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.