Harmonix — the studio behind Rock Band and the original Guitar Hero — has long experimented with fusing technology, games, and music. Aside from getting millions of people to play with plastic instruments in their living rooms, the developer released games that made use of Sony’s EyeToy camera, Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensor, and even Apple’s old click wheel iPod. It was one of the first developers to start making games for the Apple TV. Now Harmonix has partnered with Hasbro on perhaps its strangest creation yet: Dropmix, an experience that fuses a Bluetooth-enabled game board, NFC playing cards, and a mobile app to create a playful musical mash-up tool. It’s surprisingly fun — though for most people, it likely won’t have the lasting appeal to make a $99.99 entry price worth it.
The core of Dropmix is the board, which is a long, bulky plastic device that serves as both a playing surface and a cradle for your phone or tablet. The game requires a free mobile app, available on both iOS and Android, which handles most of the heavy lifting for playing the game. To set up, you simply place your smart device in the cradle, and connect it to the board via Bluetooth; it’s a painless process that took me all of two seconds to complete. The cradle works well with a range of device sizes. I managed to play using both my phone and comically huge iPad Pro.
Inside the box you get 60 playing cards, each of which represents a part of a song. One might have the vocals to “Call Me Maybe,” while another has the guitar from “Can’t Feel My Face” or the drums from “It’s Tricky.” Each card has a corresponding color, and the game board features five colored slots where you can place the cards. The idea is that you can build a new track using bits and pieces of popular songs. And for the most part, it works. It’s hard to make a song that sounds truly bad — I tried. You’d be surprised how well Beethoven, Evanescence, and Sia go together.
The game offers three different modes. There’s a freestyle section where you can simply place cards and create whatever mix you like, but the real fun comes from the competitive and cooperative options. When you’re playing competitively — either one-on-one or in teams of two — the goal is to place cards on top of your opponent’s cards to earn points.
The rules are fairly simple — some cards are stronger than others, and there are special cards that do things like let you draw again — and the app does a good job of keeping you on track. If you place a wrong or illegal card it will immediately let you know. And if you can’t make a move with the cards in your hand, there’s a button on the end of the game board that will spin a virtual wheel to eliminate specific cards from the board. The button is big and chunky and incredibly satisfying to slap in the midst of a heated match.
Playing competitively is a fun, if not an especially deep, experience. There’s not a lot of strategy to the game, as winning mostly comes down to the luck of the cards in your hand. That said, I do quite enjoy ruining someone else’s mix. There’s nothing quite like replacing Gloria Gaynor’s vocals with Ed Sheeran to really mess up a song.
But the best part of the game is the cooperative party mode. You still play with either two or four people, and you still divide the deck up between everyone. But instead of trying to play over one another, the goal is to react quickly to on-screen prompts. The game might tell you to play a level-three yellow card, or remove all blue cards, or play anything green. Playing the right card earns you points, and the faster you play, the higher your score. Act too slow and you get a penalty. Since Dropmix is ostensibly a party game, the kind of thing you pull out to play when people come over, this mode fits perfectly. There’s a lot of yelling as you call out when you have the right card, or if you screw up because you acted too quickly.
As much as I enjoyed playing Dropmix though, it’s hard to imagine playing it for long. The fun wears off fairly quickly; there’s only so many times you can listen to Sean Paul mashed up with the Jackson 5. Of course, the game lets you supplement this by buying additional cards — and here is where things can get expensive.
The base package runs $99 with 60 cards packed in, and you can buy additional cards in packs of five or 16 for $4.99 or $14.99, respectively. The cards themselves are great, with wild and colorful illustrations from an impressively varied group of artists. But if you want a decent mix of songs the bill can add up quickly. Harmonix has also tried to add some staying power to the experience by letting you save your mixes and listen to them later, but I can think of no circumstance in which I’d want to sit around my iPad listening to the weird mash-ups that come out of a competitive Dropmix match.
Ultimately, Dropmix runs into the same problem as games like Rock Band before it. It’s a playful, novel way to interact with music, but it’s also expensive and leaves you with a closet full of gadgets you’ll probably use very rarely. Dropmix is fun, but sadly I don’t think there’s much room in my life — or closet — for it.
Dropmix is available to pre-order today, and will officially launch on September 24th.