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Encore! A Guitar Hero timeline (part 3)

Now that the Guitar Hero series had reached the top of the gaming world, all that was left was to watch it fall. And fall, it did. To wrap up our Guitar Hero timeline, Shacknews looks at the final Guitar Hero games and the depths that led to the series' four-year hiatus. Then we look ahead to Guitar Hero Live and whether it can avoid the mistakes of the past.

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If you missed them, be sure to check out part 1 and part 2 of our retrospective.


Our Guitar Hero retrospective started with the origins of a genuine gaming craze, one that was unlike anything seen in video games to that point. The second part explored Guitar Hero's time at the top of the mountain, a time where the series was a household name. Everybody knew what Guitar Hero was. Many had experienced the game in one form or another. But after Guitar Hero: World Tour was released, Activision pumped out no less than five Guitar Hero games in 2009. Even the most dedicated Guitar Hero diehards were crying "Enough!" and it was a cry that would echo right until the final note was played.

Guitar Hero 5 (2009)

Now that all of the spin-offs were out of the way, it was time to finally hit the next official Guitar Hero sequel. By this point, Guitar Hero fans were increasingly burned out on the brand. That made the task ahead that much taller for developer Neversoft, who not only had to deal with that, but also had to make a case for why their series was better than Rock Band, which had exploded in popularity in the previous year. On paper, Guitar Hero 5 had the potential to stand toe-to-toe with Rock Band, given that there were four World Tour-era games to import music from. Unfortunately, that plan hit a major snag.

Over with MTV Games, Harmonix had licensing agreements with music companies and bands to place songs onto the Rock Band platform, which is how they were able to (with only a few exceptions) import on-disc tracks from one game to its sequel. Activision, on the other hand, had licensing agreements for music to appear on individual Guitar Hero games, meaning those licenses had to be renewed. With Guitar Hero sales still high, record companies became uncooperative, demanding larger payments for the continued use of their music. The result was that a paltry 35 of World Tour's 86 songs could be imported into Guitar Hero 5. The situation would get worse from there, with licensing issues leading to Smash Hits owners only able to bring aboard 21 of 48 songs. While Activision scrambled to sort out licensing issues to help this number increase, fans grew increasingly frustrated.

The licensing debacle helped overshadow what was another solid effort from Neversoft. The four-player band format was overhauled to allow all players to select whatever instrument they wanted. That meant bands of more than one guitar player, drummer, bassist, or singer was entirely possible, leading to new and interesting combinations. Band members could also drop in and out at anytime during a song, making it ideal for house party situations. Meanwhile, Career Mode was expanded to include Challenges that offered rewards for completing certain tasks, like playing selection sections without missing or using the whammy bar for a certain length of time. In-game cash was no more, as custom outfit pieces, instrument components, and other unlockables were available by completing these challenges.

Where Neversoft's new effort truly stood out, however, was through multiplayer. Competitive multiplayer, in particular, received a major overhaul. New game modes like Momentum (which saw difficulty increase with greater success), Do or Die (which eliminated players for sections after missing three notes), and Streakers (which rewarded greater scores for longer note streaks) were breath of fresh air from traditional Face-Off modes, which were still available.

Over on the Wii, Vicarious Visions put forth one of its best efforts for Nintendo's console to date. Their online efforts were a major leap from anything Nintendo had in place at the time, doing away with Friend Codes and allowing players to purchase entire DLC albums at one time. On top of that, this version of Guitar Hero 5 introduced DS integration. Video editor tools were available on the handheld, as well as exclusive multiplayer modes, like Roadie Battle. This would see two player duke it out in a guitar duel on-screen, while DS players would attempt to sabotage opponents by tinkering with their setups on the touch screen. It was truly one of the most underappreciated gems of the Wii era and had some of the most creative ideas to hit a Nintendo console from a third-party developer.

Of course, there were a few other issues that helped overshadow the quality of the game itself. Celebrity cameos returned from previous Guitar Hero games, but Activision's choice of famous musicians was downright cringeworthy. The late Johnny Cash made an appearance to play "Ring of Fire," which raised an eyebrow or two. But any potential controversy there was quickly forgotten when players found Kurt Cobain as a playable character. Nirvana fans were outraged, pointing out that this kind of commercialism violated everything the late singer stood for. They weren't the only ones. Former Nirvana bandmates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic were "dismayed" with Cobain's digital appearance and wanted it removed. Courtney Love was outraged enough that she threatened to sue Activision after a profane tirade, despite the publisher countering that she signed off on Cobain's likeness to be used. It was a PR nightmare and it wouldn't be the last celebrity-related debacle Activision would be faced with.

Song to rock to: There wasn't a whole lot of Arctic Monkeys representation in the Guitar Hero series. Not only did they make the Guitar Hero 5 cut, it was one of their more challenging songs that made the setlist. Drummers were taken to their limit with "Brianstorm."


Guitar Hero: Van Halen (2009)

Wasn't there supposed to be a third World Tour spinoff? Indeed, Guitar Hero: Van Halen was supposed to be the third game to spin off from Guitar Hero: World Tour, this one from Underground Development. The game's development hit a number of snags, unfortunately, which didn't mesh with Activision's accelerated development schedule. By the end, the publisher simply wanted the game out the door, desperately enough to the point that they offered the game for free with purchase of Guitar Hero 5.

The game itself was abysmal and torn apart by critics. As a band-centric game, it paled in terms of presentation next to GH: Metallica. Worse, it simply glossed over much of the band's history, completely skipping over the Sammy Hagar era, making it a failure as a band retrospective. As a Guitar Hero game, it was obsolete compared to the features offered in Guitar Hero 5. As a collection of music, it was lacking, with only 25 Van Halen songs and 19 guest tracks. It felt like something slapped together with superglue, only meant to take advantage of the Guitar Hero and Van Halen names. It was a sad representation of the growing cynicism towards the Guitar Hero brand.

Underground Development was shuttered just a few months after Van Halen's release.

Song to rock to: At least it had "Panama." That's something, right?


Band Hero (2009)

Those that needed a breather from Guitar Hero didn't exactly get one after Guitar Hero 5. Activision spun the series off into Band Hero, a game meant to appeal to families and younger audiences. While it would feature the same Guitar Hero 5 mechanics, it was meant to have a wider "pop music" appeal. The problem? For one thing, it came just two months after Guitar Hero 5, which further exacerbated fatigue with the brand.

An overworked Neversoft did the best it could, but there was little to work with. Guitar Hero 5 and all of its new features were barely out the door, meaning there was nothing to improve on. All the studio could do was work on the presentation, which was far brighter and more colorful, compared to the grittier concert style of GH5. To help entice new buyers, Activision offered a new RedOctane-designed drum kit, designed to be lighter and more responsive than the old World Tour drums. They worked in that sense, offering studier drum pads and better cymbal material.

As for the music, Band Hero featured 65 new songs from artists that one wouldn't have expected from a Guitar Hero game, like Hilary Duff, The Village People, Joss Stone, and Culture Club. Taylor Swift also appeared as one of the game's celebrities, offering a trio of songs.

On the subject of celebrities, the litigation nightmare wasn't over for Activision. The very next day after Band Hero's release, No Doubt sued the publisher for their likenesses being used as unlockable characters that could play other songs, aside from the two band songs included in the game. Activision would countersue months later and eventually settle. Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine (also an unlockable character) followed suit, albeit years later. The numerous ordeals would be enough to ensure that Activision stopped using celebrity likenesses entirely after Band Hero was released.

While the music served as a fine family-friendly alternative, Activision's aim for an E10+ ESRB rating would eventually turn many of the Band Hero songs into a punchline. Due to the rating requirements, some of the songs had some laughable edits. For example, the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" had its opening lyric shredded to remove the phrase "gin-soaked, bar-room." But nothing was as ridiculous as Don McLean's "American Pie" having "whisky and rye" removed from its chorus. It was another embarrassment in a growing number for the series. Sadly, this wouldn't be the last one. There was still one more bale of straw before the camel's back would break for good.

Song to rock to: Band Hero wasn't exactly the most inspired setlist. In addition to removing much of the challenge of the Guitar Hero games, many of the selections were just plain boring. One song had to make the cut for this feature and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones "The Impression That I Get" pretty much wins by default.


Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock (2010)

By this point, the Guitar Hero brand was a shell of its former self. The music game craze was over, in great part thanks to Activision's complete oversaturation of the series. The nail in the coffin was Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock. When the series first started in 2005, the idea was to create a simulated concert environment and make people feel like they were rock stars. In 2010… well… look at this!

Neversoft, a proud developer on its last legs, was exhausted of all gameplay ideas for the Guitar Hero series. So they introduced "warrior forms" that would take the classic Guitar Hero characters and have them transform into crazed, extreme versions of themselves. When in this form, the characters would receive bonuses, like 6x multipliers or instant Star Power. While it provided an interesting way to earn points on songs, it ultimately compromised the purity of what made Guitar Hero fun in the first place. Suddenly, picking characters mattered and that never should have been the case with these games. Characters were meant to be avatars, which is part of what made World Tour's character creator such a great addition. The whole point of the Guitar Hero games themselves was to get a high score based on pure skills and the addition of power-ups simply cheapened the whole thing.

Reviews were brutal. The late Ryan Davis of Giant Bomb saw the writing on the wall, sadly noting that returns had all but diminished completely. Griffin McElroy of Joystiq (now of Polygon) felt the emptiness in the score chase. And personally, as someone that followed (and even worked on) the Guitar Hero series, it was deflating. The entire thing felt soulless, rudderless, and pointless. Unreadable disc issues were just icing on the cake by that point.

The lone bright spot was the soundtrack, which was one of the biggest ones in series history. Warriors of Rock featured 93 tracks, divided into genre. On top of that, Activision had started to get its licensing act together. Most of Guitar Hero: Metallica was made available for import (for a free week, no less), as was GH5 and Band Hero. Muse, Metallica with Ozzy Osbourne, The Ramones, and The White Stripes were among the bands to take part in Warriors of Rock, at least letting the series' music go out on a high note.

Sadly, the song looked to be over for the Guitar Hero series. Warriors of Rock woefully underperformed, which led to Activision putting the series on an extended hiatus. Neversoft would float around aimlessly for a few more years before eventually being absorbed into Infinity Ward. Guitar Hero had played its last note… until last week.

Song to rock to: It's technically seven separate tracks, but Rush's "2112" could also be played in its entirety as a single track. It was the best possible way for Guitar Hero to go out.


Guitar Hero Live and the Future

Having looked back at Guitar Hero over the past ten years, what's been the big takeaway? In the spirit of competition with Rock Band, Activision responded with complete oversaturation to the entire genre's detriment. It not only buried the Guitar Hero franchise, but it arguably helped take Rock Band along with it a few years later, bringing the plastic instrument era to an end. Will it repeat the same mistake? According to Game Informer, that answer appears to be a resounding "no," with the publisher already ruling out a 2016 iteration.

Activision also appears to have the right talent in place. In the Guitar Hero series' waning days, the publisher kicked off a spinoff series called DJ Hero. It utilized a turntable peripheral and a twist on the normal GH formula, one that developer Freestyle Games was able to use to great effect. It received strong reviews (as did its sequel) and stands as a cult hit. This makes Freestyle the ideal development studio to pick up the Guitar Hero baton, now that Neversoft is no more.

But the music genre's decline was due to more than having to buy half a dozen Guitar Hero games in a single year. It also had to do with hardware. While Rock Band is committed to allowing players to use their old instruments, Guitar Hero is looking to start from scratch with entirely new guitars. These guitars will focus on two layers of three buttons, meaning the old five-button instruments will not be supported. While Rock Band 4's hardware investment looks to be minimal, Guitar Hero Live may already be behind the 8 ball by requiring players to pick up a whole new guitar to stuff in their closet. In all likelihood, that will not be a cheap pickup.

Early impressions (including from our own Steven Wong and Shacknews Showcase co-hosts Joe and Andrew) are positive, so far, meaning that Guitar Hero may indeed have a second act. Whether it can bring back that original sensation of feeling like a rock star or conjure up whole new musical memories remains to be seen. Guitar Hero Live is set to arrive later this year.

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 23, 2015 12:00 PM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Encore! A Guitar Hero timeline (part 3)

    • reply
      April 23, 2015 1:35 PM

      Man, I am so locked into the Rock Band platform that this next Guitar Hero is going to have to be EXTRA fucking amazing for me to even consider buying it.

    • reply
      April 23, 2015 5:30 PM

      are there any controllers for the 360 that arent total garbage? i have like 6 of the guitar hero 3 ones (les paul?) and they are ALL fucking garbage and broken in one way or another - double strum, gimpy tilt, sticky buttons, etc. every single one sucks and it makes the games not fun to play.

      its funny because i pulled out my ps2 controllers (1 gh1, and 1 gh2) and guess what - THEY BOTH STILL FUCKING WORK LIKE THEY SHOULD.

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