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A ticket to play

A Beatles tribute band gives the Fab Four’s video game a spin

By James Reed and Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / September 6, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - Things are a little tense this morning at the Harmonix office in Central Square.

The members of Beatlejuice, a local Beatles tribute band, and a pair of reporters have arrived at the video game creator’s headquarters to test drive The Beatles: Rock Band. But first, a small problem.

“Oh, no, I’m color-blind,’’ says guitarist Dave Mitchell, staring at the rainbow of images flying at him on the screen.

“And tone deaf,’’ cracks bassist Joe Holaday.

Later, after struggling through several Beatles classics, drummer John Muzzy jokingly concludes that playing the Fab Four’s music is easier in real life than in a virtual world: “This is the day Beatlejuice breaks up.’’

Not really, but who better than these Beatlemaniacs to critique the latest incarnation of the best-selling Rock Band franchise? They decide that the game, which comes out Wednesday, is a painstakingly accurate homage to the group’s history, from the early days at the Cavern Club in Liverpool to the final performance on the roof of the Apple Corps building in London. In fact, the Beatlejuice guys can’t stop raving about the game’s attention to detail, so much so that they ask to meet one of the animators and then give him a round of applause.

“I would get [the game] and just watch it and listen to it,’’ Muzzy says.

“I find it amazing that their hands actually gravitate toward the real notes and the real chords,’’ Mitchell says of the onscreen Beatles characters.

It turns out the Harmonix crew is as interested in getting the details right as Beatlejuice is in nailing the harmonies in concert. The animation adheres to the songs’ eras, which is to say the images evolve from “Ed Sullivan Show’’-era mop-top cool to groovy and psychedelic. We’re amazed by how attractive the animated John, Paul, George, and Ringo appear. But we’re also willing to nitpick the look of the famous Beatle boots: They’re not pointy enough.

Assuming you have some experience with Rock Band, the Beatles edition is pretty user-friendly. You can sort the 45 available songs by album or even the venue where they were performed, and you can adjust the difficulty level. The game also offers up an avalanche of trivia from recording dates to never-before-seen photos that can be unlocked by user play in “story mode.’’

For the first time, Rock Band is offering a harmony vocal component in addition to the three instruments. So today there are six wanna-Beatles: a bass player and guitarist “strumming’’ as they match notes on the neck of the guitars with the corresponding colors on screen, a drummer tapping out the beats in the same fashion, and a rotating cast of three singers raising their voices as the lyrics scroll across the top of the images, with different lines denoting harmony parts. Each player scores points individually based on how well he or she synchs up with the “notes’’; a weak link can derail the whole process. (The folks at Harmonix have charitably put our not-quite-super group on the “no fail’’ setting.)

Today we’re starting out easy - or at least we think we are. As expected, as non-gamers, we and the members of Beatlejuice are off to a shaky start on “Eight Days a Week,’’ but, if we may gloat, the reporters’ harmonies pretty much salvage the performance.

Muzzy wonders why he’s getting a rolling drum sound effect instead of a single crisp hit. We also insist that the members get out of their comfort zones and try new instruments, which brings some comic relief before the band hits smooth sailing, aptly enough, on “With a Little Help From My Friends.’’

Not all of us are aces, mind you. One of the reporters (he shall remain nameless) has never played Rock Band and ends up on a stunning “two-note streak,’’ which translates to a 3 percent success rating. Meanwhile, his cohort scores a 97 percent on the harmonies. Mitchell sidesteps his colorblindness by taking to the microphone and receives the day’s only perfect score.

But, as we quickly learn, knowing the Beatles songs doesn’t help you master them on Rock Band. In fact, it’s almost an impediment since it doesn’t mimic actual playing but puts a premium on coordination. “You can’t play the songs,’’ Holaday says. “You have to play the game.’’

Muzzy is also impressed that Harmonix has crafted the game’s instruments, like Paul McCartney’s Hofner bass, to resemble the ones played by the Beatles. That fact may be lost on casual fans but is sure to please fanatics.

“There’s blanket obvious things that everyone knows and then there’s people like us who grew up fawning over [the band],’’ Muzzy says. “That’s how we learned about gear and music, so to see that type of attention reflected in the game is pretty amazing.’’

Doesn’t that amazing simulation make Beatlejuice worry its days are numbered?

“What it’s going to do is have that ripple effect,’’ Holaday says. “There’s going to be more Beatles fans than ever.’’

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com; Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

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