The Guitar Hero series continues to be one of the most popular video game series of all time.
By 2009, Guitar Hero III had become one of the most popular games of all time, netting sales of over 1 billion dollars. Activision, the company that produces the titles, had made news about a year previously when the total sales of the entire Guitar Hero franchise had surpassed 1 billion dollars. Guitar Hero III pulled off this incredible feat on its own in less than a year and a half. The Guitar Hero series has reached incredible levels of popularity in the United States, Japan, and Europe, and has only been beaten out by a handful of titles on occasion, including some editions of the Rock Band series and Gears of War.
There are variations in gameplay between each of the sequels in the Guitar Hero series. Most notably, song lists change widely from game to game, although songs can occasionally be found twice (such as "Lonely is the Night", found on Guitar Encore: Rocks the 80's and Guitar Hero 5). Other variations include "improvement" in Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs (explained later and referred to as HO/PO from now on) from Guitar Hero to Guitar Hero II, the introduction of the ability to play the full band in later editions such as World Tour, and many other improvements in the later versions and on Xbox such as a neck slider for grayed-out "ghost" notes, the ability to maintain a chord while playing new notes, and HO/POs that involve more than one key at once. There are also variations within the game as it changes platforms. Guitar Hero 2, for example, has one extra bonus song per set on the Xbox 360 versus the Playstation 2, and manifests a slightly different layout. The movie below shows Danny Johnson of Grapevine, Texas smashing the Guitar Hero world record.
I have only played the Guitar Hero, 2, III, Aerosmith, Rocks the 80's, and 5 editions of the game on an Xbox 360 and Playstation 2, and will restrict my explanation of the games to those titles where appropriate. Skill level is a natural question; I have gotten five stars on almost every Hard level song on all the titles I have played (except Raining Blood), and five stars on most of the Expert level songs. Three songs that continue to elude me are the Expert versions of Jordan (Guitar Hero 2), The Devil Went Down to Georgia, and Fire and Flames (both Guitar Hero III).
The basic point of Guitar Hero is to progress through modes of difficulty and improve your ability to follow color-coded button sequences by pressing the appropriate buttons at the correct time. The notes scroll down from the top of the screen to the bottom, and allow you to see them coming. Almost all players will have no difficulty getting the hang of the first few Easy songs. Easy difficulty mode only involves the index, middle, and ring fingers of the hand that presses the fret buttons (the colored keys), and is much slower than all successive modes. On some of the later modes, there is also a Beginner mode that does not require pressing fret buttons in order to play; this is intended for young children.
Medium mode adds the fourth fret button (blue), and this can take quite some practice to master. Most people are not ordinarily required to do a coordinated activity with the pinkie finger, and the finger is consequently quite weak. It hurts at first, and takes some time to build up the strength of the finger, but players can adapt quickly. Hard mode adds the fifth fret button (orange) and this requires the playing hand to shift in order to hit the appropriate keys from time to time. An increasing amount of HO/POs also can be seen.
Hammer-Ons / Pull-Offs vary from the normal notes in the following fashion: instead of the white dot in the center of each note being surrounded with a black line (as you will notice that it ordinarily is if you pay close attention), the black line is absent. This means that, after playing the first normal note and strumming as usual, the player may continue to play the subsequent notes without strumming until he or she reaches the next normal note. The HO/POs in Guitar Hero were nearly impossible; they were still slightly clunky in II, but have improved a great deal for III, World Tour, 5, and similar titles which came out about the same time. By the time players reach HO/POs, they will have played a good bit, and pressing the fret button without strumming will seem counter-intuitive. HO/POs start with just one or two notes following the normal note, but as the player progresses, solo passages can become long rapid strings of these notes. These passages can take a great deal of proficiency to master.
As the game progresses, the speed of the modes continually increases until the player reaches the Expert mode. This mode scrolls by at a running pace, and the songs are set up with a greater degree of difficulty than Hard mode. Most are not so difficult, but quite a few require a great deal of practice in order to pass. The vocals, drums, and bass increase in difficulty in a similar fashion. At the end of each song, stars are displayed based upon what cutoff score you have surpassed. If you perform too poorly, you will fail the song and be booed off stage. An average performance consists of three stars, good of four, and excellent of five stars. If you hit every note, you will receive gold stars. Interestingly, though, you can accidently strum an extra time and hear the nasty scraping sound and yet still get gold stars as long as you hit every note!
Of the titles that I have played, Guitar Hero III has proved to be the most difficult. It also has the best gameplay in the form of Battle Mode, which allows you to face off against fictitious characters including one memorable sequence where you fight "Lou" a.k.a. the devil by playing the song "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Guitar Hero III also displays a running total of all your scores at the bottom of each difficulty mode, which makes it great for competing against your friends. This feature was not continued in Guitar Hero 5, although an ability to view the total amount of stars earned was added.
I purchased the fifth title knowing that it had about 85 songs and hoping for a crazy challenge, but I was disappointed. The ending song, "21st Century Schizoid Man" is not very hard, and there is nothing musically compelling about the song choice (unlike "Fire and Flames" or "Free Bird"!). There is not a great deal of difficult material in Guitar Hero 5 at all, and I personally did not like the cumbersome new screen for song titles, which divided them up into their appropriate gig locations instead of showing them as a list. The latest game is not all bad, however; there are a number of popular and fun songs such as "Blue Orchid," "What I Got," "Ring of Fire," and "Under Pressure." One thing they did get right here was to include real guitar heroes from across the ages. Kurt Cobain looks haunting and ghostly, but I cheered when a very lifelike Johnny Cash came out in typical black attire with an acoustic guitar on his back.
The major difference between Playstation 2 and Xbox 360 is that the Xbox version has the ability to download additional songs. Naturally, the Xbox also features better graphics and sound, and some improved programming for the visual screenplay of the game. Also important is that future Guitar Hero games starting this year will no longer be offered on the Playstation 2 platform. If you have loads of free time and enjoy hearing lots of popular rock songs like "Heart-Shaped Box" and "Monkey Wrench," then Guitar Hero is for you!