The existence of The Beatles: Rock Band is something of a story of sliding doors in video games. Following the split between Harmonix and RedOctane, which resulted in Activision buying RedOctane and Guitar Hero IP, while MTV bought Harmonix to develop a new music game, Dhani Harrison had a chance encounter with MTV President Van Toffler, in 2006.
Dhani, son of Beatle George Harrison, suggested that MTV’s new rhythm game would feature multiple instruments, not realizing that the exact concept was already in development until the first Rock Band game was released the following year. Harrison’s subsequent conversations with Harmonix President Alex Rigopulos helped cement the idea, and after showing an early proof of concept using pre-existing Rock Band assets with Beatles music, they were awarded the green light to move forward with development. With one of the band’s most famous names behind it, the game’s legacy over other band-based rhythm game titles had a substantial head start.
Other band titles had been released around the time Beatles: Rock Band was being developed, but games like Guitar Hero Aerosmith and Metallica sounded very simple without much thought. Along with the time and care put into the game, MTV and Viacom spared no expense in marketing the title. Both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr appeared at E3 in 2009 to show off the game, and a masterful ad using body doubles and archive footage of the band at Abbey Road led to the games release.
But despite everything seemingly in its favor, the recession of 2008 and the general fatigue that was setting in for the genre at that time were too much, and Beatles: Rock Band fell short of expectations.
The game itself is treated very differently from other plastic instrument music games of the time. For example, when Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and Guitar Hero: Van Halen were released, both games also featured songs from other bands. Beatles: Rock Band, however, only featured Beatles music. The game omitted some of the core elements of the Rock Band series that would have been out of place, such as the grand finishing system that involves spamming notes at the end of a song to rack up points.
The game innovated the Multiple Harmony system, allowing players with multiple microphones to alternate between different pitches of a song at the same time. In addition to the game’s distinct cartoonish art style, the game’s scenes replicate famous Beatles locations such as the Ed Sullivan Show and Shea Stadium, as well as fictional “dreamscape” scenes. Scenes in Dreamscape are like an artist’s rendering of what a song portrays, like a hot air balloon in ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ or submarine sections in both ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Octopus’ Garden’. These sections would typically open with the Beatles recording the song in their Abbey Road studio, then transition into the fantasy dreamscape section, transporting you to a psychedelic embodiment of the music. Fun fact: Paul McCartney still uses the dreamscape sections of the games in his concerts to this day.
The game’s soundtrack strikes a terrific balance between the era and the variety of the band’s catalog. DLC released for the game in the months following release fixed some of the biggest omissions such as the remaining songs on both “Rubber Soul” and “Abbey Road”.
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t feature the entire Beatles library, as disappointing sales limited the time spent adding content to the game, and the licensing costs later turned out to be a bit too high. The game’s downloadable content was removed in 2016, which meant that if you hadn’t already paid for the available songs, there was no way to purchase them in the future. Short of hacking, there is no way to legally revive these tracks throughout the game.
Beatles: Rock Band is as much a love letter as any game in history. The series’ tight gameplay is on full display and The Beatles’ library is treated with the utmost respect using the game’s jaw-dropping visual styles. The care taken in the title by Harmonix and those involved such as Dhani Harrison and Paul McCartney came together to capture one last flash-in-a-bottle moment for the genre and produced what might just be the greatest rhythm game ever made. .