I wanna rock!
“OH MY GOD! ERIC CLAPTON IS EVIL!” Over the last three days, I’ve made that exclamation (albeit with various expletives randomly punctuating the sentiment) several times. All of them occurred while I was attempting to play “Crossroads” by Cream on a high difficulty level in Guitar Hero. The truth, of course, is that Eric Clapton is not evil, but rather incredibly talented. No, the true evil in this story lies with a friend of mine from work. Let me explain.
About twice a year, I compile a list of games that I’m interested in for the next several months. This allows me to budget properly, because although the list is always gigantic at first, at least half the titles on it are invariably cancelled or turn out awful. This is somewhat offset by the games that come out of nowhere. The ones I had no idea I wanted. It’s not that I was particularly turned off by the concept of Guitar Hero when I first heard of it; it’s that I didn’t really care. Rhythm games aren’t traditionally my thing. I’ve avoided every dancing, drumming, guitaring arcade game like the plague. I never jumped on the Karaoke Revolution bandwagon. So I was completely expecting Guitar Hero to slip through the rather sizable cracks I had provided for it.
Then a friend at work started talking up Harmonix games in general—Frequency and Amplitude in particular. Two unfortunates play a factor here. The first is that his enthusiasm is infectious. The second is that I am easily swayed by the enthusiasm of others. So after contemplating it for a while, I went ahead and tried to add Guitar Hero to my GameFly queue. No dice. They didn’t have it. The reason, I imagine, is because although it’s possible to play the game with a standard PS2 controller, the developers intended for it to be played with a custom guitar controller. So eventually, I ordered it from their website for $70 (this insane friend of mine ordered the version that comes with two guitars for $110 so he could rock out with his friends).
I own a real guitar that I haven’t played for years. But after a few weeks of playing Guitar Hero every single day, I’m tempted to try again. In fact, people watching me play have asked how easy it would be to translate my Guitar Hero skills to real life. That’s how real it looks. But I’m sure the truth is that the abstractions that make Guitar Hero accessible simply make you feel as though you’re really good at playing the guitar with a minimum of effort. The guitar controller has five colored fret buttons, a “string” bar that works in either direction, a working whammy bar, and the start and select buttons (shaped like guitar volume knobs). As with any rhythm game, the idea is to play selected notes as they come down the screen. In a game like Dance Dance Revolution this is simply performed by stepping on the appropriate arrow. In Guitar Hero, however, you must also pluck the note as you fret it. This isn’t too hard in the first couple of difficulty levels, which don’t incorporate all five buttons. But as you get further into the game, you are expected to deal with chords, hammer-ons and pull-offs.
While this is certainly a game that could have been cobbled together and still been reasonably fun, what pushes Guitar Hero to addictive, obsessive levels are the little touches. For example, as you play correct notes consecutively, you build up score multipliers. The crowd makes increasingly appreciative or displeased noises based on how well you’re playing. If you don’t play a note correctly, it sounds like you messed up, and you consequently feel like a sub-par performer. You build up a “star power” meter through well-played sections and note-bending. To trigger the star power meter, once full, you tilt the guitar fully upright while playing, furthering the illusion that you’re actually rocking out.
Although it’s not possible to appreciate the onstage band while frantically trying to keep up with the game, the developers clearly went the extra mile in making it so that the band properly plays the song at hand. This is observable even in your guitar player avatar. Notes, when played correctly, are properly fretted. That level of detail is indicative of the high level of polish Guitar Hero has overall.
Further, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a better licensed soundtrack in a game. It would be impossible to experience Guitar Hero without wishing this, that, or the other thing was also included. To be sure, there will no doubt be sequels that seek to add more favorites. But guitar rock spanning several decades (and subgenres) is here. From Cream to David Bowie to Rob Zombie to Sum 41 to The Donnas to Franz Ferdinand to Jimi Hendrix to The Edgar Winter Group to… you get the point. Even more interesting is that as a self-proclaimed musical elitist, I still found songs by bands I normally dislike incredibly fun to play. It’s also interesting to note that I didn’t realize until well into the game that these were all covers. The instrumentation is indistinguishable from the originals. The vocals shine overall, but there are particular instances where it’s glaringly obvious that you are not listening to Dave Mustaine or Freddy Mercury. But this is a minor, and unavoidable, quibble.
Although it’s easy to pass off any game with a custom controller as a gimmick, that is clearly not the case here. Certainly, my guitar controller will not be collecting dust until the next iteration of this series arrives. I will very likely be trying, at random intervals, to achieve a perfect performance in expert difficulty of “Cowboys from Hell” by Pantera for a long time to come.