Developer: Harmonix Music Systems
Based on: Upgrading from looking stupid playing the air guitar during a sweet solo to looking stupid playing a plastic toy guitar during a sweet solo.
Article by Anthony Rogers | August 6, 2007 at 11:30 P.M.
Let's get this out of the way right now: Guitar Hero is better than Guitar Freaks. Saying you prefer the latter is about as uncool as saying out loud you'd rather be listening to Pat Boone during a Sabbath concert. Sure, both share the same basic concept, but this might be the single instance outside the FPS genre where the over-the-top, rock 'n' roll attitude of America truly eclipses Japanese game design. Guitar Hero has fundamental heart and soul that its predecessor lacks, which probably explains why it's vastly more popular. In fact, at this point Guitar Hero is as much of a crowd pleaser as any of the big acts it mimics, chiefly due to that one fundamental truth in the world: everyone wants to be a rock star.
It's no surprise that the game comes from Harmonix, a development studio comprised of musicians that set out to make games that allow Average Joe to manipulate music in unique ways. Much of Harmonix's staff spend their free time performing in local bands, and having sampled the sweet taste of totally rocking out in front of a crowd, they set out to bring that experience home.
For the uninitiated (all two of you), Guitar Hero resembles Konami's Beatmania or Dance Dance Revolution series at first glance: one of five colored notes (or combinations thereof) scrolls down the screen, requiring the player to press a button that corresponds to the note as it hits a bar at the bottom of the screen. The hook comes in the form of the plastic Gibson SG guitar controller, roughly three-fourths the size of a real guitar, that comes packaged with the game.
Here Harmonix played to the strengths of Guitar Hero publisher Red Octane, which had previously made its mark producing high quality home DDR dance pads -- the controller is just plain awesome. Each colored note corresponds to one of the five colored "fret buttons" on the neck of the guitar, which must be held down while strumming the strum bar to be played. Also included is a whammy bar, to bend and distort those longer notes to your heart's content, and a built-in tilt sensor, which (once collected by hitting every special star-shaped note that show up in select sequences) will activate your Star Power, prompting your avatar on screen to start showboating while doubling your current point multiplier and saving your ass if you're failing a song.
Arcade junkies might recognize the above description as eerily similar to Konami's Guitar Freaks, which predates Guitar Hero by several years. Though there are a few small differences (Freaks has three fret buttons instead of five, an effects knob instead of a whammy bar, etc.), there's definitely more than a slight resemblance. In fact, Harmonix has flat-out said Guitar Freaks was an inspiration.
But the devil's in the details, as they say, and while Guitar Freaks was essentially "Beatmania with a guitar," Guitar Hero was designed around an entirely different philosophy: totally recreate the experience of being a rawk god (while keeping it fun). Entire articles could be written about the subtle differences between Guitar Hero and Guitar Freaks...and probably have been. But here Guitar Freaks will merely serve as a jumping-off point to see Guitar Hero's brilliance, focusing primarily on the two key differences: "feel" and song selection.
The single most important difference between Guitar Hero and any other music game out there is that you feel like you're playing the instrument. Rapping in Parappa? and tapping in Ouendan? is fun, sure, but you're simply using the beat to guide your actions. In Guitar Hero, the music isn't your guide, it's your objective. To really nail that feeling, Harmonix did a couple things right.
First, your finger positions and movements mimic what they would be doing if you were playing the same song on an actual guitar. Compare that to the Guitar Freaks method, where your movements follow a rhythm but are entirely made up. Furthermore, Guitar Freaks sometimes had players play songs originally written for other instruments (piano is the most frequent culprit); Guitar Hero only employs songs intended to be played on the guitar. Secondly, every time you don't play a note in Guitar Hero, the note isn't played in-game; every time you miss a note, you'll hear the wrong note played in place of what you should have heard. Finally, Harmonix included several nuances a real axe has: for example, you don't have to let go of a lower note to play a higher one, and hammer-ons and pull-offs -– real guitar techniques –- are not only possible, but required for some of the harder songs in the game.
The borderline-obsessive details in the presentation help further deepen the superstar illusion. As soon as you turn on the game, you're prompted to name your band. You then choose one of several characters to play as, followed by both the model and finish of your character's in-game guitar. Lastly, as you begin your career, you choose which venue to play at, starting at a run-down bar and working your way up the circuit all the way to a huge stadium packed with screaming fans. Of course, as you become better and play more difficult songs on the set list, you get bigger sponsors and earn money from each performance, which you can then use to purchase additional guitars, finishes, and even bonus songs to play.
This brings us to the other key difference that helps Guitar Hero stand above its inpiration: namely, its track list. While there's nothing wrong with J-pop, there's a huge bias for it in Guitar Freaks, and after playing a few songs players start to get that "same ol', same ol'" vibe; this is twice as bad for American gamers playing it in the arcade, as odds are they're unfamiliar with most of the music. This is where Guitar Hero really defines itself: being a game crafted by a Western development company, the game is filled with Western rock, mostly of an American vintage. Given that the US of A is the world's leading producer of all things rock 'n' roll, this is a good thing.
In an effort to both avoid the trap of too narrow of a track list and attract fans from all walks of life, Guitar Hero offers classic songs from every genre, from punk (The Ramones' I Wanna Be Sedated) to classic rock (Boston's More Than a Feeling) to straight-up metal (Pantera's Cowboys from Hell). And while they might not stand the test of time (does anybody still listen to 2004 wunderkind Franz Ferdinand?), a few current big hits have been thrown in for good measure, so your kid brother can enjoy it as much as your dad.
And it's in this ability to bring in people, from some snot-nosed brat to dear ol' Dad, that Guitar Hero's greatest strength is found. Music is the universal language, and so while Dad might not bat an eye at most of those video games you bring home, odds are he'll find it hard to resist when he sees you nailing that killer solo in Crossroads. (A word of caution: playing Guitar Hero in the presence of anyone over the age of thirty may produce lengthy nostalgic anecdotes about whatever band/song is being played.) No one, young or old, can resist the allure of holding a guitar, especially one that promises to immediately be easy and fun to play. A year before Nintendo's Wii was released, Guitar Hero was already proving the system's nascent philosophy: new, fun ways to play are key to getting Mom and Dad to consider giving games another chance.
In fact, Guitar Hero might even be able to teach Nintendo a thing or two. To date, Nintendo's strategy seems to pivot on producing games for both the "hardcore gamer" (Twilight Princess) and for the "casual gamer" (Wii Sports?, Brain Age?). Guitar Hero, on the other hand, offers both in a single package. While Mom will be content rocking out to her favorites on Easy or Medium, gamers will work their way up to Hard or Expert, finding all the usual trappings of a game, like high scores, rankings, and loads of unlockables. The master stroke comes in the form of Star Power: what's useful as a life preserver to someone learning the ropes transforms into a tool to boost high scores for those that want to get more out of the game.
Simply put, Guitar Hero has the power to bring all kinds together. Younger players may discover they have a newfound respect for that boring music their parents like, and parents may find a way to reconnect with a child who sits in front of the TV all day. Radio stations give airtime to songs people will recognize from the game, while local music venues hold Guitar Hero tournaments on their off nights. And like FPS and racing games before it, Guitar Hero is already firmly cemented for gamers as a required party game across the country.
In short, Guitar Hero is a phenomenon. Harmonix's goal was to bring the rock performance experience to people's homes, and in a fairly appropriate move, the people now move in droves to jam in front of others and watch others jam together, just as underground music fans once did in generations past.
While the game alone is fantastic, looking at Guitar Hero as a franchise serves as a nice microcosm of the American games industry as a whole. While it features a few exceptions to the norm (we've got an American company making a game with "more soul" than its Japanese equivalent, and it's a game filled to the brim with popular American music, yet the soundtrack remains great), the rest of the story should sound familiar. It's yet another franchise born of an American company taking a Japanese idea and expanding upon it, and likewise, Guitar Hero's inevitable sequel was built on the American tried-and-true principle of "a sequel should do what the original did, but add more features and make every aspect of the game bigger and better." (Not that this is necessarily a complaint, mind you; pound-for-pound, Guitar Hero II? is one of the best sequels in any franchise to date.) The brand is a well-oiled money-making machine at this point, so the next entry in the series (Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s) was churned out quickly to make a quick buck, lacking in any substantial upgrades to the game. And finally, the franchise has already come dangerously close to jumping the shark, with all kinds of wacky new modes grafted on the latest sequel in an effort to stave off defeat from a competitor (Rock Band?) that looks to be more ambitious (read: awesome) than Guitar Hero could ever be.
But these criticism are, perhaps, too pretentious to force upon the shoulders of the original Guitar Hero. It's always better to think of a great game as a great game, instead of one that birthed a franchise that floods the market with sequels (I'm looking at you, Mega Man). Really, the game is great simply because it's so damn fun. Bringing people together is nice, and industry microcosms are occasionally amusing, but sometimes all that really matters is rocking the hell out.