Ever since I first played the Japanese version of PaRappa the Rapper back in early 1997, I’ve had a love for music-based games. In the years to come, the growing genre would be fed by a wide array of ideas and attempts, and one of the things that I appreciated was that developers seemed far more willing to take chances there than they would in other, most established genres.
Of course, as amazing as being daring can turn out at times, we’ve also seen plenty of examples of concepts that simply fell flat in the end—and that was my initial suspicion when I heard the first details of DropMix. While I’ve got a lot of respect for what Harmonix has done for us rhythm game fans over the years, hearing that they teamed up with Hasbro for a new project that “uses cutting-edge technology that empowers players to create unique mixes of songs by playing cards on a game board connected to a mobile app” didn’t instill a lot of hope in me.
The initial moments of my hands-on demo with the game only boosted that lack of confidence in what I was being shown. DropMix is based around a plastic game board that has five places where cards can be played, one big button, and a slot meant for securing a tablet or smartphone device (which runs an app that syncs with the game board). Added to that were a variety of physical card decks that represent different genres of music. Depending on the mode that players choose, each person involved receives one or more of those decks to shuffle through, and cards are played to either satisfy the on-screen requirements presented or in an attempt to earn enough points to win.
Basically, here’s how it works: The game board is split into four colors—yellow, red, blue, and green—with each color representing a different element of music and being given different amounts of playable space. For example, the yellow spot is used for cards that add in the vocals from a song, but since you’d typically only have one singer, yellow cards can only be played on one spot. As the board can read NFC chips that are embedded in the cards, it knows what’s been played when, so it dynamically adds, removes, or mixes the song pieces as they’re played or discarded. Using some of the music that has been licensed for DropMix, you could then, let’s say, craft a dynamic new track by bringing together pieces from “Bring Me to Life” by Evansescence, “Kids” by MGMT, “Pump up the Jam” by Technotronic, and “Am I Wrong” by Anderson .Paak (ft. Schoolboy Q).
That concept was part of what had me concerned for DropMix at first, because taking elements out of songs and mixing them together with other, potentially very different songs is a process that’s hard to get right but super easy to get wrong. And yet, Harmonix has really pulled it off here. This is one of those games where you honestly have to try it out for yourself, because when you’re there in person, playing cards and hearing the changes to the song that other player’s actions have caused, it’s a seriously cool experience. At a certain point, part of the fun of DropMix simply becomes hearing what the results of particular cards being added to the mix will be, which can distract you from what you’re really supposed to be doing: winning.
However, that side of DropMix was where I found myself not wanting to stop playing. The game offers a number of different mode and play styles, such as Clash Mode, where two players (or teams of two) face off to see who can get the most points, or Party Mode, where a number of players all help each other to satisfy requests as quickly as possible. For me, though, it was all about the competitive nature of one-on-one Clash, where my goal was simply to outscore my opponent. Each card has a point level, from one to three, and cards actively in play can only be replaced by similarly colored cards of a higher point level (unless removed in other special ways). As well, in that game type, controlling the entire board earned additional point benefits, so it became a competition of skill and planning, where knowing what to play when was often more important than the individual cards themselves.
Dropmix was one of the biggest personal surprises I’ve seen in gaming this year, and I hadn’t in any way expected to enjoy it as much as I did—which is why it pains me to say that I think the game may be doomed from the start. The problem with DropMix is that it’s too complicated and too expensive for its own good. Having to carry around a decently-sized plastic unit, a variety of cards, and a separate smart device to properly power the game doesn’t seem like the friendliest of set-ups for taking it over to friends’ houses or other welcoming places. As well, the entry price of $99 for the device and only 60 cards seems steep for a new, unknown property, especially with how quickly such a limited selection of music will get old. (You’ll be able to buy additional cards in packs of 16 for $14.99, or 5 for $4.99.) I think DropMix needs one of three different revisions to really give it a chance: either drop the price of the main package, give it the proper built-in hardware and display to not require a separate smart device, or give it the tech needed to output the game to a TV without needing any additional hardware to play.
I hope that I’m wrong in my worries about DropMix, because part of me would be sad to see it just come and go the way I fear a product like this could. It’s a legitimately fun and surprising game, and something I’d seriously be interested in playing with friends when we’re looking for something a little different to enjoy. I just can’t shake the feeling that, if that happens, it’ll come in the form of having one person in your life you know who took a chance on the idea, but otherwise DropMix will seemingly not exist whenever you’re not over at their place.