Thursday, April 09, 2009

A brief history of Guitar Hero

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.



Ed Borden said...

"Aerosmith is a lousy band"

shame, man, shame

Mitch Krpata said...

Oh whoops, that wasn't what I meant to say at all. What I meant to say was that Aerosmith is terrible, and their songs are terrible, and I ashamed that they are from Boston.

"Dream On" is pretty good though.

Julian said...

Seriously, Aerosmith is horrible. Some widely revered bands, I'm happy saying "I respect them, but they're not for me" (the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones top that list). Aerosmith is NOT one of those bands.

Darius Kazemi said...

"No one knew if it would work -- except, I suspect, the team at Harmonix that put it together."

The knew it would *work* but they didn't know if it would *sell*. I remember talking to some higher-ups there pre-GH launch and they had no idea whether anyone would pay $70 for a video game with a plastic guitar.

Since I had played an early version and was a huge Amplitude fanboy, I preordered the first Guitar Hero. The girl at the Gamestop looked at me like I was an idiot when I came in to pick up my box.

Mitch Krpata said...

That sounds about right. All you need to do is put that guitar on once and it makes perfect sense. But until then, it sounds bizarre.

I'm still a little mad at Harmonix. I visited there in December of 2004, when their latest game was EyeToy Antigrav (which is surprisingly good, by the way), and they made no mention of Guitar Hero, which must at the time have been the earliest stages of development. I could have had the scoop of a lifetime!

Julian said...

I'm the same as Darius, I bought GH on day one. I had a huge respect for Harmonix from Frequency and Amplitude, and I had played Guitar Freaks a few times so I was certain GH was going to be something special. The extra buttons gave them enough flexibility to add a lot of depth in comparison to GF, and while Harmonix had proven themselves with smart charting in Freq/Amp, Konami wouldn't know a fun chart if it slapped them in the face. Being a music game fanatic since the first time I played PaRappa, it's surreal for me to think that it's so popular - so accepted - now.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Nice Writup, Mitch! I wonder if you saw that editorial that Ryan Geddes published in IGN last week, called The Year The Music Died? I thought it was pretty cool, and made a number of interesting points. I don't really look to IGN for that sort of content, either, so it was nice to see.

Reading your post and looking back over the series, it is pretty easy to see Geddes's point - perhaps music games are indeed nearing (of have reached) their logical conclusion?

(Side note: I've heard that GH:Metallica has a drumming "free mode" that allows the drummer to improvise his own parts using drum sounds sampled from Lars' master takes, which I think I can safely say I totally called in that piece I wrote last month. The future is now, I guess.)

The most interesting part of the editorial concerns itself with the ways that music gaming can evolve away from the now-accepted plastic Guitars/Vocals/Drums standard and into other genres (Geddes uses Brutal Legend as an example).

I hadn't really been thinking about it that way, but now that I do, it does seem likely that rather than evolve into some sort of uber-karaoke experience (as a month ago, I was so certain it would), music in games could simply move on from the plastic instruments and become more directly and seamlessly tied to gameplay in a wide variety of different genres. Like, say, a heavy-metal-themed Jack Black-starring open-world beat-em-up.

And really, if anyone's gonna pull off something new, unusual, and groundbreaking, it's TIm Schafer. So it'll be interesting to see where that game goes.

Anyway, thought I'd see if anyone had read that editorial, and what y'all thought, particularly after looking back over the history of the series.

Oh yeah, and hating on Aerosmith = haaaa. Horrifyingly visaged though he may be, I do always dig it when Stephen Tyler scat sings.

Boomka said...

It's only a matter of time before we have Guitar Hero: Josh Groban. They'll never stop. Never.

Julian said...

Kirk: I wouldn't say that article is wrong, but its view is somewhat narrowly limited to only blockbuster titles. The idea of integrating music into a game in a way other than playing along is almost as old as the rhythm-matching scheme. Games like Vib-Ribbon, Rez, and more recently Synaesthete, bit.trip beat and Retro/Grade experiment with different, peripheral-free, ways of interacting with the music. From what I've seen, Brütal Legend doesn't integrate music directly into the way you interact with the game, it's all window-dressing. Admittedly COOL and INTERESTING window-dressing, but it's a fundamentally different and less progressive design than something like Rez or bit.trip beat.

Come to think, of it Everyday Shooter is a great example of a novel way of incorporating music into gameplay: not only is every single sound you hear in that game generated by a guitar, but the levels each have a unique song matched to varying gameplay mechanics and visual styles. Fast songs have frantic levels, songs alternate between fast and slow sections with twitchier or more methodical enemy patterns. Enemies turtle through palm muted sections and open up and get more aggressive when the song opens up and gets harder. I think this is a more interesting path for music in games to take than reskinning Kratos as Jack Black. Don't get me wrong I'm as excited for Brütal Legend as anybody, but I just don't see it as the next step for music games.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Thanks for those suggestions, Julian - I'd forgotten about Rez! I actually haven't played that game (I know, I know), but I really should. Time to get some MS bucks and download it, I suppose.

From what I've read about Brutal Legend, it sounds like there's going to be some sort of as-yet-unrevealed guitar playing/magic component that could add a bit of musicality to the actual gameplay. In interviews, Shafer sounds pretty confident that it's a cool mechanic, anyway. But yeah, I don't mean to suggest that Brutal Legend is the future of music gaming or anything.

Julian said...

Rez is definitely worth a purchase. I used to use that game to relax after a hard day, it's pretty short and not that hard, but it's easy to lose yourself in it. I'd recommend Synaesthete, too, if you're into that sort of thing. It's surprisingly well fleshed out for a student game, and it's free so there's nothing to lose.

I hadn't heard that there was supposed to a a more in-depth musical mechanic, the preview impressions I've seen make it sound like they just trigger like a special move in any other character-action game. I'm suddenly imagining using a mechanic similar to the ocarina in Ocarina of Time, but sped up, to activate your "spells." That might be a fun compromise. And I trust Schafer to make something nifty... everything the man touches turns into gold. Sadly underperforming gold, but gold nonetheless. Thanks for the tip about the unrevealed mechanic, I'll have to watch the coverage a bit more closely from now on. ^_^;

Worship Songs said...

Thank you so much for sharing this review of a guitar hero! Looking forward for more post soon! Thanks again!

George B said...

"Possibly as the result of a drunken bet..."

I lol'ed in class and the teacher shot me a look, thanks!

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