Yes, I’m sad to hear the death of the Guitar Hero franchise – even if it was drilled into the ground. I’m still a massive fan of the music game genre and heck I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m firmly in the Rock Band camp these days. Nevertheless, it would be downright ignorant of me to say that it didn’t have a massive effect on my gaming life and probably more importantly my real life – coming to me at pretty much the most crucial time of my own transition into adulthood – going to University.

When the first game landed on the PS2 back in November of 2005 I largely missed it, due to not owning a PS2. However, come September of 2006 I had started University and moved away from my family home in Hull into a block of student flats in Lincoln. Obviously there was always going to be the whole rigmarole that comes with moving to a new place, and meeting new people and making new friends – and of course one of the first things that the University held to ease this transition was a Fresher’s Fayre. At this event were the usual number of stands from the various clubs and societies encouraging the new intake to join them – the video games society in particular caught my eye, as they had a PS2 running Guitar Hero.

When I first saw it from afar, I assumed it was some sort of simple Simon Says game with some cool cover music. The guitars themselves reminded of toys and I won’t lie by admitting I thought the size of them meant the game was more aimed towards a younger market. However, after playing one song – which I don’t even remember now – I was slowly coming around to the idea that this was pretty good. Of course, I was playing on the easiest difficulty, so I was still under the impression that it was a bit simplistic although I was fairly daunted by the prospect of more buttons. About a week or so later, one of my flatmates introduced me to a guy on his course who lived downstairs from us. The usual social gatherings with booze and music occurred one evening at our flat, and he popped downstairs saying he’d be back in just a minute.

He returned with a PS2 and a plastic guitar with, of course, a copy of Guitar Hero. He then proceeded to play the entirety of Iron Man on expert. As I sat there marvelling at the skill involved and eventually getting to have a go, he taught me about tilting the guitar in order to get Star Power and all the other nuances and I can’t help but remember the great feeling of euphoria and outright sense of cool I got just from playing one song, then another and then another. The guy from downstairs ended up leaving the game in our communal area as he was in our flat so often, and would regularly return for a quick blast and to offer myself and my flatmate advice.

Though I was still playing on Easy at this point, getting as close as I possibly could to 100% became a daily challenge for myself and my flatmate. I wasn’t just pressing buttons on an undersized guitar – I WAS A ROCK GOD, reality be damned. I’d tilt the guitar, the screen would flash and the crowd wanted more and mentally I was giving them everything I had to do so, not wanting to miss any notes and ruin the song or let them down – I started specifically saving my Star Power for the most awesome parts of each song, and barely taking notice of my overall score itself. More Than A Feeling was a huge one – I’d always build my Star Power to full and ONLY release it just before the epic guitar solo kicked in.

This turned up a notch about a month or two later when Guitar Hero 2 was released. Since that first night, I’d been keeping an eye on the release of the sequel for ages, keeping my flatmate and the guy from downstairs up to date with which songs had been added, what new features were being announced and when exactly we could be playing it – those two had become my best friends at that point, and we ended up spending most of our time together. Then it was released, and my flatmate naturally bought a copy along with his own plastic guitar. Now many evenings were about battles – we’d constantly try and beat each other’s score when the others were in lectures, or head to head battles fuelled by alcohol on a night before heading out to the local rock club. I’d moved up to Medium at this point, and was still aiming – and occasionally achieving on the easier songs – for that elusive 100%. The guy from downstairs usually won the battles of course, and was still playing on Expert but we didn’t care because we having so much fun.

By the time Guitar Hero 3 came out we had sadly almost all moved out from that flat. I was living in a house up the road, and my flatmate was now living in different set of student flats about fifteen minutes away. The guy from downstairs was still at the original place, but obviously we saw less of him than we used to. My flatmate got a girlfriend and was quite naturally spending a lot of time with her, and so we didn’t see each other that often anymore. I was waiting for the GH3’s release on PC and so I was waiting longer than most but did manage to stave off mostly playing it anywhere else before then and when it finally did arrive I do have fond memories of playing in front of my housemates – one incident during the year prior had seen them come back to my flat when they were hilariously drunk and I decided to play it for them which woke another angry flatmate was of course met with drunken giggles and derision (and a stern telling off the next morning) – so they knew what I was getting into. But it was never as ‘social’ as it used to be, usually just myself whiling away my downtime by waggling on a piece of plastic managing by now to be playing on Hard.

Enter Rock Band. On a rather silly whim during it’s launch week I forked out the full +£150 for the full box set of Rock Band and though at first my purchasing decision was met with derision, it only took until that weekend to suggest a communal game with nearly everyone taking an instrument, usually myself on vocals and my housemates on guitar and drums. Belting out Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead or Alive brought back that indescribable feeling not only to myself, but to the others in the room. Soon, once again communal plastic instrument nights had become a staple, and often on weekends where the alcohol was flowing a good game of Rock Band would be a precursor to a great night out and hitting the town, and of course there were casualties – even now my whammy bars are slack and one of my drumsticks was destroyed, but the game itself and a steady stream of DLC kept us rocking most nights and feeling great as we watched those gems smash into a million pieces while one of us frantically tries to keep our legs from tiring while hammering out the drumbeat for Run to the Hills. When my flatmate broke up with his girlfriend and he started coming round to my place again, the thing that was always on the cards was a session on Rock Band.

But there was a tinge of sadness to this point. When I finally got my hands on Rock Band it alerted me to what I hadn’t previously noticed about Guitar Hero 3. And that was the gem placement just wasn’t as good. It seems silly to an outsider, but you could just feel notes that weren’t there when I returned to it alone. The thrilling pieces weren’t quite in the same place. It was good, but it didn’t quite have the spark that Harmonix clearly gave their baby. Rock Band had it in spades. The release of Guitar Hero World Tour served mainly to cement my belief that Guitar Hero just didn’t cut it anymore for me, and the yearly, almost gimmicky releases and additions like celebrity avatars and ‘tweaks’ to the formula after that only further fuelled my feeling that something great had been diluted to the point of losing what made the game great in the first place. I was most certainly a Rock Band man now, and it would have taken something far more than some sort of superfluous story or arbitrary interchangeable hardware component for the guitar for me to change back.

Sadly that seemingly will never happen now. DJ Hero did prove to me that there was some great stuff still left in the name, but the pricing did put me and a lot of people off – however it was simply a very good game that was perhaps too closely tied to a series that had been pushed far too heavily too quickly. DJ Hero still had something great there but I do feel that it’s become a casualty of very poor circumstance. I still love Rock Band, and it pains me that Rock Band 3 hasn’t sold better. Overall it’s obvious the franchise died too young, but in a lot of respects it feels like it was almost smothered by Activsion. They certainly showed that too much of a good thing can be bad for you. I’m certain the future of the music genre is in Harmonix’s hands, but I certainly don’t envy the very difficult position they are now in, while the series they helped create becomes hoisted by it’s own petard.

Recently, I downloaded the Ziggy Stardust DLC for Rock Band. I had completely forgotten that the guitar solo that I associate so much with playing that song on plastic guitar wasn’t even in the original – it was in the Guitar Hero cover version:

At the end of the day, it wasn’t about whether the music was a cover version or not or how accurately it was mapped. It wasn’t just about the guitar, whether it was based on a real model or if it was oversized or undersized. What Guitar Hero was about that very primal feeling of awesomeness, that euphoric rush making you feel like the most important person in the room. Is it the same as the feeling a real rock star gets when they get up on the stage before thousands of screaming fans? I don’t know. I do know that if it wasn’t for at the very least, the first two Guitar Hero titles, I think my first few months of university would have been a completely different story.

R.I.P. Guitar Hero, you will be missed.

One Response to Guitar Zero

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