Band 2 and a decent amount for a handheld game. The sound quality is good, and though I mute most handheld games when I play them in public, I enjoyed slipped on headphones and rocking out to Bon Jovi, The Who, and Boston. However, Rock Band Unplugged has a major problem that was present in the first Rock Band: too much repetition. This is even more apparent with only 41 songs, and while I never get sick of “Living on a Prayer”, I can only listen to the Killers and Modest Mouse so many times—in fact, I was already sick of them before this game. That brings me to another issue: almost every song in Rock Band Unplugged has already been in the console versions. This is fine for someone who has never played Rock Band or Rock Band 2, but as someone who has played both extensively, I would have liked some new music. You can download some songs from the Rock Band Store directly to your PSP, but can’t transfer any tunes you may have already downloaded, and I’m certainly not about to pay for DLC twice.
As for the band itself, many of the customization and clothing options from the console versions of Rock Band are present in Unplugged, allowing you the freedom to create all four band members from scratch. This doesn’t make up for the fact that you can no longer play with anyone else, because multiplayer is absent from the game, for some reason. The PSP has Wifi capabilities, so I really don’t understand why there isn’t any sort of multiplayer mode in the game. After all, one of the best parts about Rock Band is playing with a group of friends; I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s the ultimate party game. Obviously, I didn’t expect that exact same experience on the PSP, but it would have been nice to play with at least one other person.
As a standalone title, Rock Band Unplugged is a good rhythm game that definitely exceeded my expectations. It’s fun and addictive, with plenty of venues, and though I would have liked to see less repetition in the tracklist, I still found myself saying “Just one more song” repeatedly. However, without my two favorite things about the Rock Band franchise—the fun of using instrument controllers and playing with friends—I don’t think this game will spend nearly as much time in my PSP as Rock Band and Rock Band 2 have spent in my 360. Although the replay value may be somewhat limited, and the gameplay itself a bit flawed, Rock Band Unplugged is still a good portable experience that is helping me pass the time until The Beatles: Rock Band comes out.