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RETROSPECTIVE: Guitar Hero

Ben Parfitt
RETROSPECTIVE: Guitar Hero

I've been a gamer for effectively as long as I remember. My first memories stray back as far as the early '80s when my parents purchased an Atari 2600. I remember watching them take turns at Pac-Man, and can picture quite clearly the look of irritation on my dad's face as he died in under a minute and was forced to wait for anything up to 30 minutes for my mum to do the same. The game didn't have co-op.

Throughout those 30 years I can identify what i think are ten key moments that have engraved themselves in my memory and cemented my love for gaming.

The first was in 1986 when I was lucky enough to receive a NES for Christmas. Loading up Super Mario Bros in my home, on the dining room table – it was a magical feeling. Six years later I saved up enough money to buy myself a Super Nintendo. I can still remember the giddy childish excitement the first time I loaded up Super Mario World. Until then all I knew of it were gloriously tantalising snapshots I'd seen in magazines. This was before the internet, before trailers and before spoilers. It was a glorious feeling.

Next up - the first Tomb Raider, second level (if I recall correctly). I'd just made a leap of faith off a huge waterfall, I was in a cave. Then there was a noise. Thumping. Intermittent at first, then picking up pace. Could it be? I turned around. Yes, it was. A T-Rex. A huge, living, 3D T-Rex. And it wanted to eat me. 3D gaming had finally arrived, and I knew gaming would never be able to go back.

Then I remember returning home from living in Sri Lanka for six months and visiting a friend who had recently bought a PS2. In the space of a couple of hours I was treated to Gran Turismo 3, Grand Theft Auto III and Pro Evolution Soccer. It was like a whole new world had opened up. By the end of the week I'd bought my own machine. I clearly recall the astonishment I felt watching the opening credits to GT3. It was a world away from my pre-uni gaming.

In the years that followed I was moved by my first experience of Rez, touched by the conclusion of Panzer Dragoon Saga, exhilarated by an epic Big Team Battle encounter on Halo 2's Waterworks map and moved to tears by Heavy Rain.

I was technologically astonished when Seaman accused me of being lazy when he asked me what the most important invention ever created was and I answered "the remote control". He actually understands me!

But right up there alongside all of those moments was my first taste of Guitar Hero. Now, I'm no rock music fan. The dance tracks of both Frequency and Amplitude – two of my all-time favourite games – were far more up my street.

But I clearly remember my excitement as industry legend and then Activision PR guru Simon Byron sent me a press copy of Guitar Hero along with one of the guitars. Playing it that night, rocking out the crowd, realising it responded to me pointing the guitar toward the ceiling – that was a special moment.

It's easy to dismiss such nostalgia, but it's our emotional connection to our hobby that makes gaming what it is. Perhaps that's why the reaction to the scrapping of Guitar Hero last night struck such a chord with so many people.

Along with the likes of the EyeToy, SingStar and the Wii, Guitar Hero has been one of the power brands that has grown gaming beyond the world of fanboy playground kids and to a wider, potentially all-encompassing audience.

That such an incredibly important IP can come to such a whimpering conclusion as an aside in a quarterly financial press release is a kick in the guts. How and why it happened will be debated for years.

But in the mean time, let's look back at the complete history of the series:

--TIMELINE--

Guitar Hero - PS2 (June 2005)
Developer: Harmonix
Publisher: RedOctane
Created from partnership between Red Octane and Harmonix (the studio behind Frequency and Amplitude), Guitar Hero opened up console gaming to a whole new market. The removal of the joypad and substitution of what was actually a reasonably realistic guitar peripheral was, put simply, a stroke of genius. The game sold over 1.5m copies.

Guitar Hero II - PS2 (Nov 2006)
Developer: Harmonix
Publisher: Red Octane, Activision
A little over a year after the first game, the sequel boasted improved multiplayer and more tracks. It was later released on Xbox 360 in August 2007 and went on to sell double the number of units of the first game.

In 2007 Red Octane was acquired by Activision, who in turn won the rights to the Guitar Hero brand, thus setting the still potentially huge series in a brand new direction. It was at that point that Tony Hawk creators Neversoft took over from rhythm-action masters Harmonix, who were eventually purchased by MTV Games and went on to make Rock Band.

Guitar Hero Encore: Rock the '80s (Aug 2007)

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock - PS2, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii (Oct 2007)
Developer: Neversoft, Vicarious Visions, Budcat, Aspyr Media
Publisher: Activision
The first proper multi-platform explosion for the series, which also introduced wireless guitars for the first time – a move that significantly increased the immersion of the title. The oh-so-pricey licensing efforts were also ramped up, with the game now including the likenesses of Slash and Tom Morello.

From this point on we see a significant increase in the rate at which SKUs are released. Up until now there had been four games in three years. From this point there were 14 titles released in 28 months.

Guitar Hero: On Tour - DS (June 2008)
Developer: Vicarious Visions
Publisher: Activision
The series for the first time spreads to handheld, using an attachment that slotted into the DS' GBA cartridge slot. Notably the game was not compatible with the soon to be announced DSi.

Guitar Hero: Aerosmith (June 2008)

Guitar Hero: World Tour - PS2, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii (Oct 2008)

Developer: Neversoft, Vicarious Visions, Budcat, Aspyr
Publisher: Activision
In this post-Rock Band era, this instalment introduced instruments for the first time adding a microphone and drums, as well as the capacity to play bass guitar as well as standard guitar. Many stars featured in the title including Jimi Hendrix, Sting, Ozzy Osbourne and Billy Corgan.

Guitar Hero On Tour: Decades (Nov 2008)

Guitar Hero: Metallica (Mar 2009)

Guitar Hero: Greatest Hits (Jun 2009)

Guitar Hero On Tour: Modern Hits (Jun 2009)

Guitar Hero 5 - PS2, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii (Sep 2009)
Developer: Neversoft, Vicarious Visions, Budcat
Publisher: Activision
Activision upped the song count once again, as well as introducing a range of new game modes. But the series, along with the genre as a whole, was already struggling and serious questions were being asked of the consumer appetite for an endless stream of very expensive peripherals. The series was now making money digitally through DLC, though it transpires that licensing costs meant profit from the business remained minimal.

DJ Hero - PS2, PS3, Xbox 360 (Oct 2009)
Developer: FreeeStyleGames
Publisher: Activision
The 'Hero' brand branches out with a brand new IP based on dance music. The popular guitar accessory was replaced with a very usable mock-turntable, and numerous dance and hip-hop stars were hired to support the game. DJ Hero was a critical success but never succeeded in transferring this into strong sales.

Band Hero - PS2, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii (Nov 2009)
Developer: Neversoft, Vicarious Visions, Budcat
Publisher: Activision
The brand takes another excursion, this time trying to tap into a younger audience with a more pop-friendly playlist and accessible presentation style. However, the coupling of a younger target market and expensive peripherals was never a huge success, and some staunch defenders of the series saw it as an unwelcome deviation from the IP's core audience.

Band Hero: DS Lite (Nov 2009)

Guitar Hero: Van Halen (Dec 2009)

Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock - PS3, Xbox 360, Wii (Sep 2010)
Developer: Neversoft, Vicarious Visions
Publisher: Activision
A stronger focus on rock is introduced, arguably alienating a chunk of the game's fan base. The move came at a time when rival Rock Band was diversifying into other genres and the overall success of rock in the wider music market was in decline. Could the game tap into rock's ageing fan base? Seemingly not. It's a decline that the series would never really recover from.

 

DJ Hero 2 - PS3, Xbox 360, Wii (Oct 2010)
Developer: FreeeStyleGames
Publisher: Activision

Guitar Hero 7 and DJ Hero 3 have both been cancelled and the Guitar Hero business unit is disbanded.

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Tags: Activision , Opinion , guitar hero , series , retrospective , timeline

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