It’s Guitar Hero, and you can keep it in your pocket. What’s not to love?
Well, a lot of things, if you are to believe the steady stream of internet anti-hype that has surrounded the release of Guitar Hero: On Tour since it was first announced. For one, there’s the quantity of the setlist: 25 songs, plus one bonus song, does not sound like a lot of bang for your buck when you’re spending 50 bucks to get the game and the peripheral that is wholly required to play it. Two, there’s the apparently quality of the setlist, which seems aimed at a DS demographic of pop music lovers rather than whatever ideal of “rock” the console versions uphold (Smashmouth’s “All Star” and Maroon 5’s “This Love” seem to seal the deal for many detractors of the series). Three, there’s the peripheral itself, which seems destined to cause wrist problems for pretty much anyone who uses it despite the constant warnings to take breaks and keep your wrist straight offered by the startup splash screens. Four, there’s the expansion of Guitar Hero III‘s much-maligned battle mode.
Five, there’s this:
Obviously, Guitar Hero: On Tour has a lot of things going against it, and sadly, most of them are true. There truly is barely any bonus material on the cartridge—one bonus song, even if it is a Freezepop song (and a clever choice for one at that: “I Am Not Your Gameboy”), is not going to offer a whole lot of replay value. Players who have been weaned on The Sex Pistols, Pearl Jam, and Iron Maiden aren’t necessarily going to welcome Smashmouth, Maroon 5, and Incubus into their guitar rock god fantasies. Holding the peripheral aggravates your wrist by the time you play five or so songs, and you actually have to win 25 battles in order to get at the one measly bonus track.
All that said, it’s still Guitar Hero, and honestly, Vicarious Visions should be commended for actually managing to make it work in a portable setting. Not only that, but Guitar Hero: On Tour is practically an advertisement for the Nintendo DS, because without touchscreen support, it’s hard to imagine how something like this could be possible. Anyone who’s spent hours on end playing any of the previous Guitar Hero games knows the allure of the title, the “I could do that” draw that comes with watching someone else play any iteration of the franchise (which has in turn spawned the closet industry of YouTube Guitar Hero sensations). All you have to do is pick it up and start playing, and you too, you purists and n00bs alike, you will be hooked.
Of course, you’ll still be frustrated.
Part of the appeal of Guitar Hero is that it is (admittedly arguably) never cheap, and that while the difficulty might seem insurmountable at first, the process of learning the notes and gaining dexterity in your fingers allows for steady and measurable improvement in your play. Using the touchscreen, however, never gets past the point of feeling like it’s an imperfect process. Perhaps it’s the months of play time with Guitar Hero III‘s excellent Les Paul peripheral, whose audible “click” never left a doubt as to whether a strum happened or not, but the action of rubbing the stylus across the touchscreen to strum offers no such assurance. As such, it becomes too easy to start yelling at the DS for being “cheap”, for breaking a streak when you were sure that you had the note sequence whipped—regardless of how easy the note pattern might be for a given song, you never feel as though you’re 100% assured of getting a given note, because the strum simply fails too often.
When such a huge part of the replay value of a game comes from its almost unlimited difficulty ceiling (i.e. first you can complete a song, then you can try and five-star it, then you can try and full-combo it, and you can do all of this for four different difficulty levels), the incentive to go for those five-stars and 100%s just gets flushed down the toilet when you don’t feel like any amount of practice will allow you to improve, simply because you don’t trust the hardware. No amount of unlockable guitars and outfits will change that lack of motivation, either.
The battle system, hate it or tolerate it, has actually improved over Guitar Hero III‘s highly flawed, often over too soon system. For one, you always play through the entire song no matter how poorly you’re doing at any given point, so there’s always the chance for a comeback even if you start off terribly. Burning someone’s guitar is kind of fun, and the battle mode even offered the series’ first laugh-out-loud moment for me when it forced me to scribble on a fish before I could continue.
Seeing a giant fish fill up your screen, hearing a male voice scream “SIGN MY FISH!”, and scribbling all over the thing until it goes away is just a little bit priceless. Sending a fish to a friend is even better.
Despite all of its flaws, Guitar Hero: On Tour is fun. Incubus’s “Anna Molly” is actually a surprisingly fun song to play, and the token frustrating tracks that make you want to throw your DS through the nearest window are here in the form of Ozzy Osbourne’s “I Don’t Wanna Stop” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “I Know a Little” (though in the latter case, it’s a bit unfortunate that the last song in the game happens to be a cover). If you’re itching for a way to play Guitar Hero someplace other than the comfort of your own home, it’ll do the trick. Still, the flaws in its control scheme and its presentation will keep it from being anything more than a fun little diversion. Perhaps for the upcoming Guitar Hero On Tour: Decades, somehow being pushed out before the end of the year (perhaps in acknowledgement of the uncomfortably disposable vibe you get from this edition), Vicarious Visions will find a way to improve the control scheme and establish a vibe that meshes with what we know of this now classic and prolific franchise.