Rhythm Game Retrospective: A Look Back on Guitar Hero and Rock Band from Michael Ros

By Michael Ros

Remember when rhythm games ruled the world? We had Dance Dance Revolution, a slew of karaoke titles, Audiosurf (which Jake Rushing honored as Last Token Gaming’s first Obscure Game Review), and, of course, who could forget the Guitar Hero vs Rock Band debate? You know, the OTHER Activision vs EA Fanboy War. At least this time both sides slowly backed out, realizing how utterly pointless the conflict was (as all fanboy wars are). This was primarily due to the silent death of Guitar Hero and the subsequent fall of the rhythm genre from the limelight. The experience had become stale and people weren’t willing to fork over $60 for what were essentially expansion packs, let alone $90 for both the game AND the latest model in a long line of silly plastic guitars.

A lot of people blame the death of the Guitar Hero franchise on its refusal to innovate, but if the Game Theorists are to be believed, innovation and consumer demand don’t always go hand in hand. I put the blame more on the economy. The height of the rhythm game boom was around 2007 to 2009, the beginning of the Great Recession, and every major release of both Rock Band and Guitar Hero pushed not only the games but the expensive hardware as well. Plus, 2009 saw Activision release six games under the franchise in one year. That is, six games at sixty bucks apiece with nothing new to offer but a new set of songs.

Okay, DJ Hero did try to mix it up a bit, but again you had to buy more expensive peripherals in order to actually play it. Their marketing strategy and timing couldn’t have possibly been worse, as people had much less disposable income to work with. The mobile market had just emerged, offering games to the masses at much more manageable prices. Meanwhile, those who brushed off the mobile as not being ‘real games’ turned to other genres. Sixty dollars plus tax could only get you one game, so you had to get the best value for your money. The novelty had worn off, and Activision and EA had elected to do nothing to fix it. When all was said and done, fake plastic guitars were at the bottom of people’s priorities, with precedence given to more cost-efficient games and food.

Regardless, these games have certainly left their mark on gaming history, even if it is little more than a cautionary tale of how quickly a series can stagnate and keel over when you both fail to innovate and put too much emphasis on expensive, gimmicky hardware. I should mention however, that these games hold a special place with me personally. They made me into a drummer. They inspired me to pick up a real guitar. They introduced me to classic rock bands that I otherwise would have probably never heard of. They got me hooked on Metallica, Nirvana, Judas Priest, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and of course my favorite rock trio of all time, Rush. As a musician writing my own songs today, I still wonder if I would have even considered picking up a guitar, learning how to play my favorite songs, learning chords and scales and eventually leading up to writing my own music had it not been for these games. They made me want to be a rockstar. So in honor of the release of Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live, here’s my own Top 5 best and Top 3 worst of the Rock Band and Guitar Hero games.

Top 3 Worst

#3: Guitar Hero Smash Hits (June 2009)

Guitar Hero - Smash Hits

I honestly feel like I don’t have anything new to say about this entry to the series. Everything that’s been said about it when it was released is still how I feel about it today. These are all great songs, granted, but why did it need its own game? This was just the kind of obvious cash grab you’ve come to expect from Activision. Why wasn’t this just DLC?

Looking back, if it was indeed released as DLC, I wouldn’t be able to buy and play these songs today on account of Activision shutting down Guitar Hero’s DLC store. I guess in the end everything worked out and it’s nice to return to the songs that got me hooked in the first place. Now that time has chipped away at its original $60 price (You can easily find it for less than $20 now), it’s definitely a much better value today than it was before. It doesn’t offer anything new, but it’s good for a cheap, quick serving of nostalgia. However, for its time it was the ultimate example of a cheap cash-in.

#2: DJ Hero (2009)

dj-hero_jpg_630x450_q85

Let me preface this by saying that this entry is entirely my own personal opinion. As much as I tried to give the DJ Hero series a chance, I just couldn’t get into it. While the new controller at least felt different and was something genuinely new, the fake turntable isn’t nor will it ever be nearly as satisfying to handle as the fake guitar. Add onto it my personal distaste towards pop music, and I was just done. The game had absolutely nothing for me other than a few songs that I liked mashed together with songs that I didn’t. Queen mashed with Beastie Boys? No thanks.

For a select few (and I mean VERY few), songs you also had the option of playing the guitar, but strumming to a remixed version of “Monkey Wrench” mixed with “Sabotage” isn’t nearly as fun as just playing “Monkey Wrench”. While the game as a whole works fine and serves its intended audience well, it left me nothing. The obligatory inclusion of a few rock bands and the inclusion of playable guitar parts (for ten out of the 93 remixes) feels like the dweeby, nerdy kid who was only invited to the douchey, cool kids’ party because their parents made them.

#1: Guitar Hero 5 (2009)

guitar hero 5

This could have easily been the best Guitar Hero game of them all. With the layout being stripped down to be more accessible, to all of the new features made to emphasize party play, this game had so much going for it. Then they had to drop the ball in the one area that really counts, and then add the cherry of ‘controversy’ on top.

The menu before song selection was remade from scratch, with character, instrument, and difficulty selection all being on one menu. Thus, if one person wanted to change something, you no longer had to backtrack through the different menus to find the right one. Everything was right there. You also were no longer restricted to one player per instrument. You can have any combination of four instruments that you wanted, whether it’s three drummers and one vocalist, two bassists and two vocals, or the most likely combination, four guitars. And if there were any spots available, a player can drop-in and start playing even in the middle of a song and drop out if they feel like it without interrupting the other players’ fun. Party Mode functions sort of like a jukebox, allowing you to skip a song you don’t like at any point and switch to a random one. Overall, this game’s features gave it a pretty good chance to even overthrow its main competitor, Rock Band, as the ultimate party game for the casual player.

Until you get to the song list. Again, with the emphasis on party play, the idea was to throw in something for everyone. What came out was an extremely unfocused mix of songs, some of which offer very little for guitar. For example, on the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil”, you spend half the song playing the piano on the guitar track. Admittedly another game released the same year was guilty of doing this and I was a little more forgiving, but in a Guitar Hero game it seems weird that they would do this as if there were no more guitar-centric songs left in the world. For the casual player this may be alright, but for someone looking for a more substantial experience, I was left cold. Reviewers at the time all agreed that no matter who you are, no matter what you like, you’ll find songs on here that you love as well as songs that you hate. That is, unless you’re someone who claims to listen to everything. (In which case, do you listen to Scottish Pirate Metal?)

As much as I’d like to end this spiel on a lighthearted note about Alestorm, it’s hard to talk about Guitar Hero 5 without mentioning the Kurt Cobain debacle. They had to have known that they were treading dangerous waters by making him a playable character in the game. In my opinion, they shouldn’t have done it in the first place, but since they did why couldn’t they have locked the Cobain avatar to Nirvana songs? They did that with Jimi Hendrix in Guitar Hero World Tour, why couldn’t they do it here? Watching a virtual Kurt Cobain sing Beastie Boys or a Coldplay song just doesn’t feel right. Well, the saying goes, “There’s no such thing as bad press”. They clearly must have known what they were doing and hoped to gain from the extra publicity. I don’t know for certain if the controversy was intended or not, but if it was, I say shame on you, Activision. It was things like the pressures of commercialization (among other reasons) that led to Cobain’s suicide in 1994. To deliberately take advantage of that for the sake of publicity is just plain wrong. It is for this reason, among the other stated reasons, that I declare Guitar Hero 5 the worst and most disappointing of all the Guitar Hero games.

 

Top 5 Best

#5: Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (2007)

Guitar Hero III

    This game marked sort of a strange, transitional period for the franchise. Original developer Harmonix jumped the boat to create Rock Band, leaving this game in the hands of Neversoft. Character designs and graphics for the backup band aside (seriously, that drummer is UGLY), this was an absolutely solid experience from start to finish that further fueled the hype for the franchise, with another solid set list with even more impossible songs than before, including the infamous “Through The Fire and Flames”. That song all by itself made both this game and anyone who could ace it, a worldwide phenomenon. As expected, I was riding the hype train with no sign of getting off.

A sequel shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However you should at least make small, subtle changes. Most noticeably, the timing window for hitting hammer-ons and pull-offs (notes that can be hit without strumming) was widened significantly. This change was definitely for the better and made play feel looser, much like playing a real guitar.

Then there was Slash. He was pretty much the face of Guitar Hero III. Sure, the single player career mode has you fight for your soul in a guitar battle against Lucifer, but you get to battle Slash! The rock star cameos went a long way in the franchise’s marketing aspect. The inclusion of Slash was just as much a major benefit to Legends of Rock as the inclusion of Kurt Cobain was a detriment to Guitar Hero 5. It was a gimmick, sure, but when it worked out it REALLY worked out. Fun fact: Aerosmith made more money on Guitar Hero Aerosmith than they did on any single album.

Setting aside aesthetic and mechanical changes, the revamped difficulty and new gameplay modes, the core experience remained largely unchanged. While the game’s Battle Mode was more than a little broken, my friends and I still had a blast rocking out together.

 

#4: Guitar Hero Metallica (2009)

Metallica

Guitar Hero World Tour sort of passed over my head, as I was still trying to get five stars on expert in previous titles. The switch from ‘guitar only’ to ‘full band’ didn’t really interest me, as taking the emphasis off the guitar made me believe that it wouldn’t be as challenging. I didn’t bite.

Then the announcement was made and they had me hook, line, and sinker. This game was the only game of the franchise where I was literally counting down the days to it’s release, and it did not disappoint.

It goes without saying that when a team is excited about a project, they’ll do whatever it takes to make it the best it can be, and it’s crystal clear that the developers were stoked about meeting their lifelong heroes during the motion capture session. The attention to detail is staggering, with both the developers and James Hetfield working relentlessly to capture not just the look, but the soul of Metallica shows and translate them to gaming.

Taking into account that all music is subjective, this game easily has the best soundtrack out of any Guitar Hero game, save the first two games. The game boasts a robust selection of Metallica’s best songs throughout the years, with a scattered few from their less-beloved albums, in addition to bands that inspired them or bands who were inspired by them. For the most part the selection of non-Metallica songs are pretty consistent, with a couple exceptions. Of all the artists to appear in a Metallica game, Social Distortion, Foo Fighters, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Bob Seger are the last names that come to mind. Granted, they’re still pretty good songs.

Although the band’s glory days are long gone and their drummer needs to get over himself, this game is still an incredible tribute to undoubtedly one of the most influential metal bands in history. I hadn’t had this much fun playing Guitar Hero since I first picked it up in 2007, and few other games since have been able to rekindle that spark.

#3: The Beatles: Rock Band (2009)

Beatles Rock Band

Ever since the idea of band-centric games became a thing, a game centered around one of, if not THE most influential group in music history, was inevitable. While I heaped loads of praise on Guitar Hero Metallica, the amount of love and care put into this game puts it to shame. THIS is how you pay tribute to a legendary band.

The game follows The Beatles’ career from their start as a young boy band performing at the Cavern Club, all the way to their final performance on the rooftop of Apple Corps Headquarters. Songs from their studio days feature ‘dreamscapes’ in the background. The psychedelic visuals match the songs perfectly, from the sunny green hills in “Here Comes The Sun”, to the trippy “Lucy In The Sky WIth Diamonds”, and of course the iconic imagery from the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. The songs are organized by chronological release, and as such the difficulty curve is extremely sporadic. However any experienced Guitar Hero/Rock Band enthusiast can easily nail these songs on expert.

Whilst talking about Guitar Hero 5, I mentioned that another game was guilty of sneaking other instruments into the guitar tracks, and this is that one. However, in this case I’m willing to accept that this is how it just has to be on account of it being centered around one band. A band that explored and experimented with a massive variety of instruments and was never really guitar-centric as a whole, I might add. This is not meant to downplay John Lennon and George Harrison as guitarists, I’m simply saying that’s not the only thing they’re known for. Van Halen, for example, is a guitar-centric band, The Beatles not so much. So playing the piano, cello, and sitar on the plastic guitar felt significantly less awkward this time than it did in Guitar Hero 5.

This game was easily the highlight of the rhythm game genre for 2009, and it really shows. The art style and extras, including photos and videos of the band, set this game apart as a shining example of a tribute done right. It is a love letter to the Fab Four, a game that must be experienced even if you’re not a fan of the band (Though honestly, how can you not like The Beatles?), and easily one of the best games that the rhythm game craze ever produced.

#2: Rock Band 2 (2008)

Rock Band 2

As mentioned before, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but make subtle changes if it’ll make the experience better. Harmonix struck gold with the original Rock Band, and probably didn’t have to do much of anything to sell the sequel. However, they went above and beyond to craft an experience that is still to this day a blast both in single player, and with friends.

These games have always been about fulfilling your deepest rock star fantasies, and the revamped tour mode channeled them perfectly. Customizing and personalizing every aspect of your band (including but not limited to name, logo, and bandmates), traveling from city to city, working your way up to bigger gigs, which would open the door to even bigger gigs, all the way up to attaining ultimate rock stardom. Meanwhile, the Battle of the Bands mode allowed groups of friends to duke it out against another group of friends to see who collectively rocked the hardest.

This game’s setlist had to balance catering towards casual players who focus on multiplayer, but still have an upward and continually climbing difficulty curve to serve the hardcore challenge seekers and still be a coherent experience. There are definitely a few songs on here that I don’t care for, but for the most part, there are some timeless classics here coupled with songs that I didn’t even know I liked. It perfectly balances various styles of rock over the course of several decades, and is fascinating to play through the songs by decade just to see how the broad genre of rock has evolved over the years.

My friends and I will still play to this day, which undoubtedly speaks volumes about this game’s enduring and timeless nature. With the right amount of features for the solo artist and the four-piece group, and the daunting catalog of downloadable content, Rock Band 2 was and is still the ultimate party game.

#1: Guitar Hero II (2006)

Guitar Hero II

Honestly, how could I give this spot to anything else? Nevermind the fact that this game solidified Guitar Hero as a phenomenon (though some would argue it was Legends of Rock that did it), this is the game that got me hooked on rhythm games. This is where it all started. My on-going journey as a musician began with a slew of sparks that would soon create a burning fire, and this game was one of those sparks.

As the series was still fresh, there were a plethora of fantastic songs for them to pick up for the soundtrack, and they absolutely nailed it. Nirvana, The Police, Kansas, Foo Fighters, Alice In Chains, Heart, Megadeth, and freaking RUSH. While the majority of the songs were covers, they went all out in making them sound as close to the original recordings as possible, going so far as to use the exact same equipment as the original performers. Plus, major props for the developers putting together a stellar set list of local bands from Harmonix’s home state of Massachusetts to make up the bonus set list. And of course, who could forget, “And the Trogdor comes in the NIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT!!!”

This was the first in the series to introduce cooperative play, thus beginning the arguments over who gets saddled with playing the bass. Given this was my first Guitar Hero game, I think it served as a much better starting point for me personally. The additional options for multiplayer made me realize how much fun it was to share the experience, thus encouraging me to play more on my own time. Granted, I still couldn’t survive Buckethead’s “Jordan”, but I could easily complete most other songs on expert.

The point is, I sunk hours into Guitar Hero II. I missed out on a lot of Playstation 2 classics because I was just so absorbed in this game, and I really feel it’s because of that that I’m playing music today. Obviously the game didn’t teach me how to play guitar, but the hand coordination, general memorization skills, and discipline necessary to practice, practice, and practice some more made the transition from fake guitar to real guitar much smoother. Plus it heavily influenced my musical palette. Simply put, this game played a huge part in shaping who I am today, and for that I owe Harmonix a heartfelt thank you. Thank you, Greg LoPiccolo, Allison Thresher, Daniel Sussman, Cara Kelly, Aaron Trites, Eric Brosius, Eric Pope, and everyone else at Harmonix. Your work has shaped me, molded me and set me on a path to doing things I never previously thought imaginable.

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One thought on “Rhythm Game Retrospective: A Look Back on Guitar Hero and Rock Band from Michael Ros

  1. Two comments:

    1. As a matter of fact, I do enjoy Scottish pirate metal. Keelhauled was not their best song, however.

    2. Bob Seger was included on Guitar Hero: Metallica because he was one of their influences. Metallica covered a Seger song, “Turn the Page,” on a 1998 album.

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