January 31, 2006

Guitar Hero

by peterb

When we discuss the weblog with our friends, psu and I have a running joke. It's something along the lines of "Hey, man. We can gripe for 500 words about anything."

I haven't been griping much lately, because I've been too busy playing Guitar Hero.

Let me just get this out of the way: yes, Guitar Hero really is that good. If you own a Playstation 2, and you haven't yet picked up this game, you should put down the computer, drive to your local game store, and buy it. Today. Right now. You'll thank me. It might be the best $70 you'll spend this year.

I didn't expect to have this reaction to the game. At its heart, Guitar Hero is "just another rhythm game," like Samba de Amigo, or Dance Dance Revolution. I find most of these games to be "cute," but not terribly compelling. Guitar Hero is compelling.

The centerpiece of the game is the custom controller, shaped like a small guitar (or a large ukelele). Along the neck of the guitar are five colored buttons ("fret buttons") that you hold to choose what notes will be played. On the body is a single "strumming" button that can be moved up or down. Also on the body is a whammy bar that modulates the note being played.

The actual game is straightforward: notes fall toward you, and you need to hold the correct fret button (or buttons) and "strum" at the right time. Hit all the notes and the audience will cheer more and your score will go up. Miss enough notes, and you'll get booed off the stage. In addition to the standard controls, inside the guitar is a tilt sensor. At certain times during the game, you can lift the neck of the guitar up to the ceiling, and the audience will go wild and your score is multiplied.

Where the game shines is in its feedback loop. The guitar soundtrack is fairly tightly coupled to the buttons you are hitting. If you miss a button (or hit the wrong one), the guitar track will cut out until you get the next note right. The psychological impact of this can't really be overstated. While playing the game, my main motivation isn't explicitly to get a high score, but to just keep the song sounding good.

The other aspect of the game is that the "easy" level really isn't. The first levels of most rhythm games tend to be insultingly easy. Guitar Hero starts off at a respectable pace, and I haven't yet seen someone who got a perfect score on their first runthrough of any given song, even on the easiest level.

The combined effect of these two factors — the feedback loop, and the difficulty level — is that Guitar Hero manages to succesfully deliver the sustained illusion that you know how to play guitar, even though you don't. On a rational level, I know that even the simplest guitar licks are beyond my abilities. But when I make a respectable showing on Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out," on Hard, that is forgotten. The lizard part of my brain, Thog, tells the rational part to shut up and go drink more stupid chamomile tea. Thog know how to play guitar. Thog can rock out.

Reinforcing this is the fact that a number of semi-real guitar principles apply to playing the custom controller. You don't have to release a lower fret when playing a higher fret. You can hammer on and pull off notes. The side-effect of playing this game is that you will suddenly have more respect for real guitarists, when you realize how hard it is to "play" difficult songs with a mere five buttons and one "string."

The stiff difficulty of the game also allows you to improve with surprising rapidity. When I first started playing, I peeked at a few songs on "Expert" level, and they seemed like some sort of cruel joke. Now, although still far out of my reach — I'm working my way through the "Medium" level, with the occasional foray into "Hard" — they just look difficult, but not actually impossible.

The selection of music in the game is fairly varied. It's obviously slanted towards arena rock and heavy metal. There are 30 covers of songs by bands you've actually heard of. Out of these 30 songs, I'd say I actually like perhaps 7. Even though I don't like the other 23, they still "work" in the context of a guitar game. And that's OK — I can still like playing "Bark at the Moon even if I don't like listening to it. You can find a complete track listing here, along with samples. There are also 17 (unlockable) tracks by independent bands that range from atrocious to nifty.

I guess I should be glad, really, that this isn't an Xbox game, because I'm pretty sure that if I could pay to download more songs on Xbox Live, I'd be broke right about now.

A lot of work went in to the motion-capture for the avatars in your virtual band, but as in all games of this type, it's sort of lost on the person playing the game. At least when I play, my eyes are glued firmly to the notes coming at me. The caricature rockers are fun, but will mostly be enjoyed by spectators, not players.

You simply can't get an idea of the game from hearing me talk about it, although you can sort of get the gist from watching videos of people playing. In the end, you simply need to trust me on this: stop what you're doing, and go get the game, and you will be a happier person. You will feel stupid walking through Best Buy holding a huge box with a guitar and flames on it. If, like me, you're old, you'll feel stupid as teenage girls laugh at you on the checkout line. If you live with someone, you will feel stupid when you walk in the house and explain what it is you just purchased. And then the moment you actually start playing your first round, you will forget all of that and feel smarter than all of the people who are having less fun than you because they're doing something boring and stupid, while you get to play Guitar Hero.

Bill from Dubious Quality calls it an antidepressant in the form of a plastic guitar. That's about the size of it.

Posted by peterb at January 31, 2006 06:35 PM | Bookmark This

That track list is awesome! Well over half of them completely kick-ass... Motorhead!

I don't have a PS2, and I rarely play games, but I think I might have to look into this. I bet one of my XBox360 owning friends has a PS2 collecting dust.

Posted by Mark Denovich at January 31, 2006 09:07 PM

As a guitarist, I'd be interested to hear how a guitarist relates to playing it ... I've not seen it or played it myself, but it sounds like the Wiggles guitar (for ages 2 - 5) you can buy from your local toy store. Except the Wiggles guitar comes with actual sheet music (at least the one I got for my cousin did). I'd be much more

I also wonder, all that effort to master Guitar Hero could have been put into (and this may be a heretical idea) LEARNING THE GUITAR.

Posted by Paul at January 31, 2006 09:56 PM

Yes, but the key aspect here, that maybe I haven't communicated is that I _don't enjoy learning to play the guitar_, but I _enjoy learning to play Guitar Hero_.

Posted by peterb at January 31, 2006 10:09 PM

Thats fair enough, they are different things, this is a game, with short term goals and rewards, and though they are both about building skills, what you are trying to achieve are two different things.

I just wonder, as a guitarist, whether I could seperate the fact that I'm playing a game, rather than playing the guitar. Perhaps professional dancers have the same thing about DDR. :) I'd be keen to give it a go, especially after reading yours (and others) reviews.

Posted by Paul at January 31, 2006 10:41 PM

I suddenly visualize reaching the end of a _Prince of Persia_ game,
switching off the Playstation, stepping outside, and being collared
by an irate gymnast who wants to know why I didn't spend all that time
*learning to perform on the uneven parallel bars*.

No, no, it's just me. Really.

(I have not actually tried playing Guitar Hero.)

Posted by Andrew Plotkin at February 1, 2006 12:20 AM

Andrew - heheheh good point. I hope all my time playing street fighter/doom/Civ/etc never comes to haunt me... perhaps using caps in my comment was a mistake, as I was trying to lend it an amusing tone, but obviously failed miserably.

Posted by Paul at February 1, 2006 12:48 AM


You can forget. I play bass and a little guitar. What Guitar Hero basically does is deliver a diluted version of an onstage experience, and the controller is only a part of that. The parallels are enough that you will enjoy playing it as a "simple" guitar, and you won't feel any particular cognitive dissonance. The experience is every bit as good as everyone says, even for musicians.

Also, I actually do know professional dancers who play DDR for fun.

Posted by Thomas at February 1, 2006 07:25 AM

I like electronic music and hate guitar oriented music. I actually really, really, really, really enjoyed frequency -- it has many of the same advantages you describe but much better music, to my tastes. Give it a shot if you haven't.

Posted by daw at February 1, 2006 02:51 PM

I know you're tired of my bitching about international release lag, but we don't get Guitar Hero until April 7th. :(

I'm just delighted to hear people saying nice things about custom controllers! Sega Bass Fishing was slammed by many, but played with the fishing controller it was perhaps the single greatest game on the Dreamcast (I'd rate it above Jet Set Radio, which I loved to bits - that's Jet Grind Radio for you unlucky US people who got the rubbish name!) I say this having introduced the game to dozens of people (back when the Dreamcast was still alive) all of whom couldn't believe how much they enjoyed playing it. Even a vegan friend of mine fell in love with it. :)

This makes we want to post some Sega Bass Fishing slush. *sigh* Memories. :)

Posted by Chris at February 2, 2006 03:11 AM

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