Monday, September 26, 2011

The Mercy Side: The Rise and Fall of Guitar Hero (Part 1)

Hey there, welcome to a three part homage to what I call The Rise and Fall of Guitar Hero. Today I’ll talk about The Rise of Guitar Hero, going through the first part of its history. I’ll talk about the series, the games, and my feelings on them as we go along. Tomorrow, part 2, is going to about The Fall of Guitar Hero, where I talk of its decline, as well as the games and my feelings that contributed to its demise. Part 3 will be put up on Wednesday, where I’ll be posting a Mixtape of songs that are my favourites to play from each game in the series.

The Guitar Hero series was one of my favourite game series of all time and in its peak, was extremely popular and has revived interest in many rock bands of the past. Activision claimed the third game in the series was the first title in the history of video gaming to hit $1 billion in sales, which shows you the power the game had at one time.

Guitar Hero first started off as a vision from a company called RedOctane, who saw potential in an earlier game series called GuitarFreaks, which had relative success in Japan. Seeing potential in the series, they decided to create their own game with their own format, hoping for success in the States. They asked Harmonix, a game development company who have created other music games such as Amplitude and Frequency, to moderate success. An agreement was made between the two to produce this game series.

The idea was to have a guitar controller to replace the control pad. This guitar controller would, naturally, be in the shape of a guitar. Where the frets of a genuine guitar would be, were five large plastic buttons. These ‘frets’ were colour coded; green, red, yellow, blue, and orange. On the base of the guitar was a strum bar that could be lifted up and down, and a whammy bar. The concept of the gameplay was for the respective colours of the frets would represent different notes in the sound of a guitar, and on the television screen, when you would see your respective coloured fret, you would hold down the colour of the fret, and strum in motion with the timing. Getting the timing with ten notes in succession would then double all your points. Getting twenty notes in succession tripled your points, and thirty notes quadrupled your points. That is the basic concept of Guitar Hero, arguably much easier than playing a guitar itself, which gave it access to many people of varying skill levels.
The original Guitar Hero controller.
There are other gameplay elements as well. If you had a long note in a song (like, in the beginning of “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath), you would simply hold down the respective coloured fret while the note is being played. You could play chords, simply by holding two fret buttons at the same time. Hammer ons and pull-offs were possible by pressing a series of frets in quick succession to a certain section of a song. At particular segments in a song, certain notes would have a white silhouette around them, and playing these notes in succession gave you an ability called “star power”. Gathering large amounts star power was fundamental in getting a high score in the game. To use star power, you have to store enough of it first, and then, then you lift the actual guitar controller ninety degrees upwards (or pressing the ‘select’ button on the controller itself), and all the notes would turn a glowing blue colour. When star power is activated, all notes count for twice the score as before. So if you hit over thirty notes in succession, you would have a quadrupled points multiplier; but with star power, those points would be doubled to eight times the original points. The whammy bar had its use too; if you were in a series of notes contending for star power, if any of those notes were long, you could use your whammy bar to start developing star power on the cuff.

Naturally with star power and a points multiplier, this game was very good at making it competitive to get the highest score. High scores in video games took a turn by the mid-nineties, not many games used high score boards, or used point systems. It wasn’t really until the mid naught, when leaderboards on Xbox Live and the PS3 were developed to compare your score to other people around the world when the point system gained a second wind. While Guitar Hero was released just before the seventh generation consoles became official, this really game did make it competitive again to compare your scores with other friends. Another addition is the rating of songs out of five stars, where successfully playing a song got you three stars, but hitting more notes and getting multipliers gave you a better chance of a four or five star rating.

As the original game didn’t have any licences to use master copies of any songs, they created cover versions for all the songs on the game. So with the guitar sorted, the gameplay elements created and the cover versions developed, everything was rocking to get the game released. All that was left really was to develop characters that the player could choose from. It was important that these characters were varied, and covered many genres of rock and metal, as there are so many subgenres of music that could be associated with the game. For instance, for ‘metalheads’, Axel Steel was created, a very large man with really big shoulders and long brown hair. In contrast, Johnny Napalm was designed with punks in mind; he was a tall and slim topless man with a Mohawk. One of the female characters was Pandora, a slim girl with dyed light blue hair and was appealing for people into the gothic fashion, and genres associated with that movement.
Johnny Napalm, the 'punk' character.
Everything was set! They released the game in the States on November 8th, 2005, and was met with huge critical acclaim. No one expected it to be the hit it was, with the soundtrack of cover versions praised and the guitar controller. The original Guitar Hero controller was modelled after the Gibson SG, a guitar used by Eric Clapton, The Edge, Dave Grohl, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, James Hetfield, Tony Iommi, Keith Richards amongst others. For me personally, the best thing about Guitar Hero was the fantastic effort put into the order of the songs. The idea was that you would have five tracks, and if you successfully play through them all, you’d unlock five more tracks. The songs got more and more difficult as the game went on. This is a formula used in most of the games, but no game has been more successful at making the learning curve arced to precision as the original game. Starting with “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett and finishing with “Bark at the Moon”, the songs are for the most part simple yet great tracks that begin to take a difficult turn towards the middle, and at the end are songs with difficult riffs and guitar solos.

The game came out in the states in November ’05 and I caught wind of it around the turn of the year, when the game was starting to feature in many award listings. I completely forgot about it though as it wasn’t released in the UK yet. It wasn’t until around March time, when my local Game store had a playable demo. I gave “I Love Rock and Roll” a go and absolutely fell in love with the game. I HAD to have it. I found out when it was being released, which was April 7th 2006, and got a copy not long after then. I was hooked. It was one of the most amazing video game experiences I ever had. Playing these awesome songs, learning new ones, getting better at playing the game, it was ecstasy. I managed to beat it on Easy within days. “Easy” mode only allows you to use the first three of the five frets. I went onto “Medium”, which made you use four of the five. I remember going all the way with ease again, until I got to the penultimate track, which was “Cowboys From Hell” by Pantera, an excellent song, and found it too difficult. After a lot of practicing I finally beat it, and moved onto “Hard” mode, which was the first time all five frets were to be used. The rest is history now.

The original Guitar Hero had some excellent cover versions in the game, as there was no rights to any master copies, you have to give a lot of credit to the team who made these songs their own. Some of the songs are a bit off, like the person doing Lemmy in “Ace of Spades” by Motorhead, but some of them are pretty damn good. The original “Guitar Hero” will always have a place in my heart, the makers of the Guitar Hero series have improved certain elements of the gameplay as the series has gone on but the original has developed a certain charm to it, and it’s a game that I’ll always stick on once in a while. If I were to review the original Guitar Hero it would get ****1/2 stars from me, as there were things that could have been improved, and were. Let’s move on.
Guitar Hero I has a charm no other game in the series has.
After the success of Guitar Hero, it was inevitable a sequel was to be made. And the team were straight on it, with Guitar Hero II being produced and released here in the UK seven months after the first, on November 24th, 2006. I remember those months quite clearly. I remember being on MySpace on a Guitar Hero message board, and I, along with thousands of others, were excited to hear news on what songs were to be put on the sequel. We all made radical and personal suggestions in anticipation. Some songs were announced early, like “You Really Got Me” by Van Halen and “Freya” by The Sword. I remember “Misirlou” by Dick Dale being announced, and I marked out pretty bad. I’m not the biggest Dick Dale fan, or Pulp Fiction for that matter, but knowing such a complicated guitar track being put on the game was awesome. I remember not getting the game until probably Christmas, as I could afford it when it was released. In the month between then, I vividly remember going on YouTube to view how hard “Misirlou” was going to be and being in awe over how much strumming you would have to do on the harder difficulties. I also remember this time my local GameStation having the complete copy of Guitar Hero II on display for customers to try out, and actually unlocking a lot of the songs myself, just to play “Misirlou”. It was as difficult yet epic as I had imagined. Another highlight for me in the second entry in the series was one of the bonus tracks. I had never heard of Homestar Runner or Strong Bad, but playing “Trogdor” changed all that. I didn’t really understand why the song was funny or how I’d missed it, being someone that had been into this type of internet humour for some time, but doing some research on it not long after playing the song showed me the wonders of Strong Bad, and SBEmail. If you like internet humour then give SBEmail a go, Strong Bad is one of the funniest online villains of all time.

Anyway, Guitar Hero II picked up from what Guitar Hero started. In this game it was possible to play songs on bass guitar, and you could play co-op with a guitar and a bass player. One of the most important yet subtle changes to the game were the hammer ons and pull offs being much easier to do this time around. I’m not sure why it was difficult to do it in the original, but the change was thoroughly appreciated universally. Some new characters were added this time round, like Lars Umlaut, a Nordic death metal player, and Izzy Sparks, who represented the hair metal movement of the eighties. There were also three note chords, which were simply strummed by holding three of the five frets. Guitar Hero II’s soundtrack wasn’t as good as the original Guitar Hero’s, I mean there were some great additions like “Beast and the Harlot” by Avenged Sevenfold, “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath but on the whole there were a lot of songs that just didn’t feel belong, or weren’t as fun to play as others. In the original game there were songs that I wasn’t too fussed about, but they were fun to play and you could understand their inclusion into the game. Guitar Hero II didn’t always have songs that felt that way. Still, it was a solid effort, one I rate at ****1/4 stars.

The seventh generation consoles were starting to become the main force around this point, and if Guitar Hero was to keep remaining relevant they had to move onto the new consoles. Their first venture was to move Guitar Hero II to the Xbox 360, and they did this in April 2007. The PS3 and Wii don’t have this title in their collection. To mark this occasion, the makers made a special guitar controller for the Xbox 360 version, which was shaped like the Gibson Explorer, which was used by the likes of Clapton again, The Edge again, Billy Gibbons and Paul Stanley. This controller however was criticised as the base model was smaller than that of the PS2 controller, and was harder to hold therefore.
The Guitar Hero II controller, modelled after the Gibson Explorer.
In July 2007, the final Guitar Hero by Harmonix was released. This spinoff title, “Guitar Hero Rocks the 80s”, paid homage to many artists associated with the eighties. It was met with mixed reviews due to the soundtrack not being as good as the previous games, and also because it had fewer songs, yet was the same price as the other titles. I bought this myself, but soon sold it when I completed it, as it just wasn’t a very good set of songs, even from the eighties.

Some time between the release of “Guitar Hero II” and “Rocks the 80s”, Activision gained acquisition of RedOctane, and MTV Games bought Harmonix. They decided to release another sequel, and sought out Neversoft to develop it. The Guitar Hero series was an incredible mainstream machine by this point, and was on a high never experienced before. With the muscle of MTV, they were able to finally start using master recordings when available. With Neversoft they had an experienced and valued developer, who had given the world the Tony Hawks series. They built “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” from scratch, with their own designs and ideas behind the game.

The game was released in October in the US, and on November 23rd, 2007 here in the UK. With a massive 73 playable tracks, it was a huge collection of songs. They had some great tracks on the set, and many of them were master recordings, like “One” by Metallica, “The Number of the Beast” by Iron Maiden and “Paint it Black” by The Rolling Stones. The game was a huge project, much bigger than the other two games, and it had the feeling of a gaming giant about it. Playing “Guitar Hero III” and “Guitar Hero” were similar experiences, naturally, but there was a different feeling this time round. Playing “Guitar Hero” back was like going back to an old house you moved away from, which was smaller than your current house. “Guitar Hero III” had many pros and many cons. On the whole, I’d say this is probably my favourite title in the series, just because there are so many excellent songs on the track listing. At this point I was able to play many songs on “Expert” and the third in the series is most certainly the most difficult game. They really put all their efforts to testing the hardcore Guitar Hero gamers to the max, “One”, “Number of the Beast” were incredibly difficult songs to play. But it was one of the additional features that made the game so difficult.
Slash makes an appearance in the 3rd game, he also featured heavily in the games marketing and artwork
The main inclusion for “Guitar Hero III” was the new battle feature, which was available in two-player as well as in the main storyline. In this game, the idea is that star power is replaced by battle power ups, which are used to hinder your opponents ability to play the song successfully, like crank the difficulty, or make one of the frets disabled temporarily. This battle feature, as mentioned earlier, is used in the main storyline. In the main storyline there are two famous musicians, Slash and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. You must ‘battle’ them to progress. At the end of the game the final battle commences, against Lou the Devil. This battle is incredibly difficult. The song, a metal cover version of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (an incredible cover version may I add) is played, and playing against the Devil is just ridiculously difficult. It’s so difficult that personally, I’ve never beaten him on “Hard” mode; it’s only one of two songs that I can’t beat on that difficulty in the entire series. The other song? Oh, that’s in this game too. When you beat the game, you unlock the hardest song in all of the Guitar Hero games, “Through the Fire and Flames” by DragonForce. The song, when done on Expert, has nearly 4000 notes in it, and is eight minutes long. Having scoured YouTube, it looks like the first evidence of someone actually completing the song with 100% of the notes is in this video below, which was put on YouTube on June 3rd, 2008, eight months after the game was released. The guy has a rival now, and the two have been trading records for the most points in the song. Me? As I said, I can’t even beat it on “Hard”!
So, one of the pros for the game is that it has a huge selection of great tracks. Another pro is that the design of the game and its characters was definitely an improvement. The cons? Well, I said there were many great tracks to play, but this title definitely has many duds as well. Because there are a total of 73 tracks, there are definitely songs on the game that haven’t really got much justice to be on there. None more so than “When You Were Young” by The Killers. I’m not saying it’s a bad song, but when this game is called “Guitar Hero”, and the entirety of the first verse has NO guitar in it at all, it shouldn’t be in this game. You’re just sitting (or standing there), for an entire verse, with no game play at all. It’s stupid. A similar experience also occurs in “Miss Murder” by AFI. These songs just shouldn’t be on this game. Another con was the difficulty of the game, as I said earlier, the game was definitely aimed at the more skilled Guitar Hero fans but they didn’t really make the game that accessible to new players. The beautiful learning curve of the original Guitar Hero was definitely gone by now. But the biggest con in this game is all the plugging and advertisement in the game. It takes about 90 seconds in the beginning of the game for all the companies, and there is a lot in the game too, none less than the stupid “bom chicka wow wow” girls. Nevertheless, this was a solid entry, and the pros definitely outweighed the cons, and I’d give the game ****1/2 stars again, as I said, I usually play this entry over any other.

I call this part The Rise of Guitar Hero. Tomorrow I’ll be back with The Fall of Guitar Hero. I hope you’ve enjoyed this half of the story and I hope you come back tomorrow with the second part. On Wednesday I’ll be putting up my favourite songs to play. I hope to see you back here tomorrow pronto! Have a good night.

Here's part two of "The Rise and Fall of Guitar Hero"!

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  1. Haha, you're telling me to get a life when you're trolling on people's personal websites? Ditto my friend. =)

  2. Nah, I only came here because you're spamming LFC's forums with this tosh. I would never go out of my way to find such a crap blogsite to begin with.

    Oh yeah, stop advertising yourself.

  3. 30,000 page views suggests that my work isn't 'tosh'. And as for advertising, I have permission from the moderators to post my work, as long as I'm discrete enough with it. I don't 'spam' my work, I post it once and if people show interest, which they do, they can view it. If they aren't interested, that's fine. If you don't advertise your work then you'll get no where. Just like you get no where with trolling all the time. Have a good day, fellow Liverpool fan! =)

  4. Well if you want more page views then maybe you should try to search engine optimize your site. As of right now most of your traffic is coming from trolls (me) and people who read your ads. 30000 views over how many years? Please. If you want more hits:

    1. Get your own domain and hosting service.
    2. Legitimately advertise and get Google Adsense
    3. Search engine optimization
    4. More content.
    5. Shorter articles. No one will read this megalithic essay.
    6. Design

  5. wooooow anonymous, you're a hard arse aren't you. Seriously, he's my husband, he has plenty of a life with me and our daughter, he also has a hobby which is writing for his blog, like millions of other people do, he happens to be really good at what he does. I wonder what you do with your life, go on the LFC forums, click on links and spam them perhaps.. anonymously of course, actually putting a name or face down would be unthinkable because then people would actually know what the troll looks like. Tosser. You get a life, find something you enjoy, John really enjoys writing, leave him too it for christ sake. I can't expect everyone to like what he does but seriously, piss off unless you've got something constructive to say or do, why don't you take your own advice and get a life.

  6. Thanks for your kind words, ma'am. It's nice to see a family bonding over banter on the Internet.

  7. nope, its about family standing up for each other :) banter - because acting like a prick needs a new less offensive name :P