When Guitar Hero went wrong…


Ok I know Chella discussed this last week, and did a very good job at it too, but as a music game aficionado, it would make sense for me to give my own opinion on what happened last week.

Yes, the era of Guitar Hero is now over. Activision has canned several franchises over the past few weeks, but the final straw for the Kotick empire was to bring the original US rock game to a screeching halt. Not only are any future games cancelled, but after the end of February, there will no longer be any future Guitar Hero DLC for purchase.

That alone pretty much is the kiss of death for any music game franchise. Games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band thrive, and even survive, by providing new songs for players to enjoy, and to kill it off altogether is like cutting off life support.

But is that where Guitar Hero failed? Well it was the start. In fact, let’s go back through the game’s history. Guitar music games were around before Guitar Hero, in the form of Konami’s Guitar Freaks series.

However, due to licensing issues, the series could not be brought over to the US. That was where RedOctane (not Activision) came in. They released Guitar Hero independently in 2005 and it was a runaway hit. Granted the songs were all cover versions, but they were pretty close to the original, and the game was just plain fun. It was the start of a new era.

It was a new era that Activision would eventually get their paws on the year after, when they purchased RedOctane and published Guitar Hero II. Sure it was more of the same, but it was still fun, and a great swan song in the GH franchise for original developers Harmonix.

Oh wait, they also did the Rocks the 80s spinoff disc.

Of course we all know where Harmonix went next, and we will eventually get to that. But Activision had another development team ready to take over, one that I never thought would pull it off…Neversoft. After all, what were these guys known for? That’s right, the Tony Hawk franchise! Much to my surprise though, despite feeling a little looser, and the note timing was a lot more lenient than the Harmonix games, it played like the Guitar Hero I grew up with, and yes, it was what introduced me to DragonForce!

However, Guitar Hero III would for the first time face some tough competition, from their old partners at Harmonix. Rock Band came out and took what they knew in Guitar Hero and not only made it better, including adding drums and vocals, but also took the extra effort to use original studio masters for a majority of their songs. Sure Guitar Hero was heading this way too, but there were still too many covers in the mix, even if Bret Michaels provided lyrics for Talk Dirty To Me.

At the time, Harmonix started to provide weekly downloadable content for Rock Band, while Guitar Hero fans were stuck with only the songs they had on their disc. Activision came up with their own idea for more songs, but again it was in disc format, called Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. It did add 41 more songs to a GH fan’s collection, but still it was another disc.

Later that fall, that’s when things really started to change. Both Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero: World Tour were released. Sad to say, but this is where I felt that Guitar Hero started to jump the shark, as it attempted to mock the success of Rock Band.

Sadly the band aspect didn’t work out as well as it did in Harmonix’s effort, and I ended up just going back to playing guitar only. Sure there were some good additions, such as an all master track list (even the box said "no covers!") It featured actual artists (including a dead on representation of Ozzy Osbourne,) and the ability to create your own songs and upload them on GHTunes. It was also the first game in the series to offer extra songs as DLC on a regular basis. Yes there were some songs on GH III, but not as much as when World Tour came out. But still, it had Hotel California, which I can never forgive considering how much I hate that song. Even more, Rock Band 2 did something that helped music fans out a lot, allowing players to import a majority of songs from Rock Band 1 for a small $5 fee.

The year 2009 saw both companies going in opposite directions. While Harmonix took a year off from full releases (with the exception of the standalone Beatles: Rock Band and its exclusive DLC) Activision milked their Guitar Hero franchise for what it could. It started off well with the surprisingly good Guitar Hero: Metallica (and from someone like myself who says that Metallica sold out after the Black album, that praise goes double.) Then there was Smash Hits that following summer, as well as GH: Van Halen (rated as the worst of the series,) Band Hero, DJ Hero, and of course, Guitar Hero 5.

Where do I begin with Guitar Hero 5? While I know others who loved it, I thought it was just "ok." The soundtrack was all over the place, featuring a lot of songs I never even heard of before. The visuals suffered a hit in the frame rate (30 compared to the previous games’ 60) and of course there were the controversies over using Kurt Cobain as an avatar to play any songs, not just those from Nirvana. I’m sure Courtney Love is still throwing a fit over that one. Oh well, at least GH5 allowed songs from World Tour and Band Hero to be transferred over, in addition to any DLC.

And then there was last year. Warriors of Rock came out. Again I thought it was just "ok," but maybe a little better than GH5. The soundtrack was more consistent, but my biggest problem was there were way too many live tracks and re-recordings, some of which were absolutely awful. Twisted Sister’s remake of We’re Not Going to Take It is actually worse than the cover version that David Arquette used when he wrestled in WCW, and that’s saying a lot! In addition, the whole role playing element felt gimmicky and in the end made the gameplay uneven.

However, I did enjoy playing through all seven segments of Rush’s 2112, and all the narrations provided by the members of Rush themselves was worth the price of admission. But still, it was the same old thing that I played before. After finishing the first quest, I haven’t touched it again, and since the copy I played was on the Wii, I had no DLC to transfer over, as they were all on my 360.

But Harmonix? What did they do for Rock Band 3? Oh nothing, just revamped the song selection interface, added keyboards, offered pro instruments and a set list with songs that I have wanted to play for a long time. And of course, transferring a majority of Rock Band 2’s songs to make it the complete package. Rock Band 3 ended up receiving universal praise by critics (myself included,) while Warriors of Rock, despite us at GiN giving it a 5 Gem rating, fell to mixed reviews status, and poor sales showed that people were losing interest fast.

It wasn’t just the failing quality of Guitar Hero that made the series come to an end, but when you think of it, not just the Rock Band series hurt Guitar Hero, but add in all the "other ran" music games that came out at the time: Rock Revolution, Disney’s Ultimate Band, Rock of the Dead, and yes the critically panned Power Gig: Rise of the Six String. It was too much for anyone to take.

In the end, I think what would have really helped Guitar Hero thrive is maybe it should have taken a cue from Harmonix. Rather than printing out so many discs with songs that you might not want (such as myself with 5,) at least offer all of your songs as DLC. That way you can mix and match all the songs you actually do want to play, and pass on those you have no interest in. That’s the formula that Rock Band succeeds in; offering over 2,000 songs online published by both Harmonix and submissions on the Rock Band Network, and is still available now despite Viacom selling them.

Maybe then, they would have survived. But then again, there are rumors about a possible Guitar Hero reunion tour. Maybe they’ll team up with Harmonix again? That would make sense. Make Guitar Hero their entry level franchise, and then players can move on to Rock Band for a more professional experience. Hey, stranger things have happened before.

Currently Playing: (Not Contra) Hard Corps Uprising (360,) Gran Turismo 5 (PS3, YES I said PS3!) LittleBigPlanet 2 (PS3)

Waiting For: Killzone 3 (PS3)

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