How Guitar Hero Came to DS When Nobody Asked: Shack's Hands-on Preview and Interview

No one asked Vicarious Visions to make Guitar Hero for the Nintendo DS. No one at studio owner Activision, fellow Activision subsidiary RedOctane, or Nintendo believed it was even possible.

"People thought it was ludicrous," Vicarious CEO Karthik Bala told me at a Guitar Hero event earlier this week. "It was never in the plan to do that."

As Bala puts it, the whole thing came out of the Vicarious staff playing around to "see if it was even possible to do a really good music rhythm game on a handheld." Twenty-three prototypes and a few cardboard guitars later, a breakthrough came in the form of a "crazy Frankenstein GBA cartridge" wired with fret buttons.

Activision and RedOctane thought it was insane. And when the first prototype was presented to Nintendo, Bala says they were stunned.

But the really, really amazing part? For all the unwieldy-looking peripherals and wacky ads, the Nintendo DS entry, Guitar Hero: On Tour, really is Guitar Hero. It works. It's fun. In fact, I think it does some things better than the console editions of Guitar Hero 3. Registered users can use the HD Stream.

The second that No Doubt's "Spiderwebs" started playing, it didn't matter that my hand was curled around a DS instead of an actual toy plastic guitar. The part where I was about to strum the touch screen with a pick stylus didn't factor in. And I didn't miss a note, at least at first, which surprised the hell out of me. I wasn't expecting the transition to be that seamless.

Whammies? A simple matter of holding down the stylus and shaking it back and forth. Star Power? Yell in the mic, or just press one of the face buttons during a slow bit.

I wasn't expecting the game to be so challenging either. Don't get me wrong, I'm no master, but I can get by in Rock Band and Guitar Hero on Expert. However, the second I tried anything beyond Medium in On Tour, I didn't do that well. So much for the missing button making the game easier.

Don't be fooled: While On Tour seems pretty pick-up-and-play friendly, it sports the same kind of learning curve and nuances as the console editions. Simple strums will suffice in the early songs and lower difficulties, but to advance in the higher tiers, you have to learn to be more efficient with your strumming.

In the console versions, this can be accomplished by strumming up and down instead of just down. On the DS edition, I found myself instinctively lifting the pick away after each strum. I had to retrain myself to keep it low to the screen, to alternate left and right strums instead of going in one direction. I still didn't do all that well, but I got further in Blink 182's "All the Small Things" than I did on an earlier attempt.

But where the game really shines, and where I feel it surpasses Guitar Hero 3, is in its item-based Duel Mode. You can face off against an actual opponent via local wireless or duke it out with an AI character, and as with Guitar Hero 3, you earn items by hitting all the notes in a certain combo.

This time around though, the item-based attacks are more fun than frustrating, with skill and reflex playing a larger role than luck and patience. A broken string doesn't force you to stop and endlessly mash a fret; instead, you can quickly restring it with the touch screen. The temporary screen swap will probably have you attempting to strum on the top screen of the DS, but most will learn to compensate on the fly.

Amp fires can be put out by blowing on the DS instead of waiting for them to extinguish on their own. And, really, who's going to get that angry when they have to briefly stop playing to sign an autograph?

If you want definitive proof though, here's the telltale sign that there is fun to be had. In a room full of jaded and experienced game journalists, no one was talking. Everyone had their headphones on, completely engrossed in the game. As I put the DS down, the only sound I could hear was the gentle "tap tap tap" of nearly a dozen plastic picks.

Amidst the frequent tapping, I was able to catch up with the developer's CEO, who filled me in on some of the more interesting aspects of the title's unorthodox origins.

Shack: How did you adapt the note charts for the GH3 tracks from five to four buttons?

Karthik Bala: We actually did all the note charting from scratch for this game.

We knew we had to note chart everything from scratch anyway because the timing of using the guitar pick stylus on the touch screen is different than the timing of the strum bar on a guitar.

When we selected the songs that we wanted to bring over from Guitar Hero 3, they were remastered for the best audio fidelity on the DS and they were re-note charted and scaled. We still have Expert as really friggin' challenging, as you noticed, and it scales really nicely from Easy to Expert.

Turn the page for more, including a partial track list, talk of early prototypes, and Nintendo's reaction to the project. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: What can you tell me about the song list?

We had this crazy [prototype] where we had a cardboard guitar and we had a DS taped onto it.

Karthik Bala: There are 20 exclusive songs, there's more than 25 songs in the game. We've taken a handful of songs that were some of our favorites from Guitar Hero 3 and brought in a lot of new songs.

85% of the songs are the original master recordings. In fact, the few covers that we got, the record publisher could not find the masters. As you progress through the game, just by difficulty, the more classic rock, 70's and 80's tunes, are later on in the setlist.

Known tracklist as of May 30:
* designates a cover

    Subway
  1. Do What You Want - OK Go
  2. All the Small Things - blink-182
  3. Spiderwebs - No Doubt
  4. Are You Gonna Be My Girl - Jet
  5. We're Not Gonna Take It - Twisted Sister

    Rooftop
  6. All Star - Smashmouth
  7. Breed - Nirvana
  8. Jessie's Girl - Rick Springfield
  9. Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Pat Benatar
  10. This Love - Maroon 5

    Parade
  11. Heaven - Los Lonely Boys
  12. Helicopter - Bloc Party
  13. China Grove - The Doobie Brothers
  14. Rock And Roll All Nite* - Kiss
  15. What I Want - Daughtry

    Greek Arena
  16. Jet Airliner* - Steve Miller Band
  17. Black Magic Woman*- Santana
  18. Stray Cat Strut - Stray Cats
  19. La Grange*- ZZ Top
  20. Youth Gone Wild*- Skid Row

Karthik Bala: The neat thing about this project was that it did start out because a bunch of guys at Vicarious Visions who really wanted to just see it it was even possible to do a really good music rhythm game on a handheld. We wouldn't have done the project if we didn't think that we would be able to make a good game.

To be totally blunt, it was touch and go for the longest time. For the first six, seven months, we had no idea. There were so many issues to making it work. The touch screen mechanics and gesture detection and all the strumming nuances--we made major changes to it three days before we finished.

For the better part of the year, the touch screen strumming mechanics were worked on.

It was tuned and modified because what we were finding was [with] different people, the strumming techniques and stuff were different. We had to accommodate a really broad set of play styles. For some people it was working perfectly, for other people it wasn't working at all. We were like, "We need to get a really broad sample set and be able to tweak the code and make it really robust."

Shack: What about the audio? Earlier I heard it was compressed using a variable bit rate.

Karthik Bala: For the audio, we're doing three simultaneous audio streams streaming off the cart. It's compressed music, it sounds great on the DS. I think it's certainly the best-sounding DS game we've ever made.

There's a lot of new technology that we developed to do all that audio streaming, and the animation streams, the graphics, textures, it's all streaming.

The visual quality on the game was another thing. We didn't know whether we could pull off the look [of Guitar Hero] because the DS can run 2,000 polygons per frame. It's a hardware limit. We figured out a technique to double that, the engineers did some kind of voodoo to make that work.

The characters themselves, each character is around a couple thousand polys a piece. If they were whittled down to fit a standard DS game, it wouldn't have looked like the Guitar Hero characters. It wouldn't have gotten the dynamic lighting and the stage show, the choreography and the lighting effects.

That was a, "How the hell are we gonna do this" kind of question. It was just a lot of hurdles all along the way.

Shack: How did the Guitar Grip itself even come about?

Karthik Bala: When we initially were working on the game, we built like 23 prototypes, just trying all kinds of different things. One of them happened to be this crazy Frankenstein GBA cartridge that we had put in electronics and wired up these switches and things like that. The guys figured out a way of reading input, brand new input, from a peripheral on the GBA slot while running in DS mode.

That was kinda the breakthrough moment. We were like, "Okay, here you go. Here's the fret and you've got this tactile experience." None of the other prototypes gave you that tactile experience that really got you into the music.

The reason we have four buttons is because you've got four fingers and you can't slide up and down the Guitar Grip without shaking the screen, and when you shake the screen you lose track of what's going on so it's actually less fun.

When we built these prototypes, we had a three-button version, we had a six-button version, we had a design for this crazy twelve-button thing.

Shack: What about a foot pedal?

Karthik Bala: [laughs] We didn't have a foot pedal, interesting idea.

Shack: Can you talk about some of the other prototypes?

Karthik Bala: [laughs] We had this crazy one where we had a cardboard guitar and we had a DS taped onto it.

[Bala demonstrates, indicating that the DS was taped to the guitar's body so players could strum with the touch screen while craning their heads to view the top screen.]

That didn't work. We did a bunch of stylus-only prototypes, different stroke recognition and things like that. That didn't work, it was too abstract.

We did a lot of work trying to figure out what was going to go on what screen, to figure out how we were going to handle the interface, how you can use the touch screen and be able to strum without actually having to look at it. There was a lot of craziness on this project, it was purely R&D for six to eight months.

Shack: When did that R&D actually kick in?

Karthik Bala: So we started the project a little over a year ago. It was sort of a secret project for a number of months because, quite frankly, we weren't going to go forward if we didn't think we would be able to have something.

When we did, and this it to Activision and RedOctane's credit, they were like, "This is insane." They were skeptical, just like we were. "But you know what, why don't you go try that."

Shack: So you were never asked to make Guitar Hero on the DS?

Karthik Bala: No. People thought it was ludicrous. I don't blame 'em. It was never in the plan to do that. Quite frankly, when we presented our first prototype to Nintendo, they were really surprised. They were like, "Wow, this is ...different." [laughs]

They got behind it, because Nintendo loves to innovate and do surprising things. So they came on board to help us, try and solve a lot of the tough problems. Once we built the initial electronics and the design of the peripheral, the RedOctane guys--who are really great hardware engineers--they came in to sculpt the device and look at the form factors and stuff like that.

Nintendo came in and brought their experience at developing peripherals and hardware. The plastics that are used [on the Guitar Grip] are actually the same that are used on the DS Lite. It feels like an extension of the DS itself. They brought those sensibilities and stuff.

It's a very collaborative project. Everybody started to coming on board and we didn't know where this crazy bandwagon was gonna go, but they were very supportive.

Shack: Any plans for more Guitar Hero games on the DS?

Karthik Bala: We'll see how it goes with the first one. Nobody expected it to come this far. I wouldn't rule anything out at this point, and frankly, the team had a blast working on it.

Guitar Hero: On Tour arrives on Nintendo DS this June. Priced at $49.99, it will come packaged with the Guitar Grip peripheral as well as a spacing unit to enable compatibility with the original DS.