Imagine a game where you play music with your friends. You each play different instruments, and you can jam with them online. It’s Rock Band, the much anticipated follow-up to Guitar Hero, right? Well, yes. But it’s also a game that arrived half a decade earlier.
That game is called Frequency and it’s important because it added a fantastic new idea to the beat genre: choice. No game has done it since.
With other beat games (Parappa, Band Brothers, Ouendan), you either play the notes in the single track in front of you or you lose. It can be fun, but it can also turn quickly into monotony. (How much can you really feel like you’re playing an instrument when you have to stick so close to a script?) Where others have one track, Frequency gives a choice of eight — each a different instrument. Think that drum part is no fun? Switch to vocals, guitar, synth, or another percussion track for the next phrase. You choose what to play each and every measure, and that makes the difference between feeling like you repeated the music and feeling like you created the music.
But here’s what really makes Freq special: As you master each track, it continues to play in background. You spin one track, then the next and the next, building to a crescendo when the whole song is finally thumping and you can freestyle on top of it. The feeling is sublime because the connection between performance and musical reward has never been so supremely well crafted. And that same track-based motif translates flawlessly when you jam online with your friends, either competitively or laying down tracks for an original song (yep, there’s a composition mode, too). It was the very first online game for Playstation 2 and the first online music game ever.
All this speaks to how stunningly innovative Frequency was when it came out in 2001. That only becomes clearer when we look at games like Rock Band (made by the same folks), which are only now starting to add back the features Frequency had then — different playable instruments, play online with your friends (but still no “choice”). And Freq was a special kind of addictive, too. In March 2005, Edge put it this way:
Though Amplitude marked a step up in terms of MTV-friendly spit and polish, it’s the pared down strobes and breaks of the original [Frequency] that stand the test of time.
Why didn’t it take off? Well, Frequency wasn’t all that approachable. And that’s perhaps the most important innovation of Guitar Hero; making the music game immediately accessible to the most game phobic among us (that’s no small thing). The abstract visuals probably didn’t help, either, though retronauts among us might appreciate those slotted tunnels as loving nod to the arcade classic Tempest.
As much as PS2 was built on big brash titles like GTA and Gran Turismo, the platform deserves just as much credit for cultivating smaller gems: Ico, Rez, Katamari. Soulful, clever stuff that sometimes sold and, well, sometimes didn’t. Frequency’s a didn’t, but it should still be remembered alongside the better known PS2 boundary pushers, as a truly special small game the world still hasn’t quite caught up to.