Amplitude: A pitch-perfect reimagining

One of my favorite games of the PlayStation 2 era is the original Amplitude. The 2003 music game pre-dated the guitar and band craze by several years, and laid the groundwork (along with its predecessor, Frequency) for the vertically scrolling gem note gameplay that would dominate the genre in the following years. After a nailbiter of a Kickstarter in 2014, Harmonix has been quietly toiling away to craft a new version of Amplitude for modern consoles. After spending hands-on time with multiple songs, difficulties, and even multiplayer, I’m confident that the game is tapping into the same addictive qualities exhibited by the original.

Unlike instrument-based games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, Amplitude has the player hopping back and forth between multiple parts of a song. Set up the drums at one time, and you may be leaving out the vocals until you have time to hop over and activate that track. Once played correctly for a few bars, the track in question goes onto auto-pilot for a time, remaining active even as you aim to bring other stems of the song to life. Activating a track involves beat-matching of the onscreen cues, and firing off patterns of left, middle, and right button presses (mapped to either the shoulder or face buttons) in time with that track’s melody or rhythm. Adjusting to the new PS4 controller takes time, especially for those who use the shoulder-button input option; the recessed R2 isn’t ideal for the quick taps required, but I mostly adjusted after several minutes of play.

The challenge comes not only from rapidfire beat-matching, but also switching quickly between tracks before your multiplier dies. Four difficulty modes provide a challenge for virtually any skill level; even after years of practice back in the day, the expert setting still gave me a run for my money. For returning players, the fundamental gameplay is spot-on, nailing the frenetic pace and rapt attention required by the original game.

Multiplayer is similarly nostalgic, allowing up to four players to tackle the song at once. A fascinating competitive/cooperative vibe pervades these sessions, as players use pick-up powers to screw with one another even as the whole team works together to make the song’s tracks come alive.

The visuals hold true to the surreal and colorful tone of the old games, but with appropriately modern visual effects and sharpness. Along with the lyrics of the five songs currently in the build, these visuals contribute to a concept-album quality, which deals with the mental experiences of a synesthete who experiences sensations and music differently than other people. Harmonix’s narrative unfolds through the course of the campaign using music crafted by the in-house team, but by playing the game players also unlock additional songs by other artists. Contributors include Super Meat Boy composer Danny Baranowsky, Minecraft’s C418, Symbion Project’s Kasson Crooker, Jim Guthrie of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP fame, and even returning fan-favorite, Freezepop.

The music genre has seen some tremendous changes since the original release of Amplitude. My experience suggests that returning players should get almost exactly what they’re expecting. If you’re a more recent music game convert, it should only take a few songs to see what all the fuss is about.

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