GUITAR HERO (2006) – HARMONIX
The Guitar Hero franchise is one of few game series that I have played that has the rare power to completely adjust reality. From the outset, you know it looks daft: holding a small plastic guitar, you klack along to notes running across a screen while onlookers watch in amusement and shout at you to learn a real instrument. But within seconds, as soon as you enter the groove it feels like the real thing – instead of standing in your living room, you are the guitarist from the song, belting out the tune. And the result of this is cramped fingers and more importantly, a big grin across your face.
The release of the original Guitar Hero some seven years ago still surprises me in the sense that no-one had really capitalised on the idea before. Music games were about, but no-one had thought to blur the lines between rhythm tapping and the real deal by creating a peripheral for mass use (Konami’s GuitarFreaks had employed a peripheral, but it never made it out of Japanese arcades). And the end result is that the small plastic guitar (based off a real life Gibson SR guitar) becomes the integral part of Guitar Hero and the main reason for its playability. It’s design is surprisingly simple – there are five coloured buttons at the top of the neck of the guitar that correspond to the notes that appear on the screen, with a strum bar to tap and a whammy bar that you can press in and out for distortion effects. Not only does it get you in the mood to play, it offers a surprising amount of comfort; even ham fisted idiots like myself can soon get their fingers flowing across the buttons. And with the control mechanism sorted, we can move onto the main reason why I love this game – the setlist.
Guitar Hero offers players 30 songs in its main set list to play through, with the music ranging from the 1960’s up to the modern day. In the main game mode, Career mode, you have to complete tiers of five songs before moving onto the next tier of increasingly more difficult-to-play songs. Playing well will earn you cash, which you can then spend on in game items such as new guitars, characters and bonus songs performed by internal bands from the development staff. Once songs have been played in career mode, then they can be played at will in ‘Quickplay’ mode, and if you have two guitars you can engage in a guitar duel with a friend. For my money, to this day Guitar Hero still has the best overall set list featured in a music game (matched only by Guitar Hero III); not only are the songs featured good songs, but more importantly they are fun to play. Starting off with classic riffs like Smoke On The Water, you gradually progress via the who’s-who of rock and roll from acts like Black Sabbath, Queen, Motorhead and Jimi Hendrix to get to songs like Cowboys From Hell and Bark At The Moon that will really test your skills. By utilizing the in game difficulty level (ranging from four button Easy mode to Expert mode which features fast scrolling notes requiring an advanced technique to pass), it means that Guitar Hero is very easy to pick up and play for anyone.
As fun as the game can be however, it is naturally not without its faults. Progression in Career mode can prove to be an awkward business, as you have to select a difficulty before entering the mode which then applies to all the songs you play. This means that you either very quickly become tired of being locked into an easy difficulty, or hit a brick wall on Hard or Expert levels. Being able to drop up or down a level at will would have been appreciated. The same problem also applies to multiplayer, as you can’t for example have someone on medium and someone on Expert; it’s a one size fits all affair. Some players may also find themselves getting annoyed with the soundtrack, as all the songs are cover versions performed by the development staff (when the game was released, they were not well known enough to acquire licenses for master copies of the tracks) – I personally think the staff did a great job especially with the guitars, but some of the vocals are a bit off. Finally, there is longevity to consider – you can blitz through the setlist comfortably in the space of a day, and once you have played the songs the only real incentive is to go back and get a higher score. For a generation now used to having a shedload of DLC content in games like Rock Band and the latter Guitar Hero titles, you may feel a bit short-changed going back to the original.
For something to break out of the cupboard occasionally however, Guitar Hero is still fantastic after all these years. The gameplay has remained robust and on the higher levels of difficulty it is still a challenge even for seasoned Guitar Hero players. This game embodies what Harmonix originally intended for the series before it became in essentials an enormous cash cow; great songs, great gameplay, and overall great fun.