So You Want To Save Music Games: Guitar Hero

May 11, 2010


Whew! It has been a long time since I have written a post of this type, but as announcements of Rock Band 3 come down the pipeline, I have seen more “music games are dead!” comments on the blogs I follow. So I suppose I feel inspiration now. ARE YOU READY TO READ!!!

Today’s target is the game that really ignited the genre’s legitimacy in the West. While games such as DDR and Frequency predate this title, Guitar Hero was the first music game to get really popular. Really popular. Since the release of the first Rock Band game in 2007, GH and its main competitor have started to carve out identities and points of differentiation. Before I identify where GH needs to improve, I should first identify what it does well.

No other music game series has exemplified the rock star fantasy aesthetic more than Guitar Hero, with a big emphasis on fantasy. Realism is not a priority in the series and it is better for it (mostly). Its graphics move at fast framerates. Its larger-than-life characters are typically over-the-top hyper archetypes or celebrities that a fan may or have wanted to be playing air guitar in his/her parents’ basement. Its venues are big, crazy sets with tons of stuff going on.

And it doesn’t stop with the visual/thematic aspects. Have 4 people at your party who want to play guitar? No need to force someone to sing! Does a hot song have no guitar part? Use the guitar to play the keyboard, or piano, or cello part – Guitar Hero will make it work! Wish a song had more challenge? They have artificial notes that make a song harder to play than the music should allow, should a player want it. Authenticity? Bah, it’s only a game! Besides, the tracklists for each of the main games have been solid, with fairly diverse collections of hits and deep cuts to bring the challenge and the fun.

Unfortunately, many of those plusses of the series also contain its opportunities for improvement. A Guitar Hero game rocks because it is a game first, fantasy second, and music sim a distant third. This is also why it can be troublesome at times.

In other words, here’s how GH 6 can be better:

First, while it’s obvious, I still feel as though I need to say it – lay off the open playability of real people. It’s what’s getting Activision all of those lawsuits (that aren’t from their former employees, anyway). I don’t care if the contract says you’re in the right. It’s just bad taste. Now I’ll admit, I laughed my ass off the first time I saw those videos of Kurt Cobain singing “You Give Love A Bad Name,” because I feel that some people (I’m looking at you, Gen-Xers) take KC way too seriously. After giving it some thought, as well as after seeing Johnny Cash’s corpse being forced to sing “YMCA” like some karaoke sock puppet, I realize that the open playability of real people isn’t fair to those people, alive or dead. It would be like some political simulator game where a player could choose to run Barack Obama as a Republican candidate and court Christian Coalition/Tea Party voters; or Sarah Palin as a hard-left Green, complete with pot-smoking-after-college-appearance minigame. To do so would be absurdly hilarious in the short term, but ultimately disrespectful. It makes GH 5 and Band Hero great as musique concrete modern art pieces, but in poor taste as mass-market video games.

Don’t get me wrong, lookalikes are fine, as is limited playability that locks the real artists to their songs (as was done in GH World Tour and Lego Rock Band), but have some class. Not too much class, as that isn’t the Guitar Hero way, but show a little class and respect for your artists.

My other big complaint is that there are too many games in the series. Actually, strike that. When you add up Rock Band’s Track Packs, the two franchises probably have close counts. Each series has 3 “band” games (Aerosmith, Metallica and Van Halen vs. AC/DC, The Beatles, and Green Day). My other big complaint is shelf glut inconvenience. Other than The Beatles: Rock Band, Harmonix has allowed PS3 and X360 players the option to export their Rock Band songs to their hard drives for huge jukeboxes of content. Guitar Hero’s export feature is severely reduced, even though every game since World Tour has featured band play. How awesome would it be for GH 5 players to play every song from World Tour, Metallica, Smash Hits, Van Halen, and Band Hero in their game on top of the solid GH 5 setlist and any DLC? Now that’s a party! Get some better lawyers, Neversoft, or at least spend your legal resources more on export licensing and less on celebrity caricatures! Not only does it get you $5-10 more from your game, it rewards fan loyalty by allowing them to build a cumulative collection. It’s partially why I didn’t align myself with the series.

Otherwise, Guitar Hero is a solid franchise that puts fun first. It kicked open the mainstream music game market and it deserves to stick around and keep the rock and roll on full throttle (and this is coming from a Rock Band fan)! It can always be better, but keep it up!


One comment

  1. […] was definitely on the “game” side and filled a real demand in the market. It represented the potential of the genre for straight up fantasy and with Warriors of Rock I thought it was beginning to find its voice. It’s a […]

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