There are countless developers and companies in Japan who are known for being champions of the rhythm game, but only one American company comes to mind when I think of iconic stateside music games – Harmonix. They led the plastic instrument revolution in 2007 with Rock Band, eating enough of Guitar Hero’s lunch that the once unbeatable guitar-wielding music game soon found itself desperately trying to claw onto the same level as Rock Band. Harmonix lived through the rise and fall of the English rhythm game boom, but they’ve never given up on rekindling that musical spark. Over the last few years they’ve put out plenty of new rhythm game experiences, with perhaps the most inventive of them all being the 2017 hybrid boardgame Dropmix. While that project didn’t exactly set the world on fire, Harmonix is taking the DNA of that experience and re-stringing it into a console video game IP called Fuser that, without a doubt, will shake up the rhythm game genre as we know it.
Fuser operates under the same dynamic mashup rules as Dropmix before it, but if you aren’t familiar with that game, the premise is simple. Fuser gives you four empty slots, and a deck of cards representing a wide variety of songs from 1980s R&B to current chart-topping pop hits. When you pick a card, you can choose to select either the vocals, drums, keys/bass or guitar of the song and place it into a slot. Drop the drums from (Don’t Fear) The Reaper and you’ll get isolated audio of that iconic, cowbell-tinged drumloop. As you pop other song elements into your DJ deck, the game dynamically shifts the tempo and pitch of each element so that they all merge together into a cohesive, banging new mashup. This technology worked flawlessly in Dropmix, and it continues to deliver in Fuser. Whether you combine slow vocals with fast-paced guitar or low-key bass with high-octane guitar, the resulting mix will always sound sharp, professional, and oh-so-amazing.
It isn’t yet clear what kind of modes or campaign-paths will be available in the full release of Fuser, but the hands-on demo at PAX East provided some simple objectives that helped make the game into more than just a DJ-ing sandbox. Firstly, a BPM-tracker ticks away at the top of your DJ-deck. You’ll need to swap cards on an upbeat in order to score points because swapping willy-nilly in the middle of a beat will kill your score. Additionally, requests from the audience poured in at a constant rate, asking me to drop in new vocals, play some 2010s songs or slot in a few rap tracks. Keeping an eye on your BPM-tracker as you shuffle through your deck looking for the right hits was a simple yet engaging mission of multi-tasking that kept me in the zone during the entirety of my demo.
There’s a lot we don’t yet know about Fuser. The original Dropmix had a variety of co-operative and competitive game modes, the ability to save your favorite mixes, and the iconic physical peripherals. Whether Fuser will get the same treatment in any of those ways remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: Harmonix are going all-in on their next big rhythm game hit.