Name: Guitar Hero
Developed By: Harmonix and Red Octane
Published By: Red Octane
Year released: 2005

Don't let your lead singer steal all the attention. Singers are egomaniacs.

In recent years, a relatively newfangled video game genre has arrived on the scene. Called "rhythm games" or "bemani" (after the general family of such games released by Konami), the genre centers around simulating the experience of playing one or more musical instruments, hitting different notes or combinations of notes to stay on a pattern the game is challenging you to match. Rhythm games have not achieved the fame and popularity of combat-oriented games for a variety of reasons (soundtracks composed primarily of techno and J-pop, garish or unusual art styles, the difficulty and cost of obtaining custom peripherals outside an arcade), but now "the rhythm game for the rest of us" has finally been released, and its name is Guitar Hero. The rhythm genre has done guitars before, in Konami's Guitar Freaks and oddities like Gitaroo Man, but Guitar Hero somehow brings it all together to reach another level entirely. Released in November 2005 to almost obsessive critical acclaim (IGN posted videos of their editorial staff rocking out in full costume with the game's duet mode, and 1up lamented the fact that they were unable to rate it an 11 while admitting that they accidentally destroyed their copy of the game while reviewing it), this just might be the best rhythm game of all time.

The main draw of Guitar Hero is its special controller, designed by Red Octane: a scaled-down plastic version of the legendary Gibson SG. It's about the same size as a travel guitar, and built solidly enough to have a decent heft and avoid feeling delicate or flimsy. In place of strings the guitar has a plastic rocker switch; in place of frets it has five color-coded buttons just under the head. An inspired touch is to have the Start and Select buttons mimicking the volume and tone knobs of a real guitar. The guitar even has a position sensor inside it, to detect when the player points it straight up and totally goes to town on it, which is used to activate a special mode in the game (see below). And, last but most definitely not least, it has a whammy bar.

The game's engine augments the peripheral with support for all manner of real guitar techniques (or at least accurate simulations of them). The strum bar can be hit both up and down. Lower fret buttons can be held down while playing notes on higher ones, and chords work as expected. Notes can be hammered on or pulled off just like on a real guitar (albeit only in places where the game allows the opportunity). The whammy bar actually works, both to distort the sound of your playing and to build up bonus points (OK, less like a real guitar). The peripheral does an altogether excellent job of presenting a streamlined, idealized equivalent of playing a real guitar, both for players with no musical experience at all (like me) and for real guitar players.

Don't eat anything that gets tossed onto the stage.

The second draw of the game is the music. Most rhythm games, reflecting their Japanese origins, offer soundtracks composed mainly of obscure J-pop, techno, and other "sideline" genres, usually from relatively unknown artists or specialist game music composers. Harmonix, however, pulled out all the stops and came up with a collection of some of the greatest rock songs ever made. You'll be playing the best of Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Pantera, The Ramones, Motorhead, Queen, Judas Priest, Queens of the Stone Age, and more. And not only is the music great, but the performances (all the songs are covers) are absolutely fantastic. When there are no vocals the tracks are virtually indistinguishable from their originals, and even the voices are nearly spot-on for the most part. When you're ripping through a killer solo, it's hard to resist the urge to jump around, windmill on the guitar, or smash it on the floor after the climax (the guitar can take quite a bit of punishment, but not that much). The game also comes with a number of unlockable songs by independent artists. These are (admittedly not surprisingly) a cut below the carefully chosen super-classics in the main collection, but they're still great songs that are fun to play. Most of the extra songs are provided by Boston-area bands (a startling number of which contain Harmonix staff members), but there are a few surprises in there. And, unlike many other rhythm games, your performance on the plastic guitar directly affects how good you sound. Strum at the wrong time or with the wrong frets held and you hear the twang of a blown note; let go of the frets too soon on a long note or fail to hit a note at all and the guitar track cuts out entirely.

Don't let the drummer have an 'extended solo' unless you really have to go to the bathroom.

The game's graphics are another strong point, sporting a slightly cartoony, exaggerated style but reflecting the gonzo aspects of rock culture in all the right places. The game's logo, in the opening movie, is accompanied by a power chord, a crossed pair of guitars, and a huge fireball bursting behind them. The menus are presented as a worn notebook peppered with doodles of flaming skulls. When watching the attract movies, the game will prompt passersby to "Press any button to rock". Gameplay takes place in increasingly grand locations as your band advances and lands better and better gigs, starting out in some guy's basement and eventually unlocking nightclubs, theaters, and massive arenas. Your band's stage presence is full of character, from the beefy drummer to the maned bassist to the speakers that pulse along with the music. There are a handful of different guitar players available, each a tribute to a different school of rock. You can be a metalhead, a punk, a glam girl, a hair-metal freak, and more, and they'll strut around the stage, throw up the horns, windmill, and set fire to their guitars at the right moments. The animation is even linked to the player's input- your avatar's fingering matches your own, and when you miss a note your he or she stops playing. The stages are full of flashing lights and (on later levels) animated decor whose motions and intensity reflect how well you're doing in the song. With money earned from performances, one can purchase different models of guitar (all from Gibson, and all accompanied by short pedigrees when browsing the shop) and different paint jobs for them.

Playing Guitar Hero is as close as most of us will ever get to being true rock gods shredding away in front of thousands of screaming fans, and it's a tremendous blast even though the crowd is virtual and confined to a TV screen. The crowd's response to your playing mirrors how well you hit the notes- miss too many and they start booing (and eventually boo you off the stage and force you to start the song over), hit them consistently and they'll scream louder and louder. Your performance is also displayed on a convenient rock meter on the game's HUD. The game also has a quirky powerup mode that doesn't really have an equivalent in other rhythm games. By hitting specific runs of notes (and using the whammy bar on long ones), the player can build up a power bar on the HUD, and then tilt the guitar straight up to cash it in and activate their Star Power. The stage effects and crowd go wild, notes on the game board glow a brilliant blue and crackle with electricity, your avatar performs a flourish onstage, your guitar playing becomes noticeably louder and more distorted, and you earn a ton of bonus points. There's even a multiplayer mode- the songs are arranged for two guitars instead of one, with each player taking different sections and competing for the best score.

With all the game does right, it's unfortunate that some obvious features were left out. The only way to play is to go through one song at a time; there's no way to configure a set list or play anything other than a complete song. There's no "freestyle" mode (which would simply turn the PS2 into a virtual amplifier and let the player hit whatever notes they wanted)- the developers admit this was originally planned but had to be cut. There are no special options for practicing difficult passages, no way to isolate and repeat sections of a song or change their tempo. And of course every player will quickly come up with their own personal list of songs and bands that deserve to be added to the game (these lists tend to be topped by AC/DC, Guns N' Roses, and Metallica).

The biggest draw of this game is simply watching someone else play it. Every single person I know who owns the game bought it primarily thanks to this experience. There's something almost irrationally compelling about playing classic rock songs on an electric guitar, and anyone even slightly interested in music or video games (even if you think you hate rhythm games) should give this one a chance. Just make sure you have a spare $80US beforehand, because you will be sorely tempted.

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