Earlier today, in a stark series of missives notable for containing even less warmth and humanity than usual, Activision Blizzard announced the cancellation of their newest Guitar Hero game. The unnamed sequel was planned for a 2011 release, but it and the Guitar Hero team itself appear to have been liquidated completely, suggesting an abrupt end for the storied franchise.
Over the last few years, I have not been particularly quiet about my contempt for Activision Blizzard, nor the repellent and soulless Guitar Hero entries they’ve been churning out since buying the franchise off of Harmonix. That said, I’m surprised to find myself a little hurt by this news. It could just be that I was listening to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” when I read the story (which, I guess, is a bit apropos), but I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry to see it die, even if it has been ten games since the last good one. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like wax nostalgic for a bit.
Although it really does seem like at least a decade by now, it was only five years ago that we all bought the first Guitar Hero for PS2. But, then again, we didn’t all buy it, did we? It was kind of underground for a little while there. It’s strange to think of it like that now–that for at least a few months, it was a cult thing, and only a handful of gamers knew its many splendors. I was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor.
I remember reading a favorable review for Guitar Hero in a magazine somewhere after hearing indistinct rumblings on the Internet about how great it was. I kind of brushed off the buzz and didn’t really give the concept much thought–seemed kind of silly, didn’t it? Plastic guitars? But then when I read that review…I don’t remember the text or even where I read it, but I very clearly recall the chills it gave me. The idea of it–the idea that I could…honest to God…rock…IN a VIDEO GAME hit me like a fucking car. I’d been playing games for my entire life, but this was a chance for an entirely new satisfaction that I didn’t understand or even know that I WANTED until that very moment. I had to experience it.
I tried a couple stores but quickly found that neither RedOctane nor the retailers had expected these little toy guitars to awaken the beast within quite so many gamers, and it was sold out. After accepting that I was probably going to have to wait a while to secure it, a buddy and I decided to wander through a GameStop just because we were bored that particular day. It turned out that, quite unexpectedly, they had two copies of Guitar Hero still sitting around. I snapped one up, and with my bewildered friend in tow, we took it back to his place and plugged it in. Within about five minutes, we were back in the car again so that he could get the other one.
Playing that first game, awkward fingers aching as I struggled with the yellow and blue buttons, I was getting that new something that I caught a whiff of while reading the review. I was being engaged and entertained by a video game in a way that I had never even considered before. Not only was I fucking rocking out, but I was being taught something tangible, developing a new skill that was constantly being evaluated and scored in real time.
But so what, right? That describes most games when you get down to it. Every fighting, sports, racing or, you know, even most action or arcade games will make you get better at them in ways they quantify with points, and probably follow a logical progression of difficulty. And it certainly wasn’t even the first game of its kind. God knows, savants everywhere had been living this transcendency on DDR pads for years before this epiphany of mine–but that’s just it, it was new to me. I’d never had a game engage me like this before.
Those early days were great fun. My friends and I were all learning this crazy game simultaneously, all roughly equal in skill. Passing the controller around, impressing each other by dominating “Bark at the Moon” on medium. Medium! Soon, though, my devotion to faux rocking overtook my more casually playing chums. The promise of immortality waiting just behind the word “Expert” on the difficulty screen was all the motivation I needed. I played the fuck out of this game, doing ridiculous things like drilling the intro to “Cowboys from Hell” over and over until it was muscle memory. Eventually, I ended up creating a gulf in skill between myself and others, and to this day, I don’t personally know anyone who is better.
And yeah, that probably sounds pretty arrogant, but I think I’ve earned it. As you’ve probably figured out, I play a fair bit of video games. Seasoned though I am, however, I have never taken them seriously in a competitive way. I’m not sure whether it’s a cause or result of my propensity for single-player, story-driven games, but I am not good at racing games, not good at fighting games (aside from Smash Bros., sometimes), not good at sports games, and not good at RTS…but I can shred plastic guitar like a motherfucker.
I guess I’ve just never wanted to put in the time to learn how to be the best at all those other kinds of games. It’s not worth it to me if all I’m going to use that skill for is beating other people in an arbitrary contest. I don’t really care about that. But with Guitar Hero, I was learning something that almost resembled something real and cool and useful. In the years since mastering it in 2006, I could only get a bit of this feeling back with the steady difficulty increases in subsequent entries in the series. I’d only feel it again for real with Rock Band on drums (now my overall instrument of choice) and keyboard (working on it). But that’s another whole overlong, overly-personal entry for another day–probably not far off I’m guessing–when they pull the plug on that wonderful series, too.
And I’m sure there’s someone out there that thinks I’m an idiot and that these games are stupid because they play a REAL guitar and maybe if I’d spent my time learning a six-string I’d be almost as cool as them. Well, to this fictional externalization of my own insecurity I would say that, in all seriousness, Guitar Hero has done a lot for me. As a direct result of playing the first game, I was introduced to (and was invited to analyze as I pretend-played along with) a lot of bands that I hadn’t had the chance to hear before. Fascinated with learning about new music, I started taking rock history, world music and piano courses in college, bought a drumset, then a guitar, and eventually a bass, and continue to explore the writing, playing and history of music to this day. I had certainly loved music before, and had some experience performing (lots of years of band and choir in school), but I kind of always felt like I was on the outside of it, and it felt more like homework than something I loved doing. Guitar Hero managed to mix music with my favorite pasttime and provided an avenue for me to participate in a satisfying and fun way without the mountainous intimidation of learning an real instrument.
…and, on top of all that, it actually got me a girlfriend once, believe it or not.
So, although Guitar Hero’s creators ended up selling the franchise to evil men who promptly drove it and the entire genre it sired into an early and undeserved grave, I will always remember the first games fondly. Even more than just entertaining me, they actually ended up positively affecting my personal growth, and that’s not something I can say about most games.
Guitar Hero gets the honored Big Boss Salute.