It's hard to believe, but Guitar Hero is only a few years old -- closer to 3 years than 4. In that short time, it's changed the landscape of video games. I doubt anybody even thought we needed a pretend-music genre, but here it is, along with Rock Band, luring gamers and non-gamers alike, and raking in billions of dollars in revenue.
The Guitar Hero journey hasn't been all sunshine and rainbows. The brand has grown so quickly that we might have forgotten what it took to get here.
Guitar Hero (2005)
Can you even remember a time when noodling around with a small plastic guitar seemed like a ridiculous thing to do? Seems crazy now, but it's true: people were skeptical of Guitar Hero. The original game was made on a shoestring budget, on an accelerated schedule, and featured only cover versions of its songs. No one knew if it would work -- except, I suspect, the team at Harmonix that put it together. They had to know. Something happened when you picked up that little SG for the first time. It just made sense.
I remember vividly the night I first played Guitar Hero. I wasn't reviewing it. In fact, a staff writer at the paper had written a feature on Harmonix, and didn't want the promo copy they gave her. So she gave it to my roommate at the time, another Phoenix staffer, and he brought it home. We each felt a little silly when we first slung that guitar over our shoulders, but that lasted for about one note. We spent the rest of the night trading off songs, working our way through most of the setlist. It was just as I remember playing games as a kid. We weren't scrutinizing anything. We were just enjoying ourselves, jumping up from the couch as soon as the other person had finished a track.
It was awesome.
Guitar Hero II (2006)
When Guitar Hero II came out a year later, more people were interested. Almost everyone I knew, in fact, wanted to know if I'd be getting it. They offered to help out with the review. And I needed help, because the sequel included a feature that had been sorely lacking from the original: cooperative play. It wasn't much, at the time. One person played the guitar part, and the other person played either the bass or the second guitar. But it added a completely new dimension to the game, presaging the eventual triumph of Rock Band.
Otherwise, the game was a spit and polish. An expanded tracklist and snazzier graphics were welcome, even if nothing else seemed as revolutionary as the co-op. An Xbox 360 port in the spring of 2007 added HD graphics, downloadable content, and a new guitar peripheral.
It was so awesome.
Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s (2007)
Harmonix's final Guitar Hero had "contractual obligation" written all over it. The idea was decent: to tailor the look and sound solely to one era. The tracklist seemed decent in concept, but few of the songs made the transition to the video-game world intact. Whether it was poor song selection or simply bad execution by Harmonix, none of them provided that rush of nailing a beloved lick perfectly. Even Dio's "Holy Diver" turned out to be a dog. Nothing about this game worked. Clearly, Harmonix's brainspace was occupied by Rock Band, which was to launch a few months later.
It pretty much sucked.
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (2007)
Guitar Hero III marked the official handoff from Harmonix to Neversoft, who previously had been known best for working on the Tony Hawk series, another terrific franchise that was starting to get long in the tooth. Legends of Rock was perfectly playable, and featured the series' strongest track listing to that point -- that is, if you're measuring a song's quality by the popularity of its performers, and not its suitability for a rhythm game.
Legends also made a few critical missteps, which called into question Neversoft's judgment. What had always distinguished the Guitar Hero series in the world of video games was how unlike most other games it seemed. It could be brutally difficult, yes, and demanded much of your hand-eye coordination. But it was accessible in a way that most game genres aren't, and its system of rewards and punishment appealing to non-gamers.
That's why it was so troubling that Neversoft added boss battles, wherein you played dueling guitar parts against Tom Morello, Slash, and even Satan, deploying Mario Kart-style powerups along the way. You can forgive them for trying something new, even if it didn't work, but the battles seemed to violate the spirit that had made Guitar Hero such a phenemoneon. They traded the joy of performance for the capricious challenge of ordinary video games.
It was good, but troubling.
Guitar Hero: On Tour (2008)
Here's where the wheels started falling off. Possibly as the result of a drunken bet, developer Vicarious Visions shipped for Activision a handheld version of Guitar Hero for the Nintendo DS. On one hand, it was sort of impressive that they managed the feat at all. A four-button peripheral plugged into the Game Boy Advance port on the bottom of the DS, and players could strum by scraping a pick-shaped stylus across the screen.
On the other hand -- the hand that you used to press the fret buttons -- the peripheral was painful to use. I mean that literally. 20 minutes of Guitar Hero: On Tour was enough to send shockwaves from my wrist up to my elbow. I recently opted not to click on a link where somebody from the dev team explained how they went through several iterations before settling on the final design of the peripheral. They should have iterated more.
Even more painful: the tracklist included songs by Maroon 5 and Smash Mouth.
Holy shit was it bad.
Guitar Hero: Aerosmith (2008)
The Aerosmith edition of Guitar Hero was weak sauce for a couple of reasons: one, because Aerosmith is a lousy band, and two, because the paltry tracklist couldn't make up for their terribleness even with a couple of other decent cuts. Plus, Video Steven Tyler was somehow even more horrifying to behold than Actual Steven Tyler. That's no mean feat.
The real problem with Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, though, was that it came out a good 6 months after Rock Band, and a guitar-only music game no longer seemed sufficient. Where were the drums? The vocals? The robust multiplayer that, thanks to Harmonix's new game, had come to define music and rhythm games? Aerosmith seemed like a cash-in at best.
It was terrible.
Guitar Hero: World Tour (2008)
World Tour showcased the best and the worst of what had become of the Guitar Hero brand. Activision's deep pockets ensured another monster set list, including Ozzy's "Crazy Train," which really should have been in Guitar Hero from the beginning. World Tour got on board with what Rock Band was doing, with its own drum and vocal parts, and then did the competition one better by adding a create-a-song feature (which may have been better in theory than in actuality). Neversoft still seemed to lack Harmonix's instinctual understanding of how to construct a note charts, and even their ability to nail the feel of the music, but overall it was a decent time.
It was all right, but the drum kit didn't work very well.
Guitar Hero: Metallica (2009)
This may be the point at which Neversoft has reached equilibrium. Metallica is not, on the surface, much different from the Aerosmith edition, except for the all-important support for a four-piece band. But it's much better, and for a simple reason. It's the inverse of the "Garbage In, Garbage Out" principle: this tracklist is sweet.
The songs cover the breadth of Metallica's career, from their early thrash metal to the soulful power ballads of the black album. (And, yes, the band's entire 1996-2009 output is also well represented. I avoided it then, and I'm avoiding now.) The non-Metallica tracks are up to that standard, as well. Alice in Chains, Mastodon, Queen, Slayer, Thin Lizzy -- there's a range of styles and eras on offer, and all sterling examples of their type.
I still prefer Rock Band, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, when MTV released an AC/DC track pack, they also allowed you export the songs to your hard drive and play them in Rock Band proper. Harmonix's game still feels better to me, devoid of extraneous graphical flourishes and attempts to sex up the act of matching notes onscreen. But Metallica is probably the best Guitar Hero product to come down the pike at least since Legends of Rock, if not Guitar Hero II.
It's good! But maybe they ought to quit while they're ahead.