Publisher: Disney Interactive Software
Developer: Fall Line Studio
Release Date: November 25, 2008
There was a time, not terribly long ago in fact, when rhythm games were not the de facto rulers of my hobby. Way back when, they were relegated to the back of the arcade, their enticingly realistic plastic instruments lying tantalizingly against their frames. A serious gamer, though, would never be caught dead playing one. Those days, of course, are gone. Now, shiny faux guitars and overly complicated drum pads are the order of the day. While the competing Guitar Hero and Rock Band series pretty much sit astride the console world, many other companies have recently tried their hands at the genre with varying degrees of success.
One such entry is Disney's Ultimate Band, an intriguing DS title that offers all of the timing-based gameplay of its more popular cousins, while eliminating the need for the expensive and bulky peripherals that so often accompany them. Essentially a less demographic-centric repackaging of an earlier Hannah Montana game, Ultimate Band allows the player to take on one of four instruments over the course of a short career campaign. During this rise to stardom, the player will visit several venues and perform songs that range from classic rock anthems to modern pop ballads. On top of this, a system is in place that allows the player to create custom songs, complete with stylized drum loops and rhythm guitar sections.
Though there are four total instruments, the mechanics for the bass and guitar are more or less the same. Notes scroll from the top screen to the touch-screen, where the corresponding string must be plucked as the notes enter the sweet spot between two arrows. To add a touch of difficulty, flats and sharps must be played by plucking the string while holding the directional pad, a prospect that can be positively arthritis-inducing on the hard difficulty. In addition to the mandatory notes, a set of translucent ones appear as well. These increase the score if correctly hit, but don't penalize the player if missed. The mechanic is simple, realistic and amazingly addictive. Unlike the five-button click-click-click approach of the more popular rhythm titles, each string on the simulated guitar makes a definite and constant sound; tugging an E string will in fact play an E. This leads to a situation in which the very occasional note sounds just slightly inaccurate within a song. It also lends an air of realism that other rhythm games severely lack. The player is playing the song, albeit on a relatively limited medium.
Rhythm guitar plays slightly differently than the other two strings, in that scrolling chords must be strummed instead of plucked. Because it would be fairly impossible to avoid hitting unnecessary strings, the game automatically immobilizes any that aren't used in a specific chord. Don't think for a second that this makes playing the rhythm guitar any easier. I found this instrument to be the most difficult in the game, and it proved to be downright beyond my capability on songs like "Rock Lobster." While lead and bass guitars can be frantic and most certainly require speed and precision, rhythm guitar often asks the player to strum so quickly and switch buttons on the d-pad so suddenly that it can be almost impossible (and therefore truly rewarding) to master.
It is the inclusion of its final instrument, the drum set, that really makes Ultimate Band shine. It is a more or less complete set, with two tom-toms, two cymbals, a high hat, two snares, and a kick bass. At harder difficulties, every one of these pieces is utilized. Just as with stringed instruments, each portion of the set issues a constant sound and makes playing a song feel realistic and rewarding. Also as with strings, translucent nonessential beats appear and allow the player a chance to elevate the score markedly. With so many pieces requiring so much attention, fast songs can quickly get out of hand, and one missed beat easily snowballs into an entire failed section. This is easy to remedy, though. I simply picked up a second stylus and played the game as if it were an honest-to-goodness drum kit. Tapping away with dual styluses probably didn't make me look quite like the rock-god I felt, but it was definitely the most fun portion of the game and the one that stole my attention repeatedly from the other functions.
The career mode tasks the player with completing 15 songs at varying levels of difficulty with the aim of impressing a venue's audience enough to win them as fans. This is where the game begins to run into problems. For one thing, each venue only introduces three new songs. Since each of the eight potential fans wants something different (one may like lead guitar, one may prefer bass), this means that the player will end up playing the same set list repeatedly over the course of the career. I found that in order to progress, all three songs in each venue had to be represented by the full band; with four instruments, this meant that each song ended up being repeated at least three times. The song list is by no means awful, but one can only hear "All Star" so many times before blacking out from sheer fury.
Then there are the songs themselves. The tunes are taken from a variety of rock sub-genres and therefore don't stick to Disney's standard bubblegum pop fare. Unfortunately, they are severely truncated in most cases. Each of the songs, regardless of their original length, clock in at about a minute or so. On the one hand, this removes the problem with most rhythm games, where an error in the last 10 seconds of a song can ruin several minutes of difficult work. On the other hand, it means that the often outstanding songs can't be heard in their full versions, but in frustratingly cribbed renditions that often exclude the best parts of the original.
Then there are the vocals. Far and away, the most prevalent criticism of the title lies here. Perhaps it is because the likes of Rock Band and Guitar Hero have spoiled me recently, but I always prefer originals or re-masters over covers. This is especially the case when it becomes readily obvious that singers are working well outside of their optimal range. Irritatingly, the singers used in Ultimate Band aren't in any way terrible but are woefully mismatched with songs. From the soulless rendition of "Nine in the Afternoon" to the patently painful cover of "Rock Lobster," the vocals come up pretty short in just about every song, and you'll also hear each one of these songs about 20 times throughout the career.
Luckily, career play isn't the only (or even the most fun) option. Answering a criticism that has plagued rhythm games since their inception, Fall Line has included a full suite of mixing tools that allow the player to create songs, store them, and even collaborate with friends over the game's wireless component. Despite the fact that the DS is notoriously limited on this kind of custom content, Ultimate Band's song-making mode is very detailed and as easy to use as possible. Just as in the campaign portion of the game, guitars are set up realistically, with several sets of sharps and flats programmable to various buttons. All four instruments make an appearance (though drums can be substituted with unlockable drum loops), meaning that short but impressively detailed compositions can be created.
Furthermore, creation can be carried over into multiplayer, where four players can join "jam sessions" and create songs together. This extends the replay life of the game immeasurably, vastly increasing the likelihood that players will return to it after the solo career is finished. Unfortunately, the DS card is only able to store 12 of these player-made songs. This isn't a huge constraint, since the songs require a great deal of precision and time to perfect, but it is a complaint that could easily have been remedied with an upload function. The oversight of an easy way to share songs seems severe in the digital age, and is the one real criticism against Ultimate Band's creation system.
Overall, Ultimate Band for the NDS is a very good entry in the genre. Realistic instruments and an easy-to-use set of creation tools are innovations that should become common across all rhythm games. While only players who are able to overcome the painfully shortened and poorly vocalized set list will truly enjoy the title, all fans of the genre will find something to like.
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