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Long Live Rock: Diving Back Into Guitar Hero

Remember these?

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Don’t worry. I didn’t, either.

Rhythm games were the biggest thing in the entire industry from 2005-2009. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Guitar Hero wasn’t the first video game to incorporate music and rhythm into gameplay, but it was without a doubt the genre’s breakthrough.

The first Guitar Hero released in 2005. It wasn’t the juggernaut that it was destined to be– I remember its inconspicuous release– a far cry from the Call Of Duty-level of hype that accompanied the later titles. The song selection was limited as well, and most of them were covers (under the euphemism “as made famous by”). Guitar Hero 3 was the first time the series had enough resources to license the master tracks from a few of the actual artists. There was also stunt casting in the form of cameos from Slash, Tom Morello, and Bret Michaels.

Still, I devoured the first Guitar Hero. I sat up in my room, huddled around my tiny 15-inch TV and strapped on that red Gibson SG controller. I was raised on classic rock, so I was blown away when I could play along to Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Deep Purple. I was an introvert that finally got a taste of musical expression. Playing meant just clicking away on a plastic controller, but it felt amazingly cathartic for me. I’m a pretty active musician now, and I don’t underestimate Guitar Hero’s influence on that development.

My family dove into the fad just like I did. I’m the only gamer in the family, but my parents and step-brother loved Guitar Hero. They couldn’t care less about the nascent Mass Effect series or popping headshots in Halo 2. We played Guitar Hero together.

As we all know, Guitar Hero was joined by the fantastic Rock Band series and a flood of rip-offs (I’m looking at you, Rock of the Dead). Like a flash of stage pyrotechnics, the rhythm game bubble burst, the games and peripherals disappearing from store shelves.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I came home early for this Thanksgiving holiday and found those two guitars up above sitting in our spare room.

“Gamestop doesn’t sell these anymore,” my mother told me like it was breaking news.

The guitars were a pre-owned purchase from Ebay. Some kid even put the stickers on it just like I did to mine seven years ago. I wondered who had these controllers before us, the memories the previous owner made with the plastic guitars that I now owned.

A few hours later, my curiosity (and nostalgia) got the better of me. I slung that guitar around my shoulder and popped in the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero 2. I ran my fingers along the multi-colored fret buttons, remembering the divot on the yellow. It was all coming back to me.

I went to quickplay and there were only ten songs unlocked. Starting from scratch. Appropriately enough, I chose “Mother” as made famous by Danzig. It’s not my favorite song, but a good place to start. I plopped on the couch as the digital drummer counted me in.

Those first color-coded chords came careening towards me down the fretboard highway. Without a second thought, my fingers danced over to the right frets. I strummed, and the famous guitar riff came to life. After rocking my way through the intro, I was tapping my foot and singing along.

Then, the drums came in and the song exploded into the syncopated chorus.

I stood up, deployed my best rock and roll stance, and wailed on that plastic guitar. It felt amazing. It was a gameplay experience that had been so conspicuously absent from games recently. I can’t remember the last time a game made me leap off my couch, sing along to the soundtrack, and wiggle my hips like Elvis.

Later that night, my mother and I plugged in the second controller and took Guitar Hero Five for a spin. The jump to HD from Guitar Hero 2 was jarring, to say the least. The cartoony HUD and visuals of the SD Guitar Heroes were charming, humble, even. Reminiscent of the franchise’s modest beginnings, when it wasn’t all so serious.

Guitar Hero Five dumped us right into a round of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before we even saw a menu. The HUD was glossy and minimalist– downright barren after the cluttered chaos of Guitar Hero 2. It was interesting to see how the series responded to modern design sensibilities over the years. Every surface had that HD sheen, like it was still slick after a rain storm. It felt lifeless.

We went for multiplayer, and all the songs were already unlocked. Just another example of the modern and “party” atmosphere Guitar Hero 5 wanted to establish. The drop-in, drop-out multiplayer was a blast in high school though. That was also back when I thought these plastic instruments were going to replace DJs and live bands. Funny thought.

I perused the 80-plus songs, creating a playlist as I went. The songs and genres were much more varied in this entry. I was surprised to see they had Frampton’s live version of “Do You Feel Like We Do” in all its 11-minute glory. That’s a track that would’ve never been on the original Guitar Hero, for sure.

My mother cranked the TV and we headbanged through our custom setlist. It was loud, visceral. We cheered when I nailed a tough guitar lick. During the duet guitar parts, we stood back to back like we were on some giant stage in front of millions of people. I was having a great time, I realized. More importantly, I was having a great time playing a video game with my own mom. Anything that can overlap our wildly different hobbies is something to treasure, especially if that thing is a video game.

I sit here now, lamenting the death of rhythm games. They got too popular too fast, burned out in an oversaturated market and went the way of the Power Glove, the cartridge, the Tamagotchi. Even the fad that replaced rhythm games, motion control, hasn’t reclaimed the initial surge of popularity that surrounded the original Wii Sports.

Rhythm games like Guitar Hero brought people together. Just like playing real music, it’s a social experience that only gets better the more are participating. It’s a chance to pretend you’re a rockstar and listen to some good tunes. It’s a chance to bridge that gap between hardcore gamer and stubborn non-gamer who doesn’t know who Master Chief is.

Just like the four-player madness of Goldeneye couch co-op, some of my favorite gaming memories include jamming with an entire band in Guitar Hero. Rhythm games worked so well because they empowered people to express themselves musically. For a few brief and shining years, those high school parties I went to weren’t playing team slayer in Halo. They were giving awkward, shy kids like me a chance to shred on the guitar well enough to get that cute girl’s attention.

Even now, years later, Guitar Hero pulls itself from the grave and wanders back into my parent’s house. Each time we plug in those cheap plastic controllers, we all come a little closer, understand each other a little bit more. Isn’t that what this is all about in the first place?