‘DropMix’ changes the game with unique take on music creation

Posted November 16th, 2017

DropMix” is a really curious attempt at throwing an intriguing gaming concept at the wall with as much style and skill as possible and seeing if it sticks.

The hybrid video/music game costs $99, but I’ve seen it on sale for $69 recently online, and it’s from the toy maker Hasbro and Harmonix. Harmonix, you might remember, co-created the popular “Rock Band” series with MTV, the one where you and your friends could play guitar, drums and vocals together. That series peaked with a brilliant “The Beatles: Rock Band,” but continues with a virtual-reality “Rock Band.” 

Harmonix’s games aren’t always huge hits, but they are always intriguing and typically find interesting ways to mix music and video games, as in titles like “Dance Central” and “Amplitude.”

What we haven’t seen from Harmonix before, though, is something that breaks away from PCs and game consoles and stand-alone mobile games to take a completely different form we haven’t seen before.

And now it’s here in the form of “DropMix,” which was shown off at this year’s South by Southwest festival and released in late September. Since then, it’s collected strong reviews, but it’s too early to say if the game is a hit for Hasbro and Harmonix.

Harmonix Music Systems, Inc.Collectible cards activate different parts of a song in the game DropMix and can be combined to create new mashups. The game also has special power cards and different game modes for competitive and collaborative play.

Let’s hope for the sake of unique, well-executed ideas that it does well. I’ve never played a game like it before, and I’m not even sure I love it, but it opens up such exciting possibilities for music fans that I’m willing to forgive some of its shortcomings.

Here’s how it works: “DropMix” takes the shape of a battery-powered plastic card platform about the size and weight of a Casio keyboard. There’s a groove where you can set your iOS or Android phone or tablet as your screen and music player for the game via a Bluetooth connection to the platform.

There are five color-coded slots used in the game and on them you put playing cards. Each card might contain a complete song or a component of one, say the guitar section of Grant Pike’s “If You Get Down” or the vocals from Sia’s “Chandelier.” In the game’s Freestyle mode, you can combine as many cards as you want to make your own music mixes, mixing up The Jackson 5, Imagine Dragons and The Weeknd to your heart’s content. You can save those mixes at any time and come back to them later and you can stack multiple cards onto each slot.

The genius of the game is that you don’t have to scan in the cards or do anything special to get them to work. The game board uses NFC wireless technology to detect what cards are in play. In testing the game, I never had a situation where the wrong card appeared or the game didn’t recognize it.

When I set the game up for my 10- and 7-year old daughters, laid out the 60 playing cards on the table (Harmonix provided a copy of the game and several expansion card packs), they got the concept immediately. They figured out right away that the vocals from “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence mix well with anything and that the components of one of their favorite songs, “Call Me Maybe,” was going to be a frequently used part of their freestyling.

Omar L. Gallaga / AMERICAN-STATESMANA sample of cards included in a five-pack of cards for "DropMix," a game that combines music mixing with collectible cards.

The game loops are cut in such a way that very disparate genres of songs still sound great mixed together, and the ease of just putting down and picking up cards to change the mix make it the kind of music game that doesn’t require any inherent musical talent to embrace. 

The other two modes for the game are Clash mode, in which two or four players compete to lay down cards to get to a score of 21, and Party mode, which  is about collaborating to put down the right cards to make the best mix for an audience under a time limit.

You can put together a carefully constructed deck of cards or just shuffle and go random and part of the business model for the game is that you can buy additional packs of cards to supplement your music collection. There are $20 to $30 packs in specific genres (hip hop, pop, rock and electronic) as well as blind packs of cards that are under $10 for five cards.

And this is where my criticism of an otherwise great gaming experience come in: The way the packs are set up is a little confusing. You can buy a complete Series 1 or Series 2 set of blind packs, but if you want a set of all the cards available, you’re going to be spending quite a lot more than the $99 initial investment.

Also, the Clash and Party modes, though fun, start to lose their novelty after a few sessions. It doesn’t have that grabby “One more game!” feeling that the most addictive board games and video games have. And while having physical cards in your hands makes the game feel much more tangible than a virtual version would, it’s hard not to remember how great it was to download songs instantly for the “Rock Band” games from Harmonix’s deep songlist. Waiting for Amazon to ship you additional cards doesn’t have the same kind of instant gratification.

That said, the ingenious hardware, brilliant use of recognizable music (plus some songs that will probably be new to you) and the typical Harmonix polish make “DropMix” easy to root for, even if it’s not a perfect game. At $99 it seems like a bit of a pricey holiday gift, but at $69 it’s an easy impulse purchase for anyone who loves playing with music samples or who still has fond memories of jamming out to “Rock Band.”