Saturday, March 13, 2021

From Zero to Hero: A Guitar Hero Retrospective


Back in the 2000's, Harmonix made a name for themselves with rhythm-based titles like Frequency and Amplitude.  Their gameplay made them a hit with the critics, and word of mouth led them to become cult classics.  Meanwhile, hardware manufacturer RedOctane wanted to make a game with a guitar controller after seeing the success of Konami's Guitar Freaks in Japan.

This led to a partnership with Harmonix, and the result was 2005's Guitar Hero.  Guitar Hero was both a critical and commercial hit.  Non-gamers were appealed by the idea of being able to rock out to music's greatest rock tunes, and for five years, rhythm games dominated the market, until the genre died from over saturation and declining sales.

For now, let's go into the closet, dust off the plastic instruments, and journey back to the late 2000's with a retrospective on Guitar Hero and its many sequels.

Guitar Hero (2005)

Guitar Hero
 is the one that started it all.  While it is a basic experience, it's important for taking the idea of being a guitarist and making it fun.  The first Guitar Hero offers career, quickplay, multiplayer, and tutorials.  Career is self-explanatory.  After naming your band and choosing from one of eight characters, you play to become the ultimate rock star.

Using the plastic guitar, you strum the notes as they scroll down the screen.  Four difficulties ranging from easy to expert increase the amount of notes to play and buttons to use.  The guitar has five colored buttons.  These are green, red, yellow, blue, and orange.  On easy, you use the first three buttons.  On medium, you use four, and on hard and expert, you use all five buttons.

It's simple to learn, difficult to master.  A rock meter on the right keeps track of how well you're playing.  If you're doing good, the notch goes green.  If it's on yellow, you're doing alright, but if it's red, there's a likelihood you'll fail the song and need to restart.  Your score and current multiplier are on the left side of the note chart.

When you see star-shaped notes, that's a chance to earn star power.  Star power doubles your score multiplier and lets your character wow the audience with a gravity-defying guitar trick.  It's also a lifesaver if you find yourself teetering into the red.

Performing well earns you cash.  The higher your rating, the more money you earn.  Cash is used to unlock new characters, guitars, and making-of videos.  The bonus songs feature tunes from at-the-time contemporary artists, as well as musicians who are also Harmonix employees.

While shredding is fun, it's not perfect.  While the game introduces the core idea we know and love, it lacks a lot of refinements and improvements found in the sequels.  For starters, there's no calibration.  If you don't own an old-school TV, it's impossible to play the first game on an HDTV proper.  Secondly, doing hammer-ons and pull-offs is archaic.

From Guitar Hero II and onwards, hammer-ons are done by strumming the normal note then tapping the white note following it.  In Guitar Hero, hammer-ons are done by strumming the normal note then tapping the white note while holding the note you strummed.  I thought I was missing hammer-ons because of no calibration, but it turns out I was doing them wrong.  It's an outdated system that makes playing harder than it should be.

Guitar Hero is also shallow.  Career is nothing but playing setlists.  With only six venues, it's a short game.  Multiplayer is a basic one-on-one where you and a friend trade riffs.  The biggest sin is the lack of a practice mode.  There are tutorials and that's it.  While Guitar Hero is not too challenging, some of the later songs like "Bark at the Moon" or "Ace of Spades" are a bit taxing.  Combine no practice mode with a clunky hammer-on system and expect to have a tough time.

Guitar Hero's cartoonish art style gives the game personality.  The characters are modeled after different rock styles and have their own special animations when star power is activated.  The locations are also diverse.  You start off in the basement of someone's house, then move on to clubs, a theater, an outdoor venue, and finally a giant arena.

The setlist features a decent variety of well-established artists and lesser-known acts.  Judas Priest, the Ramones, Sum 41, Queen, and Blue Oyster Cult are featured, but instead of using the original recordings, they're covers.  This makes since you are playing in a cover band.  Some covers are better than others, but I appreciate the effort put into them.

While the first Guitar Hero has its importance, it's tough to recommend.  Many features like practice mode and the ability to play encores are missing.  You can't play the game proper on modern televisions since it lacks calibration options.  It can be fun and there's some great tunes to rock out to, but newcomers will want to jump to the second one.

Final Score: 6/10

Guitar Hero II (2006)

Guitar Hero was a success, going on to sell 1.53 million copies in its lifetime.  Knowing Activision, a sequel was greenlit.

Guitar Hero II blows the original out of the water in almost every way.  Improved gameplay, practice mode, calibration, and featuring music by Buckethead is one of a few reasons why this sequel is so good.  It takes what the original did, fixes the problems, introduces some new ideas, and comes out as a satisfying product.

Career mode is the same as before.  After naming your band and choosing a character, you set out to become the biggest name in rock.  Instead of playing a series of setlists, career has a proper sense of progression.  Little vignettes after each venue show the band traveling cross country in different vehicles.  First, in a risky-dink truck, then a van, then a bus, and so on.

Each venue has four songs to play.  Once completed, you close out the gig with an encore. Like in the first game, the better your performance, the more cash you earn.  Money unlocks an assortment of goodies, including music, characters, guitars, and alternate outfits to dress your rock star with.  Three new characters were added to the roster, including Lars Umlaut, Eddie Knox, and Casey Lynch.

Gameplay has many quality-of-life improvements.  Hammer-ons aren't annoying to play.  After you strum the note, you tap the follow-up note without holding the previous button.  This turns hammer-ons into a hassle-free mechanic.  Introduced in the sequel are triple notes.  These are only in Hard or Expert and require the player to press three buttons at the same time.

Guitar Hero II
 is more challenging.  Many of the songs on the track list will gladly open up a can of whoop-ass.  People who say "Through the Fire and Flames" is hard have clearly never played the second game.  "Institutionalized," "Psychobilly Freakout," and "Misirlou" will test your skills and cramp your fingers.  Because of the increased difficulty, you need to think a little more about when and where to use star power.

Fortunately, the newly added practice mode lets players practice songs giving them a hard time.  You can tweak the song speed and choose which sections to play to figure out the best way to beat the song.  As they say, practice makes perfect.

Guitar Hero II retains the original's cartoony, rock art style.  Characters' clothing and personalities reflect their musical tastes, and the venues are diverse, ranging from high school gyms to Stonehenge.  The soundtrack is a step up from before and is an excellent selection.  Personal favorites include "Surrender," "Rock This Town," "YYZ," "Last Child," and "John the Fisherman."  There's even music from Strong Bad of all things.

Guitar Hero II is a solid sequel.  It plays better, has a diverse selection of modes and music, and is an all-around great experience.  It's harder, yes, but the inclusion of practice mode mitigates the frustration.  It set a foundation later entries would refine and expand, but if you ask me, this was the series at its best.

Final Score: 8/10

Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s (2007)

In late 2006, Activision purchased RedOctane and the Guitar Hero series.  Harmonix had been planning a third entry, but it was scrapped after the deal.  Before parting ways, the studio developed a 360 port of the second game featuring new songs and DLC, as well as Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s, an 80's-focused re-skin of the second game.

Guitar Hero Encore is a great idea, but the execution is half-assed.  It retains the excellent gameplay, but despite its title, it doesn't take advantage of the premise.  With only 30 songs, six characters, and not much else, this game is wasted potential.

At least the setlist is good.  The selection encompasses a lot of genres prominent during the decade, including new wave, hair metal, glam rock, and punk.  The redesigned characters look nice, though the other bandmates didn't receive the same makeover, neither did the venues.

Overall, Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s is best skipped.  It isn't bad, but it doesn't do the decade justice.

Also, why is the solo in "Bang Your Head" absent?  Inexcusable!

Final Score: 5/10

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (2007)

After acquiring Guitar Hero, Activision handed the series to Neversoft.  Neversoft was known for the Tony Hawk games, as well as the under appreciated western Gun.  The developers stated they were fans of Guitar Hero and would play the games during downtime at the office.  When Guitar Hero III released in late 2007, it did so to critical praise and monumental sales.

This third entry adheres to what worked and doesn't change much.  Keeping in tune with previous games, you name a band, pick a character, and rock your way up.  The difference is the presence of a story.

In career, the band makes a deal with a shady music manager who promises fame and fortune.  As they rise in popularity, their manager forces them to sell out, but they refuse.  It turns out they made a deal with the devil and are sent to hell for trying to break the contract.  Trapped in hell, they must rock to survive.  The minimal story serves its purpose and is amusing for what it is.

Gameplay is still about strumming notes and earning as high a score as possible.  Yet, minor adjustments were made.  A note streak counter appears next to your multiplier and keeps track of how many notes you've played.  During the story, you'll face off against rival guitarists in the all-new battle mode.  Battle has you and the opponent using abilities to try and take down each other.

Power-ups are acquired by hitting notes successfully.  They include increasing the difficulty, doubling the number of notes, or breaking a guitar string.  It's a fun addition, and the later encounters require you to save up powers if you want to deal the most damage.

However, you only fight three guitarists throughout the campaign.  The game is called Legends of Rock, so why not have more battles?  When you beat an opponent, they become available for purchase in the store. Returning favorites like Axel Steel and Johnny Napalm are joined by newcomers Tom Morello, Slash, and the Guitar God.  The Wii and PS2 version omit the Grim Ripper and Guitar God; instead, you can unlock an Elvis impersonator or a robot.

The game's graphics opt for a realistic/grungy look reminiscent of Neversoft's Tony Hawk titles.  The change in style works and all the characters resemble their Harmonix originals, they're just not as cartoony.  Venues are littered with background details like a police captain who watches the performance in the penitentiary level, or the giant monster cut-outs duking it out in the Tokyo level.  Unfortunately, character animations for star power are not as exaggerated.  They either tilt their guitar around or stomp in place while little visual effects emanate from their guitar.

On Wii and PS2, those visual effects are absent, so it makes the star power movements more lackluster.  It also looks a lot rougher compared to the HD version.  Growing up, I was only familiar with the look of the lower-resolution versions, so I was shocked by how well-detailed the 360 version was when I got it a couple of years back.

This next statement might be controversial, but I don't like Guitar Hero III's setlist.  It's not a bad selection; on the contrary, the music is good and features a lot of familiar faces like Foghat, Alice Cooper, Guns and Roses, and Slayer.  That's the problem, the songs are to recognizable.  Previous Guitar Hero's and even Rock Band excelled in the music department because they featured a great mixture of familiar and unfamiliar tunes.

Part of the thrill was not only playing the songs you loved but discovering new favorites.  The setlist feels like one of those music collections you find at Wal-Mart.  It's the tunes you know and love, but you've heard them a thousand times before.  I do like the bonus tracks you unlock.  It's not every day you get to play Spanish rock, French rock, and even Swedish metal.

Despite my gripes, I like Guitar Hero III.  It doesn't try to reinvent the wheel and sticks with what worked.  The guitar gameplay feels tight, and though opinions may differ on the music, there's a lot of fun to be had.

Final Score: 7/10

Guitar Hero Aerosmith (2008)

2008 is when Activision began milking the series as much as possible.  While its rival Rock Band stuck with putting out DLC on a regular basis, Activision released three Guitar Hero titles.  One of them was Guitar Hero Aerosmith, a game centered on the bad boys from Boston.

Similar to Rocks the 80s, Aerosmith is built off the Guitar Hero III engine, but while the former was re-skin, this has effort put into it.  The game is a trek through the band's history, starting with their early days performing at Nipmuc High School, and following their career up until their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.   Interviews featuring the band bridge the gap between venues.

If you're unfamiliar with Aerosmith, this is a good 101 on their career.  They discuss their rights, their lows, and their comebacks.  Their conversations are humorous but also insightful.  The game brims with personality, and Guitar Hero is perfect for the band.  The only issue is the finale, which features an unnecessary guitar battle with Joe Perry.  It felt like the developers needed a way to shoehorn this mode from Guitar Hero III into this spin-off.

Gameplay is the same as before, but career has been slightly modified.  Before playing as Aerosmith, you need to play two non-Aerosmith songs with the band from previous entries.  They decided to tack on a third guitarist to the group, odd considering most of the non-Aerosmith tunes don't feature a rhythm guitar part.  After you beat them, you get to play the Aerosmith music.

On 360, the game is slick and stylized.  The venues are over-the-top, fitting well with the band's persona.  All the band members did motion capture, so they display their trademark moves and even use unique instruments pertaining to the song being played.  For example, Joe Perry rocks a talk box when playing "Sweet Emotion."  The Wii and PS2 versions are another story.

While the characters look fine on the HD version, they look terrifying on the less-powerful systems.  Everyone moves with the gracefulness of malfunctioning animatronics at an amusement park.  It tries to recreate a lot of the same camera work and movements, but it's all so janky and wobbly.  Steven Tyler looks like a demonic monster ready to swallow my soul with his gaping maw of a mouth.  The other bandmates lack texture and are so poorly animated, it's not even funny.

Aerosmith's library of music is well-represented.  All the favorites like "Mama Kin," "Walk This Way (both the original and Run DMC version)," and "Dream On" are present.  The omission of their more pop-focused efforts is understandable, but the lack of "Last Child" and "Dude Looks Like a Lady" isn't.

The non-Aerosmith side of things is more forgettable.  There are a few highlights, like the songs by the Cult and the Clash, but it suffers the same problem Guitar Hero III had in that a lot of it is stuff we've heard ad nauseam on the radio.

Guitar Hero Aerosmith is a love letter to Aerosmith and worth playing if you want to know more about one of rock music's best.  It's a bit easier than the mainline games since a lot of their tunes rely on hitting the same riffs, but it's fun.  Just make sure to get it on 360, that way you won't have nightmares about a low-res Steven Tyler trying to eat your head off.

Final Score 7/10

Guitar Hero 5 (2009)

In the second half of 2008, the rivalry between Guitar Hero and Rock Band would heat up with Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero: World Tour.  In an effort to match its competitor, World Tour offered drums and microphone in addition to the guitar and bass.  While both titles sold like gangbusters, there was worry all these titles being released in yearly succession would lead to over saturation.

Cut to 2009, a.k.a. the Rhythm Game Massacre.  Every two to three months saw a new entry from Rock Band or Guitar Hero, especially the latter.  Guitar Hero Metallica, Guitar Hero Smash Hits, Guitar Hero On Tour: Decades, Band Hero, Guitar Hero: Van Halen... to say it was out of control was an understatement.  Amidst the clutter of releases was Guitar Hero 5.

Guitar Hero 5 streamlines a lot of its mechanics in an effort to be as accessible as possible.  You immediately notice the changes upon booting up the game.  Instead of going directly to the main menu, you can jump in and start jamming to whatever song is being played at the moment.  Intuitive menus make it easy to drop in and drop out, adjust difficulty, assign stand-ins, etc.

Career has also been overhauled.  Instead of playing to earn fame and fortune, the focus is on earning stars.  Stars are how you unlock content.  Instrument challenges like maintaining a note streak or activating star power multiple times provide ways to earn stars.  I like how career has been restructured.  It keeps the focus on playing music without making progression a hassle.

All the songs are unlocked from the beginning, so you don't have to worry about playing career to unlock that one song.  Rock Band 3 features a similar career structure of playing to earn stars in order to progress through the game.  The rhythm-based gameplay is the same as before, but it gives the player more freedom of choice.

As accessible as the game is, there are a few questionable design choices.  New to this game is the ability to play with any combination of instruments.  This means it's possible to have four guitarists, two guitarists and two singers, et al.  It's interesting, but the idea is a novelty.  I forgot this was a feature most of the time.

Guitar Hero: World Tour introduced special purple notes that can be played using the slider bar, and they are back for the sequel.  The slider bar lets you play sections of a song without having to strum, similar to the bottom row of buttons found on a Rock Band guitar.  The slider bar feels pointless.  It does little to change the flow of gameplay and I never bothered with it.  It would have made more sense if these sections let players freestyle their own solos a'la Rock Band 4.

Since Guitar Hero III, musical guests have played a prominent role.  From Slash to Ozzy Osbourne to Carlos Santa, real-life star power had been prevalent to the series.  Guitar Hero 5 features Kurt Cobain and Johnny Cash, but in a strange move, they are playable characters that can be used for any song, not just theirs.

To say this is weird is an understatement.  It feels dirty knowing I can take these dearly departed musicians and have them sing Beastie Boys or lay down some licks on "Sultans of Swing."  Given the possibilities, you could even have four Johnny Cash's or Kurt Cobain's in your band!  If that wasn't odd, you can also play as your Xbox 360 avatar, and having a cartoony avatar jam along with realistic characters is just as jarring.

At least the game looks nice.  All the characters look great, it's well-polished, and the locations assault the eyes with the amount of eye candy onscreen.  However, they're also forgettable.  They're too exaggerated to the point I'd be hard pressed to recall any that stood out, aside from the one set in the trenches of the LA River.  By this point in the series, star power is an afterthought.  When activated, it saturates the screen with the color blue.  Did Sutter Kane make this game?

The setlist is equal parts awesome and bad.  There's some great choices, including "Dancing With Myself," "In the Meantime," and "American Girl," but for every good choice comes a bad one.  Why is "Play That Funky Music" on here, or "Sympathy for the Devil," a piano-focused song?  It feels like the developers were grabbing for straws when it came to the music.

Guitar Hero 5 is the best entry...from a gameplay standpoint.  It's accessible, easy to navigate, and provides players a lot of options in how they can rock out.  For all the good it does, there's a number of problems.  Some of the new options are pointless and the setlist is littered with choices that are as out of place as seeing Johnny Cash sing Iron Maiden.

Final Score: 6/10

Guitar Hero brought rhythm games to the mainstream and introduced an audience of people who didn't play games but loved this series, similar to what Ubisoft's Just Dance series has done.  However, there was too much in too little of a timeframe, and interest quickly turned to disinterest.  While Activision only put one Guitar Hero and a DJ Hero sequel in 2010, the damage was done.  in 2011, the series and its spin-offs were put on hiatus.

While I liked Guitar Hero as a kid, I prefer Rock Band as an adult.  Guitar Hero has its sentimental value, but after Activision acquired the property, they ran it into the ground and relied on gimmicks instead of fresh ideas to keep it alive.

An attempt was made to revive the brand in 2015 with Guitar Hero Live, but it too used gimmicks in the form of full-motion video performances and a streaming music platform littered with micro transactions.  Though the spirit of Guitar Hero lives on in the fan-made Clone Hero, I would like the series to make a proper return, one that kept the focus on what the franchise was about in the first place, being a guitar hero.

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