Just Push Play

I’ve just completed Guitar Hero Aerosmith on the PS2, and it got me thinking about the whole Guitar Hero (and Rock Band) series. What started out as a novelty arcade game with Konami’s Guitar Freaks has become a phenomenon, and now the music industry sees gaming as a legitimate source of extra revenue.

My first encounter with the series was playing Guitar Hero II at the Game On exhibition held at the Science Museum, and a brief session made me want to get it myself. The physical interaction with the guitar was fun, but there was a lot of enjoyment to be had just watching others play. And that is a big part of the game’s attraction, the social aspect. I bought the Guitar Hero II pack with the red Gibson SG for PS2 and started to play at home. At first even the Medium difficulty seemed daunting but I quickly improved. A chance to show off my skills at the Retrovision gaming weekend in Oxford soon followed.

Over the next couple of years I picked up the original Guitar Hero game and Rocks the 80s. The original features a great range of tracks, not diminished by the fact they are cover versions. And while in theory the 80s game could have been produced as an add-on or expansion, it is tracks like Play With Me by Extreme that make it worthwhile. The tweaks to the presentation – costumes for the characters and animations/menu colours – give it a little something extra too.

Looking back, Konami made a mistake by not importing their PS2 version of Guitar Freaks to Europe. Red Octane, who had made the guitar accessory, then made a great decision in approaching Harmonix (developers of Amplitude and Frequency) to make a new guitar-based game. And Harmonix themselves timed it right to move on after Guitar Hero II, pushing forward to start work on Rock Band. That left Neversoft with the tricky task of producing the third main instalment.

Guitar Hero III really built the momentum. With the bands providing original masters and recording tracks expressly for the game, the audio side of the game improved dramatically. The next-generation consoles gave sharper visuals but most importantly the chance to download new songs. From quirky ideas like the finale song from Portal to bands launching a new single, the record labels have really embraced the idea. There are a few flaws, with the third game having a slightly uneven difficulty curve and the note charts not flowing quite as smoothly as Harmonix’s. But Activision made a good decision of their own, continuing to support the PS2 and the Wii. Oh, and the first time I played Devil Goes Down To Georgia (on medium) I hit 99%…

It was at another Retrovision event that I first played Rock Band, which had been imported. We’ll ignore the blisters I got on my hands from drumming and the irritation of people pushing the wrong buttons in the menus to concentrate on the action. It was superb, so much fun playing in a group and belting out the songs. Again, part of the fun was watching others play. If I was being picky, the bass arrangements were fairly simplistic and the vocal track at the top of the screen slightly distracting, but it worked.

Back came Neversoft with Guitar Hero World Tour. It seems like a pretty straightforward enhancement of what has gone before, even given the open bass notes and generally trickier arrangements. But next to launch is Guitar Hero: Metallica, with its Expert+ setting and second bass drum pedal. It should prove to be a better game than the lacklustre Rock Band AC/DC Live pack, which made the mistake of charging full price for very little extra content.

So, I thoroughly enjoyed the Aerosmith game thanks to its balance of tracks and the motion-captured antics of the band. In fact, Activision claim the band have made more money from the game than from some of their studio albums. But where does the band game go from here? A DJ Hero game is in development, the Beatles version of Rock Band is promising harmonies and keyboards are often mentioned as a future expansion. But in a way, that would not work. It is the argument often made against the games – why not learn the real thing? Because we are playing to have fun and pretend to be the rock star that we always wanted to be.

Additional: Activision has formally announced DJ Hero with its turntable peripheral, Guitar Hero 5 with more rock and the family-orientated Band Hero based around pop songs.

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