If you missed it, check out part 1 of our timeline.
Yesterday, we looked at the start of a special phenomenon in video games. RedOctane and Harmonix had come together to make plastic instruments a part of many people's daily routines and weekend get-togethers. Today, we look into the very height of the music game trend, as Activision brought the Guitar Hero series to its absolute heights, before setting it up for a massive fall.
Guitar Hero: On Tour (2008)
When Activision said they wanted Guitar Hero everywhere, they meant everywhere. That meant handhelds, too. So while Neversoft was off working on the next Guitar Hero game, developer Vicarious Visions was assigned to Guitar Hero: On Tour for the Nintendo DS. Immediately, there were questions. The main one being, of course, how can one even play a Guitar Hero game on a handheld?
The answer came in the form of a special "Guitar Grip" peripheral that was slotted into the DS and DS Lite's Game Boy Advance slot. The idea was to hold down the four (as opposed to the normal five) colored frets with the left hand while strumming with the stylus and the touch screen. It was uncomfortable at best and carpal tunnel-inducing at worst. The game itself, however, was executed fairly well, with Vicarious Visions offering some good note tracking and generally nailing the spirit of the Guitar Hero series.
Of course, with an expensive peripheral out there, that naturally meant Activision needed a follow-up, but we'll get to that later.
Song to rock to: Head-scratchingly, this is the only music game to feature Incubus' "Anna Molly," which is a fantastic track off their "Light Grenades" album. It's one of the band's best and is one of the highlights of On Tour.
Guitar Hero: World Tour (2008)
With Harmonix having shown what a full four-player band was capable of, Activision wasted little time jumping on the bandwagon. RedOctane crafted new wireless guitars, along with a USB microphone and a whole new drum set. While the Rock Band drum set was basically four pads laid out beside one another, RedOctane's hardware design was aiming for something closer to a real drum set. So these drums featured five buttons, but with three pads and two distinct cymbals to better simulate real drumming.
The drum design was solid. There was just one problem. They didn't work. World Tour was plagued with faulty hardware, which put a huge damper on the game's release. Faulty guitars were also issued, which was unfortunate, since it's still considered to be among RedOctane's best work when functional.
As for the game itself, World Tour introduced a branching Career Mode that would see players select which song sets to play. The soundtrack would include over 80 songs, all (except the credits song of "Pull Me Under" by Dream Theater) unlocked out of the gate. While Rock Band's band dynamic would see individual players fail out, World Tour was more of a team effort, having all players share the "Rock" and "Star Power" meters. Note highways would display some new mechanics, such as "Slider Gems" for the guitar, which could be played by using the touch pad on the neck of the new guitar peripheral. Alternately, the notes could be played by simply pressing the corresponding frets. Bass players would also get a new mechanic in the form of an open note that would simply require the player to strum without holding down any frets.
Customization was also a big focus in World Tour. Neversoft included a Create-A-Rocker feature to go along with the Guitar Hero cast that players had become familiar with over the years. This veered closer to Neversoft's old wheelhouse, harkening back to their Tony Hawk's Pro Skater roots and that series' robust customization features. Not only could characters be customized, but so could instruments. Customization also stretched to music, where users could create their own tracks with the GHTunes service. Those tracks could then be uploaded to the GHTunes store, where they could be downloaded for later use. It was a novel idea, albeit a limited one that did not allow users to upload vocal tracks.
While boss battles were dropped, celebrity cameos returned. Activision scored the rights to the likenesses of Ozzy Osbourne, Sting, Ted Nugent, and Travis Barker. Of course, the star of the game was the music and the publisher had some notable success in the department, too. Activision got exclusive access to Metallica's "Death Magnetic" album, releasing it in full as Guitar Hero World Tour DLC on the same week that the CD hit store shelves. The publisher also scored some musical rarities, which are detailed a little more below.
Meanwhile, Harmonix released Rock Band 2 with its own special tracks and its growing DLC library. Both games were successful and the music wars were underway. And there was plenty of animosity that grew between Harmonix and Activision along the way. While Harmonix would fight the war with its growing DLC platform (one that would handily beat World Tour's own weekly offerings), Activision had a different tactic in mind: pure and total quantity.
Song to rock out to: Activision scored two major coups for World Tour. They scooped up the rights to a trio of Jimi Hendrix songs and they also scored the rights to a trio of Tool songs. The latter, in particular, was huge, considering that Tool rarely, if ever, licenses out their music. In fact, Tool remains, to this day, one of the lone iTunes holdouts. So for Activision to get them was a major deal. Of course, the exchange was that Tool would have full creative input into how their songs were used. Therefore, a special Tool venue was created, utilizing the band's unique cover art style, that would be the only one to house Tool music. The result was the single coolest way to experience "Vicarious," as you can see below.
Guitar Hero On Tour: Decades (2008)
As if to further foreshadow the direction the series was heading, the second handheld iteration of Guitar Hero released in November 2008, less than six months after the first game. Decades would allow developer Vicarious Visions to refine various elements of the first On Tour, however, it would do little to add to them. In fact, there was very little added from the first game, aside from a new batch of 28 songs.
Vicarious Visions was an ambitious developer, though. The studio took the DS' Wi-Fi capabilities and used them to allow connectivity between Decades and the previous On Tour. This would allow multiplayer users to utilize both song libraries, giving Decades more of an expansion feel. A full-priced expansion, but an expansion, nonetheless.
Song to rock to: Joe Satriani's "Satch Boogie" was hard enough to master in Guitar Hero: World Tour, but the song is downright brutal on your fingers when attempting to use the DS' Guitar Grip, as this poor soul below found out.
Guitar Hero: Metallica (2009)
In 2009, the floodgates opened, whether anybody liked it or not. Guitar Hero: World Tour (as well as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare) helped turn Activision into a gaming empire. But while people were attached the Guitar Hero brand name, a growing number of users also had their eye on Rock Band 2. The solution for Activision? More Guitar Hero games! A lot more Guitar Hero games! Yes, Activision was aiming to release three more console iterations of Guitar Hero in the next year, an idea that would stretch publisher and developer resources to their absolute limit.
The first game to come out of that deal was the second Guitar Hero game to be dedicated solely to one band. Coming off the successful "Death Magnetic" deal, Activision and Metallica joined forces, once again, for Guitar Hero: Metallica. The big difference from Aerosmith, though, was that Metallica's music was far more suited for a Guitar Hero game, with thrashing guitar solos and intense drum sequences that fit like a glove with Guitar Hero's emphasis on challenge.
GH: Metallica also chronicled the band's progression from its inception in the 80s to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band that's still making music today. Neversoft's artists also packed in some of the series' best art assets to date, featuring keen ideas like Metallica's rotating stage, on-stage acoustic guitars, and motion capture that brought the band's concert movements to life. The song library contained 28 Metallica songs (not counting the "Death Magnetic" DLC album, which was also playable from World Tour) and 21 tracks from other artists hand-picked by the band, either because they had opened for them, influenced them, or even because Metallica had performed covers of their songs for the Garage Inc. album. Some of these songs included some true music game rarities, like Bob Seger's live performance of "Turn the Page."
GH: Metallica did make one major addition to the music game genre and that was the Expert+ setting for drums. This introduced the double bass pedal, adding greater authenticity to the drumming side of these games. While the setting wasn't available for all songs, it was present for many of the most difficult ones, like Battery, Master of Puppets, and One. The feature was a big hit with drummers and was one that would carry forward into the rest of the series.
Song(s) to rock to: There was no shortage of classic Metallica songs to choose from, so why not go back to the beginning? Whiplash was one of the first singles from 1982's "Kill 'Em All" and stands as one of the band's early classics. It's a major favorite, but also one of the most difficult songs in the game.
As far as showcases for Expert+ drums, one of the best ones, ironically, didn't come from Metallica. It actually came from Slayer and "War Ensemble." Watch the video below and try not to get exhausted.
Guitar Hero On Tour: Modern Hits (2009)
While Activision was releasing the first two On Tour games for the DS, Nintendo threw a monkey wrench into their plans with the release of the Nintendo DSi. The DSi represented Nintendo's growing presence in the digital world, with a new shop dedicated to downloadable games. Along with greater storage capabilities and additional features, DS owners were quick to make the jump to this new hardware. The problem? The Game Boy Advance slot was removed, meaning Activision's Guitar Grip peripheral (and consequently, Activision's Guitar Hero games on DS) was left out in the cold.
That didn't stop Activision from completing its On Tour trilogy, though. Guitar Hero On Tour: Modern Hits released in June 2009, two months after the DSi's release. Vicarious Visions did make a few changes this time around, with the Career Mode undergoing a non-linear overhaul via a feature called "Fan Requests." Fan Requests would keep players going with new setlists, while also encouraging players to aim for certain goals. Between this and an overhauled interface, Modern Hits was the strongest of the DS efforts. Unfortunately, the DSi's release threw this game for a loop.
Song to rock to: The 28 song setlist for Modern Hits was noticeably unremarkable. This setlist didn't feature any major challenges and the songs that were brought in from previous GH titles were, for the most part, pretty safe and unmemorable. The closest song that comes to standing out is "The Fallen" by Franz Ferdinand, just because Franz Ferdinand is woefully underrepresented in these music games.
Guitar Hero Smash Hits (2009)
Mere weeks after the last DS game came out, it was time for the next World Tour spin-off. This time, Activision was ready to celebrate the Guitar Hero series as a whole by dedicating a full game to songs used in previous games. The idea was to offer favorite tracks from Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero 2, Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s, and Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock with a four-player band and the updated bells and whistles of the Guitar Hero: World Tour engine. This was one of the first games to indicate that the publisher was spreading its resources thin, as Neversoft was just coming off of GH: Metallica and was already working on the next official Guitar Hero sequel. That left Guitar Hero Smash Hits (dubbed Guitar Hero Greatest Hits in Europe) in the hands of Beenox, a Montreal developer known for its fairly decent Spider-Man games.
The game itself was a decidedly no-frills affair, with a Career Mode laid out like classic GH titles. There were no major additions from World Tour and didn't have the "band retrospective" theme that Metallica did to hide these omissions. It was designed to feel like an expansion pack, only without the expansion, since none of the tracks were exportable. (At least, not right away... and even then, only sort of.)
So what did that leave? Well, it left the music… and even that's debatable. As if to foreshadow another major bump in the road, Activision would only be able to license so many tracks, leaving artists like Guns 'n Roses (following that whole lawsuit ugliness) and Muse on the cutting room floor. To its credit, though, Smash Hits did have the absolute must-have songs from the pre-World Tour era, including master recordings of Free Bird, The Trooper, and Cult of Personality. But with only 48 tracks and no unlockables, this was a tough pill to swallow for Guitar Hero fans, since the game was issued at full retail price.
Song(s) to rock to: One of the coolest tracks from Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s was Extreme's "Play With Me." Smash Hits one-upped the cool factor by including the master recording. This was pretty much for anyone that loved "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure."
And of course, if any song had to make its return, it was "Through the Fire and Flames." Having worked in the QA department at the time, I remember an audible groan over the thought of this nightmare making its comeback, only now with four instruments in play. And no, the other instruments weren't any easier. Guitar Hero III had its share of Expert Guitar players that managed to full combo the whole thing, but almost six years later, a full band on Expert (and Expert+ on drums) has yet to full combo the whole song. If you see the video below, it's easy to see why.
By this point, Guitar Hero had just about reached its breaking point as a cultural staple. All that was left was the collapse and what a catastrophic collapse it would be. Join us tomorrow to see how far the series fell, before going into its long hiatus that is only now about to be broken.