A Eulogy For Guitar Hero: The Day the (Plastic) Music Died

A wise man once said that it’s far better to burn out than fade away. Apparently Activision agreed with the sentiment, as after a bit more than five years of rapid-fire releases, the company has shuttered the Guitar Hero franchise. Just 40 months ago the music gaming business was at its absolute peak – Guitar Hero III sold roughly 2.45 bazillion copies across a half-dozen platforms – but now the series is in complete shambles, what with the latest installment releasing with the authority of a farting ant. This legendary tumble from grace is no doubt why the company canceled the forthcoming Guitar Hero 7 and put the entire series on hold, perhaps permanently. Rather than harp on all that went wrong and led to its untimely demise, let’s discuss what went right – and what the future may hold if Activision dares to bring the music back.

When wired guitars and terrible covers were a-okay!
Activision hasn’t always been in charge of Guitar Hero – in fact, the origins of the franchise could easily be compared to a young band rising from obscurity and “selling out” when someone noticed their talent. The original GH was the concept of Red Octane, a company more known for their heavy-duty Dance Dance Revolution dance mats than real gaming software. However, their partner for the project ended up being Harmonix, a Boston-based studio known for their excellent music games for the PlayStation 2. The concept was simple – effectively the duo made a western version of Guitar Freaks, a Konami Bemani franchise that the company never bothered to release outside Japan.

Looking back now, Guitar Hero is absolutely terrible – the covers are occasionally painful, the song selection is lighter than any of the future Guitar Hero games that got lambasted for having tiny set lists, and man, who uses a wired guitar in 2011? Back in 2005 though… that stuff was a revelation. The small selection of tracks was balanced out by the affordable price; $70 for the guitar and game was only $20 more than most PS2 releases at the time. After Guitar Hero became a cult hit, Activision stepped in and purchased Red Octane, and the birth of a monster was underway.

When wireless controllers and mostly master tracks were en vogue!
After Guitar Hero II, original developer Harmonix was acquired by Viacom, leaving Kotick’s Krew without anyone to make Guitar Hero III. HMX completed the Rocks the 80s disc in early 2007, and also polished off the Xbox 360 conversion of GHII (which also used a wired controller since Microsoft was way too concerned with the secrecy of their wireless technology at the time), but after that the company went to work on Rock Band. To counter them, Activision placed the series in the hands of Neversoft, a company who had just helped run the Tony Hawk series into the ground. But I digress. Anyway, though Harmonix was off doing their own thing, Guitar Hero III introduced two things that catapulted the genre into the modern era – an iconic wireless guitar designed around the legendary Les Paul, and an influx of original master tracks. While Guitar Hero III had plenty of covers for older songs, almost everything else was original, giving the game a huge shot of authenticity. Though Rock Band became the darling of everyone, Guitar Hero III ultimately sold over ten million copies, making it one of the best selling video games in the history of video games.

This unprecedented success is what eventually led to the death of the series – Activision went into Super Milk Mode. However, we’re not going to harp upon that subject, as it’s been milked (ha!) by others in hundreds of other articles. Irony kids, it’s fun! Instead, let’s talk about the cool stuff Guitar Hero brought to the game. For instance, the plastic guitar released with 2008’s Guitar Hero: World Tour and refined in Guitar Hero 5 became the de-facto instrument of choice for almost everyone who plays either GH or Rock Band, thanks to its larger form factor, responsive buttons, sturdy strum bar, and that huge “star power” button that can be activated with your palm (a must if you’ve ever suffered through Power Gig: Rise of the Six String, since it has no support for tilting), and lengthy battery life. Also, the later introduction of challenges, especially with Warriors of Rock, gives the game some excellent replay value and a reason to keep playing songs multiple times. Most importantly, Guitar Hero games have brought us some great music that can’t be found in Rock Band – are “Thunderkiss ’65” and “Freya” available in RB? No? I guess that just proves how awesome Guitar Hero can be.

When music games might be cool again and even may still have original masters!
Though Activision canned the 2011 installment, they didn’t outright say Guitar Hero would never return. The question is.. how could it return in a way that wouldn’t drag out the same old problems? Obviously it wouldn’t be any good to release another $200 package with instruments – it’s one of the reasons why the series has been shelved. They can’t release a low-budget game with only covers like the original Guitar Hero – it would seem cheap even if it would give the game profitability, something that put the series in this position. The easiest answer would be somewhere in the downloadable space, as a DLC-driven project. Call it Guitar Hero Arcade.

A few years back Harmonix released Rock Band Unplugged Lite, a $5 platform that was designed purely as an engine for the suite of downloadable songs that they released on PSP. Why couldn’t Activision do the same thing with Guitar Hero? They already have the engine from Warriors of Rock and a ton of downloadable songs, along with whatever they’ve allowed us to import from previous games. Right there means there’s a huge back catalog of music that could be accessed with just the core framework of a downloadable GH title. Price it for $5 or $10, support it with occasional (and hopefully profitable) new downloadable songs (that would still be compatible with Warriors of Rock), and at the very least they’ll satisfy the remaining base of Guitar Hero fans.

In Memoriam
Guitar Hero shined very bright for a very short period of time, and though it became irrelevant almost as quickly as Vanilla Ice, it remains a hugely influential series even if it’s going away for now. You don’t sell 10 million copies of a game and not remain important in some fashion – even if it’s a cautionary tale about the repercussions of releasing too many entries in a series before people got tired of it. I know Activision likely saw a limited shelf life for Guitar Hero, which led to exploring it for all it was worth, but perhaps things might have been different if they had spaced out their releases and relied upon downloadable songs in the same fashion as Rock Band. Sure, their competition isn’t doing much better, but they’re still in the business of music games despite the hard times – that has to count for something. Regardless, music game fans should mourn the loss of a franchise that gave birth to the modern rhythm gaming movement, and not worry too much about the reasons for its demise.

And pour one out for DJ Hero as well – collateral damage is always a sad sight.

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