Games of 2020: Fuser

In a year where live music fell silent, a game that kept the beat going.

BeatMania 6th Mix + Core Remix (Japan) PSX ISO - CDRomance
(This is not Fuser.)

If I were to rewind back to early 2002, there’s a scene I’d be able to point out where my outlook on music games was planted.

I would’ve been in front of my Playstation 1, trying out five key Beatmania for the first time. Already deeply familiar with DDR, the gameplay mechanics of doing something to the beat were not new. But pushing a button to trigger a “keysound” – some small sample, sequenced into the notechart – was very different. Properly following the game’s instructions got you better sounding music, rather than solely higher score. That clicked something inside my head.

I am the first to admit that, on average, I am not good at music games. Even though much of my “gaming legacy” is around being a “Bemani veteran”, I grew tired of the grind long ago. I am not going to regain whatever marginal skill I previously had in beatmania IIDX, or start a quest to grind out the hardest DDR songs. Yet I still love the games where I can fumble my way through “playing” a track.

This outlook change happened again when Harmonix’s Rock Band first hit the market. Now, it wasn’t merely making music play, but doing it together. Playing at a part was a thousand times more interesting than chasing gold stars on Expert.

Fuser’s primary game screen.

Harmonix’s Fuser, released this November, has pushed my music game views forward once more. Here, we’ve moved past keysounds entirely, and in a world where stems – the individual instrumentation or vocals – from any song can be stacked on top of each other. The work that Harmonix did to automate beat-matching, pitch, and tempo in Dropmix migrates to Fuser and integrates so well it feels magical. Almost any combination of tracks can sound good.

The gameplay elements of Fuser are effectively secondary. Sure, you can quest through some sort of music festival narrative fulfilling requests from the producers and fans in the crowds. But it is less interesting and more tutorial-ish than the two modes I have spent the most time in: social mix making, and co-op freestyle.

Social mix making happens weekly, where based on some given criteria, you can put together a mix and unleash it into a queue-based voting system. The game’s traditional scoring mechanics go out the window. Here, you’re only going to place well for the week if you put together something that sounds good.

Here was my submission for a competition around building an “entrance theme”:

Separately, co-op freestyle has you and up to three people switching off at the virtual turntables, putting down what you think sounds good. You can cheer for each other, and there’s some algorithmic determination of the “hottest moment”. Those elements are ignorable; just getting to noodle around with friends trying to re-assemble old songs in new ways is a blast.

Harmonix has already built a pipeline of DLC releases and is making changes in light of community feedback, so there’s no doubt I’ll be coming back to Fuser again and again in 2021. Music gamers looking for thrills beyond AAA hunting should check it out.

Fuser is available on Steam, PS4, Switch, and Xbox. I’ve spent 17 hours in it as of writing this.


Games of 2012: Rock Band Blitz

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

When game historians look back on this era, they will hold up Rock Band Blitz as a shining example of muddled, poorly thought out game design.

This should’ve been a slam dunk. Take a beloved music game franchise, and give gamers who have invested in that franchise a way to reuse all their content. Wait, no, even better: give them 25 more songs for that franchise they love when they buy your $15 game. And don’t even go very far in inventing a different model of actively playing the game – it plays similarly to Frequency or Amplitude, games Harmonix released a decade ago. (Hell, it’s even simpler: there’s only two notes per track!)

But then Harmonix decided to tinker. They added a “coin” system in which one has to buy power-ups per song. This mechanic has been beaten into the ground by Popcap and other Facebook game developers, who tend to make sure there’s a giant button nearby that says “BUY MORE COINS”. Weirdly, there’s no opportunity to buy additional coins; there’s no appeal for you to spend any money other than on additional songs. But a full slate of powerups cost enough that you won’t earn as much back, so it’s a pretty constant dwindling of your coin stash.

But wait! Harmonix added a special challenge system, where weekly goals provide you the opportunity to win additional coins if you play well. It would’ve been an acceptable trade-off, except for one tiny thing: the only way to get into the goals is through a Facebook app, not in the game itself. Almost all of the social elements of the game are driven into Facebook; if you don’t sign into the app, you will never get to touch that part of the game.

Want to accept a new goal? Have to go to your computer and log into Facebook.

Want to check on how far along you are on a particular goal? Have to go to your computer and log into Facebook.

Want to challenge your friend to a “Song War”? Have to go to your computer and log into Facebook.

We are 6+ years into the current console generation. Sony and Microsoft have both put a ton of energy and money into developing reasonably functioning social networks within their consoles. Forcing your paying customers to use an interface outside of the game to access core functionality is such a shockingly poor move, I honestly can’t believe it game from a developer with the level of good will and community faith that Harmonix had.

Long time Rock Band fanatics were all crushed. Plaguefox on NeoGAF provided a good take on why this is all so messed up, with this money quote:

Unfortunately, it isn’t working. I am coming away from each play session aggravated. I’m not ending sessions just because I’ve had enough play time, I’m cutting them short because the game mechanics are working against me in a way that saps all of the joy of playing out over the course of a handful of songs. I think I’m officially in the “I regret buying this game” camp at this point.

Rock Band Blitz easily takes the cake for the most disappointing title I played in 2012.

Rock Band Blitz is available on PSN and XBLA, and is perhaps only worthwhile as a cheap songpack for Rock Band proper. My experiences were with the PSN version.


The Continuing Saga Of Guitar Hero

There’s a very typical scene played for comedy in movies and cartoons – the one with the typical party or some other big event, and there’s lots of chattering away. Then someone says something remarkably idiotic and/or absurd, and suddenly the conversation dies. This is sometimes accompanied with a record scratch, a string breaking on a musical instrument, or a glass breaking.

During Activision’s earnings report, we got [one of those moments](

> Asked how the company felt about impending competition by the end of the year, referring to Harmonix and MTV Games’ Rock Band, company officials took a curious stance in saying that it “wasn’t surprising that [the franchise] has attracted imitators” — seeming to imply that Harmonix was somehow now simply imitating the game it had itself helped build.

For those of you who have better uses of your time than following the ins and outs of the music game world, a brief history lesson. Guitar Hero was created in conjunction with four separate companies:

* [Harmonix]( programmed the game, building on their expertise of coding games like Frequency, Amplitude, and Karaoke Revolution.
* [RedOctane]( came up with the branding designed the guitar controller, building on their expertise of building third-party controllers for various Bemani games.
* [MTV]( added their name to it, building on their expertise of attaching their name to things.
* [Activision]( published it, building on a long history of game publishing that stretched back to the 80’s.

After Guitar Hero 2 was released, there was suddenly an effort to gobble up companies. Reasons remain unclear, but [RedOctane was bought out by Activision]( in May, and a few months later, [MTV bought Harmonix]( This left Guitar Hero in an odd place – the franchise resided with Activision/RedOctane, the code with Harmonix/MTV.

Back to the present: this split is starting to be felt in substantial ways.

MTV/Harmonix are now working on a game called [Rock Band]( for the PS3 and 360 (at the very least). The game will still have guitars, but also drums, bass, and vocals. There will be “deep online play”. Original masters of songs from multiple labels will be available. And so on. As this side of the equation was lacking a publisher, EA is on board to publish. Rock Band is scheduled for release this holiday season.

On the RedOctane/Activision side of things, there was no coding team. Activision pulled in Neversoft, known best for the Tony Hawk series. Depending on your views on that series, this is either great news, or a horrible warning of what may be in store. Regardless, Guitar Hero 3 is in development for the PS2, PS3, 360, Wii, and is due out this fall. It too will feature original masters and online play. Video of a beta of the game [appeared online yesterday](, and while it’s mostly the same, purists are already debating the changes to the interface.


To revisit the quote above: Activision reps said it “wasn’t surprising that [Guitar Hero] has attracted imitators”. There are at least three reasons this is hilarious:

To start, not even a year ago, all four of the original companies were still united and working on Guitar Hero II. History is apparently malleable to serve earnings reports.

Next, this is the video game industry – the home of countless ripoffs, copies, and clones. Three words, ladies and gentlemen: bald space marines. To make a remark that you’re not surprised you’ve “attracted imitators” might best be followed up by proclaiming your lack of surprise that candy is delicious.

Finally, speaking of ripoffs, copies, and clones…it may be difficult to remember of a time before Guitar Hero and Rock Band, where there couldn’t possibly have been any music games where you [played a guitar](, or [rocked the drums]( Yes, GH certainly carved their own path into the mainstream, but it owes dues to Konami’s work nearly 10 years ago.

(Sadly, Konami seems to have lost interest in doing Bemani titles in the US – they closed their Hawaiian office last year, and are in the process of merging their two California offices. To my knowledge, the only Bemani title that is in development right now is a DDR title for the Wii.)

Where these series go is anyone’s guess at this point – but it is certainly interesting times to be into music games.