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Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s

(RedOctane; US: 24 Jul 2007)

I imagine during the 80s that Homer Simpson lipped his licks and drooled at least once before intoning, “Ohhh ohhh ohhh… glam rock.”


If Homer didn’t do it then, I did it myself during this new millenium when my review copy of Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s finally arrived.


My wife and oldest daughter have been bigger fans of the Guitar Hero series than myself.  Nerd that I am, my preference for good musical rhythm games has always been Harmonix’s brilliant but underappreciated Frequency and Amplitude.  Both their techno vibe and the ability to play a controller rather than an instrument-shaped controller (a much more accessible way to “play music” for a console playing junkie like me) make them more palatable to my tastes.  For my less gamer geek family members, the casual gamer accessibility of the Guitar Hero franchise is a good justification for the claim that the PlayStation is indeed there for “whole” family to enjoy. 


However, as a child of the ‘80s and perpetual ‘80s pop music lover, I have been really looking forward to this newest version of the franchise.


From the perspective of ‘80s culture—the style and flavor of the era—the game looks great.  All your guitar heroes, Johnny Napalm, Judy Nails, Pandora, et al, are back and have been tweaked with some suitably loud and wildly mismatched ‘80s wardrobe (I particularly like Judy’s Lucky Star-era Madonna-esque look).  Skinny ties and lace fingerless gloves abound. 


Additionally, the new settings look good as well.  One venue that features a kind of “Rock Out for Safety” theme seems especially inspired by the “messagey” type of social programming popularized during the era in order to lend rock an air of social responsibility (a “Just Say No To Drugs” sign is included amongst other posters—good stuff).


Strangely, though, the looks presented here, while clearly being stylized more overtly after the ‘80s, made me realize that the original game itself really was nearly as much inspired by this era (the tail end of a guitar rock dominated musical landscape begun in the 70s with bands like KISS and the like).  Indeed, many of the characters in the original game are really largely derived from late ‘70s and early ‘80s looks (punk rock, KISS-style glam, etc.) because in many ways the “guitar hero” was both birthed and became extinct within those eras.  Additionally, the pyrotechnics and overproduced stage shows that inspired many of the original Guitar Hero‘s stages pretty much belong to the era of gross materialism. 


This repitition of glam imagery, though, may justify even moreso the addition of Encore to the game’s title.  It isn’t just a sequel, it’s more of an homage to the same idealization and romanticization of the idea of the rock god.  And, barring glimpses of him through 80s nostalgia and the smell of the, perhaps, already decomposing corpse in the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, we don’t need Nietzsche to tell us that god is dead.


You simply cannot go wrong with green hair.

You simply cannot go wrong with green hair.


Maybe such continued desire for glam superficiality is the best way to admire and to represent a decade based on the plasticization of its own sense of self.


Speaking of plastic, the ol’ guitar-shaped controller holds up quite well in the newest of such homage induced games with the same familiar controls and a continued solid gameplay style.  There is a sense of datedness to the game’s playstyle that may give it the sense of familiarity of something a few decades old, though.  While the game’s new titular addition is intended to signal the “newest” gameplay refinement, the addition of a song unlocked by completing several songs at a venue that the crowd calls for as an “encore” isn’t all that “new.”  Neither unlockables, nor unlockable songs in music games are all that innovative.  However, the addition of an encore-related transition scene as the crowd calls for the encore and some (usually) outrageous additional set piece emerges on stage to thrill the crowd is not only pretty 80s, it is also pretty fun.


The tracks featured on the game are a little less charmingly surprising, though.  For an era that spawned so many hair bands, the hard rock staples are a bit underrepresented here.  Sure, the Scorpions are here, Twisted Sister is here, Quiet Riot is here, and Poison is here, but where is Bon Jovi, Van Halen, AC/DC, and Whitesnake?  And why are A Flock of Seagulls and the Dead Kennedys in a game called Guitar Hero (don’t get me wrong I like both bands—especially the Dead Kennedys—but neither one do I normally associate with guitar godhood)?


I hate to be one of those critics who complains about what isn’t in a game rather than what is there, but in the case of a music-based game that advertises itself as representing an era, the track list seems sorely lacking in evoking a sense of the era without some of the most successful acts of the period.  Of course, some of the bands that I have mentioned have appeared in previous iterations of the series, which brings me back to my original thought on the series: Guitar Hero has largely always been rocking the 80s.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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