Way back in 2005, RedOctane released the first Guitar Hero game; in doing so, the brought a relatively new concept to the gaming table: the era of the virtual musician. Its true that games like Rez and Singstar existed before Guitar Hero, but this was the first time that a developer had created a controller to specifically mimic the action of playing an instrument: Singstar was a fun concept, but the fact is that anybody can sing into a microphone – real or imaginary, and while players had control over creating music in-game in titles like Rez and Zelda: Ocarina of Time, they did so using button prompts on a standard game controller.
Now, anybody who’s even attempted to play the guitar will tell you that playing guitar hero isn’t actually like playing a real guitar, and the absence of strings should be a dead give away for those who haven’t, it still manages to orbit close enough to the experience of the real thing. Coordination between the left and right hand, as well as the sense of rhythm and timing needed to hit the notes on time, are all necessary skills needed to play the real guitar. The presence of said controller (the original of which was shaped like a Gibson SG, one of the most iconic guitars wielded by the likes of Tony Iommi, Angus Young and Frank Zappa), which could be played either on the gamers knee while sitting for maximum concentration, or standing, strapped over the shoulder in an iconic rock pose (usually after four or five cans), added that final cherry of authenticity atop the cake of suspended belief and vicarious fantasy.
The key to Guitar Hero’s success was the fine balance it struck between authenticity and fantasy: not trying to completely replicate the guitar playing experience (Rocksmith would attempt that nearly a decade later), the controller had a long knob on the body of the guitar in place of a plectrum, and five buttons on the neck of the guitar instead of strings and frets; it also had a plastic wammy bar to maximise combo scores and add colour to the music, which also gave the player an added sense of actually being responsible for creating the music coming out of the speakers. This simplified version of guitar playing made it accessible to nonmusicians, while the familiarity of the plastic instrument garnered intrigue from non-gamers, making it acceptable to pull out your PlayStation at parties and gatherings.
This, of course, could have all been for nothing if Guitar Hero wasn’t fun to play, but over a dozen sequels and spin-offs like Rock Band proves that the formula did indeed work. Guitar Hero was the originator, and because of this, it holds a special place in the hearts of those who played it, and a significant place in gaming history as the first of its kind. Playing through Joan Jett’s ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ for the first time was a truly unique experience, as was the first time you pushed down on the whammy bar alter the sound of a sustained power chord.
The eclectic soundtrack – or “set list” – also meant that there was something for everybody, no matter what you were into. Fan of classic rock? Jam along to ‘Spanish Castle Magic’. Pop Punk? ‘Fat Lip’ was always a blast to play. Indie? ‘Take Me Out’ was always a crowd pleaser. Heavy Metal? ‘Cowboy’s From Hell’ was sure to satisfy the metalheads, myself included. Funk, alternative hard rock, blues… you get the idea. This variety furthered reach of the game, meaning that anybody who tried to play it could find a song they liked or at least one they knew. It also had the potential to expose the gamer to songs they never heard before, and in turn artists and genres they wouldn’t normally have listened to before: I remember a young Dylan selecting Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling’, hearing it for the first time as I “played” it, and thinking, “what a f***ing tune!”.
Another thing Guitar Hero did well was highlight the difference in difficulty and complexity between different bands, guitarists, and songs. ‘Smoke on the Water’ and ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ are great songs, but in terms of technical guitar playing, they’re simply a cut below songs like ‘Texas Flood’ or ‘Bark at the Moon’, the last song in Guitar Hero and the game’s de-facto boss (I can still feel that urge to smash my plastic Gibson SG after failing the song trying to tackle the final solo on the higher difficulties). This gave the casual gamer and musician a lesson in the virtuosity of guitar playing, while simultaneously giving the more dedicated player a more challenging experience if he or she chose to undertake it, at risk to their own mental well being.
Since the release of the first Guitar Hero in 2005, there have been many sequels, spin-offs, and imitators. Art is subjective, so I’m not going to make a case for it being the best, that’s not the point of this article. This is simply a retrospective look at a revolutionary game that single-handedly mainstreamed a gaming genre into a major critical and financial success; more than that though, it’s a reminiscent look at a moment in time, for those of us lucky enough to have experienced it, which made Guitar Hero more than a game, more than a drunken session, more than a feeling…