Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
One of the problems with trying to review this month’s massive console launches—besides the whole “highly contested national election during a pandemic” thing, natch—it’s that it’s suddenly become a damn fine season for games regardless of whether you’re shelling out for an Xbox Series X or PS5. (Something that Sam Barsanti and I hit on as both a positive and a negative in our Roundtable this week about the state of both systems’ launch libraries.) It can be difficult to really dig into, say, PlayStation 5 exclusive Godfall (very shiny, very weird) when all your hindbrain actually wants to do is screw around with the business sim minigame in Yakuza: Like A Dragon, or figure out how good you can make the melody to Dolly Parton’s immortal “Jolene” sound when it’s forced to play in support of Steve Harwell belting a hearty “Some-BODY” into the ether of Harmonix’s compulsive new DJ game FUSER.
The premise of FUSER will be familiar to anyone who spent any time with the Guitar Hero creator’s last big swing at digital mixing, DropMix: Hand the player a huge stack of popular songs from dozens of artists, genres, albums, and eras; separate each one into four parts—roughly tracking to drums, bass, lead melody, and vocals—and allow the player to chop, screw, and otherwise gloriously ruin them to their heart’s content. FUSER loses DropMix’s whole “build a song in a physical space with collectible cards” conceit—and adds in some not always successful score-keeping elements to “game” the whole thing up—but the core is still completely recognizable. Here’s a bunch of pieces of a bunch of music: Do with it what you will.
What I mostly do with it is find the single best way to ruin any number of great songs—Childish Gambino’s “Summertime Magic,” Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” Tone-Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina,” dozens of others—by bending them into service of the lyrics to Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” because I’m nothing if not the idiot child that the internet has raised me to be. The truly hideous thing about FUSER, though, is that Harmonix is so good at mixing and layering music at this point that even the national anthem of Shrekheads everywhere ends up sounding pretty goddamn good in the mix with only a minimal amount of work. And when I do dare to actually move outside my own extremely basic musical tastes, the game constantly rewards me with exciting new combinations and sounds. FUSER is a shockingly good comedy game, if you’ve got a perverse enough sense of taste, but stumbling onto something that sounds absolutely, against-all-odds amazing is a fantastic feeling that it generates nearly constantly. Harmonix got big by creating games that trick our brains into thinking we might genuinely be good at making music, and FUSER is the best expression of that delightful shell game since the studio first added fake drumming that’s also essentially real drumming into the mix with Rock Band.
And yeah, the gaming elements of FUSER aren’t always great; the “Campaign” mode is essentially one very long tutorial, steadily layering in new tools, allowing you to (hypothetically) begin making musical leaps a bit more advanced than “Pretty much anything sounds good if you put the strings from ‘Call Me Maybe’ behind it.” (For real, though: absolute secret weapon shit.) And the score-keeping can feel arbitrary and a little punishing—although it’s easy to turn off. If FUSER doesn’t always make a terribly compelling argument for itself as a game, though, it’s still incredibly addictive as both a toy and a tool, luring you into its hypnotic flow while simultaneously teaching you a whole new way to think about music you love. (Or were completely unfamiliar with until now). (Or was “All Star,” by Smash Mouth.) It might seem like hubris to launch a distinctly old-gen game like this during the week of two of the most aggressively marketed console launches of all time, but FUSER wins the war for our hearts, minds, and attentions, hands-down. After all, only shooting stars break the mold.