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Encore! A Guitar Hero timeline (part 1)

With the Guitar Hero series set to live again, Shacknews is going to take a look back at the series over the last ten years, from its meteoric rise to its calamitous fall with this three-part timeline series. Today, we look back at the origins of Guitar Hero and look at what RedOctane and Harmonix built before Activision picked the series up and ran with it.


Last week, Activision revived the Guitar Hero series from its state of dormancy. Guitar Hero Live is set to take the series to newer and more interesting places, but to truly get a perspective of where Guitar Hero is looking to go, it's a good idea to take a look at where the series has been. That means looking at each of the Guitar Hero games and where they innovated, while also looking at the ways in which they faltered.

So join Shacknews for the next three days, as we take a look back at the Guitar Hero series, from its inception, to its swansong, to its return tour.

Guitar Hero (2005)

In 1998, arcades were on the decline, relying more on specialty machines and gimmicks to draw in crowds. An intriguing addition to the scene that year was a game from Konami called Guitar Freaks, a rhythm game (found mainly in Japan) that relied on a three-button electric guitar controller. The peripheral was designed by RedOctane, who had such an affinity for their work and the whole rhythm game idea that they wanted to craft a series of their own.

Fast-forward to 2005, where RedOctane had the opportunity to, once again, create new guitar controllers. The idea was to launch a whole new music game, this time for the home console. Joining them was a little-known developer called Harmonix Music Systems, who brought their own musical pedigree to the table, having previously worked on cult hits Frequency and Amplitude. RedOctane designed a new five-button guitar controller, unlike anything seen on consoles to that point. The idea was to hold down a corresponding button and play notes on the strum bar, as notes came down a highway, creating the feeling of playing along with a song. It was easy to learn and a pleasure to master. Guitar Hero was born.

Released for the PlayStation 2, the original Guitar Hero featured 30 songs with 17 additional tracks that could be unlocked over the course of the game. With a budget of roughly $1 million, RedOctane and Harmonix relied on covers of some of the biggest musical hits of the previous 40 years. The idea was to shred and aim for the highest score, with a score-boosting mechanic called Star Power infusing a modicum of strategy into the rock proceedings. It was a modest start for the series and while the PlayStation 2 audience was growing by the day, it would take a bigger audience for Guitar Hero 2 to firmly plant its foot into the pop culture zeitgeist.

Song to rock to: Though the game that started it all featured covers of famous artists, like Ozzy Osbourne, Pantera, and Queen, the track that truly stood out was Stevie Ray Vaughan's blues classic, "Texas Flood," which showed that virtual guitar prowess could stretch beyond rock and metal. Like many other songs in Guitar Hero, it wasn't so much about the cover artist on vocals, it was about the notes on the screen.

Guitar Hero II (2006-2007)

The original Guitar Hero was just quirky enough that it found quite an audience. With critical acclaim and fan demand on their side, RedOctane and Harmonix got to work on a sequel for the PlayStation 2. Guitar Hero II was released the next year, with hardware bundles featuring a cherry Gibson SG. But there was something else that the developers was aiming for: a next-gen audience. Microsoft's Xbox 360 was starting to take off, so a next-gen version of Guitar Hero II was offered months later, with its solid Gibson X-Plorer wired controller, a piece of hardware so dependable that some consider it to be the peak of guitar peripherals, even to this day.

Guitar Hero II featured the same gameplay premise, but with added multiplayer features. Two friends could take each other on in Face-Off, but they could also team up for some duets, with the second player taking on newly-added bass tracks. This was, arguably, one of the key concepts that turned Guitar Hero into a phenomenon, bringing people together to play some of the best music out there.

And there was great music, indeed. Guitar Hero II featured 40 tracks on PS2 and 48 on Xbox 360, mostly comprised of covers from bands like Avenged Sevenfold, Deep Purple, Rush, and Alice in Chains. However, a few master tracks from bands like My Chemical Romance and The Toadies also slipped in, foreshadowing the series' future. The Xbox 360 version also allowed Harmonix and RedOctane to look into downloadable content, a relatively new concept at the time for consoles. Several DLC packs (including many songs from the original Guitar Hero) were released for the Xbox 360, allowing players to put together a strong song library.

Guitar Hero II blew up into a musical sensation. It became one of the hottest trends in video games and it looked like RedOctane and Harmonix were going to be at the forefront of a new institution in gaming for years to come.

And then came Activision…

Song to rock to: Encore! That was the cry at the end of the Career Mode, when the virtual crowd demanded "Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was one of the coolest moments of the series to that point, but it also proved one of the most challenging.

Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s (2007)

While Guitar Hero II was in development in 2006, Activision bought out developer RedOctane and the Guitar Hero property. With Guitar Hero now under the Activision umbrella, Harmonix was seemingly left out in the cold. At least, that was the case until MTV Games picked them up for a cool $175 million just months later. With all sides ready to move on to new endeavors, there was only one game left in the RedOctane/Harmonix partnership.

As its title implies, Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s takes place in the decade of Miami Vice, cheesy Saturday morning cartoons, and 8-bit gaming. Also, it was an unforgettable decade for music. Though the game was sold at full price, it felt like more of an expansion of Guitar Hero II, with nothing added in the way of new features. Worse yet, it only had a mere 30 songs, making a full price difficult to justify. Once the price was slashed, it was a fine celebration of the 1980s, but on the whole, it was a very quiet end to a sterling partnership between RedOctane and Harmonix.

Song to rock to: There were a couple of master tracks on the soundtrack, but the one that epitomized the 80s the most was A Flock of Seagulls and "I Ran." Not only did it most exemplify the decade that this Guitar Hero was honoring, but it also has a special gaming connection. Many gaming fans from the early decade will remember this song plastered all over commercials for Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (2007)

With RedOctane squarely working on the hardware side of the Guitar Hero franchise, there was still the matter of who was going to help develop the games themselves. With Harmonix off working on Rock Band, Activision found one of their most trusted in-house studios. Neversoft was swiftly pulled off the decaying corpse of the Tony Hawk series and given the reigns of Guitar Hero (in fairly amusing fashion), leading to Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.

Activision's resources immediately began to pay dividends. The publisher not only added a far greater amount of master tracks, but they also brought aboard some genuine musicians to the fold. Slash of Guns 'n Roses and Velvet Revolver, along with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, were included in the game as special boss characters and unlockable rockers. Boss battles were an interesting addition to the Career Mode, which would have the player and the opponent take turn on stretches of the intro before the song started proper. The idea was to survive, while the opponent failed, using Mario Kart-style power-ups. Boss battles had a mixed reception, but they at least provided a unique Neversoft stamp on the game.

The soundtrack also grew far bigger than anything in the series prior. There were 39 songs with 25 others unlockable, for a total of 64 tracks. As previously mentioned, many of those songs were master tracks, adding a sense of authenticity to players' fantasy jam sessions. Activision would also add in several DLC packs, including a few that featured GH3 cover artist Slash.

Guitar Hero III was a big success, so much so that Activision was already looking towards the next sequel. But before that, they had a little something else in mind. Call it a "concept album," if you will.

Song(s) to rock to: Okay, there were actually a pair of very notable tracks that were included in Guitar Hero III. The first comes from Slash, whose appearance in the game also included "Welcome to the Jungle" from Guns 'n Roses. Anyone that followed the rock scene knows that the relationship between lead singer Axl Rose and his former bandmates deteriorated in the years since this game released. In fact, Rose sued Activision over Slash's inclusion in the game, a case that went to trial, but was eventually dismissed. It's reached a point where nobody is on speaking terms with anyone and anyone hoping to get a Guns 'n Roses song into a game was out of luck. That makes "Welcome to the Jungle" a rarity, as GH3 is the only game (other than the GH2 cover of "Sweet Child of Mine") to feature this (or any) classic G'n'R track.

There is no band that owes more to the Guitar Hero franchise than Dragonforce. Guitar Hero III practically made "Through the Fire and Flames" into a household name. Even on "Easy," it was rough. When set to "Expert," it was notoriously difficult, so much so that many players couldn't even make it past the intro, which was littered with hammer-on notes. It's almost eight minutes long and it never lets up. Even the very end of the song is filled with a brutally hard stretch of hammer-ons. Though Rock Band was quickly establishing itself as a franchise in its own right, the one song that music gamers were talking about during this time was Guitar Hero III's "Through the Fire and Flames."

Guitar Hero: Aerosmith (2008)

With their first game under their belts, Neversoft got to work on some more Guitar Hero, but it wouldn't be an installment of the main series. No, it would actually be a side project that was fully dedicated to Aerosmith. Guitar Hero: Aerosmith would be the first game in the series fully dedicated to a single band, one aimed mostly at fans that grew up with Aerosmith.

Guitar Hero: Aerosmith would take the band members' likenesses and place them on the digital stage. Career mode would see players take on Aerosmith tracks over the course of the band's storied history, as well as tracks from bands that have either opened for them or have had an influence on them. Neversoft was able to sprinkle in some cool idea, such as an appearance from a digital Darryl "DMC" McDaniels performing the Run-DMC hit "Kings of Rock" before seguing into the Aerosmith/Run-DMC smash "Walk This Way"

However, the package only featured a meager 31 tracks, paling in comparison to what Guitar Hero III had to offer. With GH3 offering DLC tracks, this game was criticized for not simply coming to that game as a DLC package, especially since both games operated on the same engine. It's an idea that Activision defended by noting that the band experience isn't something that can simply be carried over. Still, Aerosmith released in the peak of the music game craze, which led to good sales.

With that trial balloon out of the way, Activision was ready to put Neversoft on its next Guitar Hero sequel for later that year. But how could they follow up on what Guitar Hero III had to offer? Well, those fellas over at Harmonix seemed to be onto something with that whole "Rock Band" idea...

Song to rock to: Aerosmith not only provided motion capture and behind-the-scenes videos, they even re-recorded some of their best tracks. That includes this new recording of "Dream On."

Join us tomorrow, as we dive further into the Guitar Hero series. Tomorrow, we get a look at Guitar Hero expanding to a full four-player band and the moment that Activision decided to test the very limits of a cultural phenomenon.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

From The Chatty
  • reply
    April 21, 2015 12:00 PM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Encore! A Guitar Hero timeline (part 1)

    • reply
      April 21, 2015 12:32 PM

      Quit it! You're not gonna make me go get the guitars out of the basement.

      • reply
        April 21, 2015 1:17 PM

        Yes I will!

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          April 21, 2015 1:32 PM

          (Good article btw)

        • reply
          April 21, 2015 3:19 PM

          ozzie can I have my $25 you bastard

          • reply
            April 21, 2015 3:35 PM

            Yes, but I also realized that Steam doesn't do $25 Steam cards for some reason. I'll SM you about it.

    • reply
      April 21, 2015 3:15 PM


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      April 21, 2015 5:12 PM

      I loved and mastered them all up to Rocks the 80's. Once the spinoffs started in wake of Rock Band coming out, I was done. Rock Band pretty much took over after that point but I still enjoyed the higher difficulty note charts in the prior GH games. Neversoft did a decent job with GH 3 but they're no Harmonix.

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        April 22, 2015 11:15 AM

        GH: Metallica and The Beatles: Rockband were the two pinnacle games for me.

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      April 22, 2015 11:14 AM

      Can't find plastic instruments anywhere in my neighborhood, and they go for double/triple/quadruple what they originally sold for on Amazon.

      Really regret getting rid of my GH: World Tour band set (guitar + drums + mic) when one of the cymbals stopped working. Had it in my mind that I would just buy a new set someday, as they were so abundant in stores at the time.

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