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ISSUE 121 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/9/2007

From Regular Guy to Rock Guy: The Guitar Hero Story

By Matt Everhart
Staff Writer

Friday, November 9, 2007

The half-sized, plastic guitars packaged with the "Guitar Hero" games, with their big, primary color buttons, might have more in common with Playskool than Metallica, but they've become a pop culture icon since the first "Guitar Hero's" release. Launched with a goofy peripheral and a steep $80 price tag in November 2005, some critics were originally skeptical about "Guitar Hero." The game's release was a big risk for its publisher, RedOctane, a company that was better known for its high-quality "Dance Dance Revolution" game pads before the overwhelming success of "Guitar Hero," and for its developer, Harmonix, which is known for its esoteric "Frequency" and "Amplitude" rhythm games.

Slowly but surely, gamers started hearing about this strange but outrageously fun game for the Playstation 2. Many critics adored it, and Best Buy set out demo kiosks in the summer of 2006 to attract curious consumers who wanted to try this novelty item before they bought the game. And it worked. By the fall of 2006 when "Guitar Hero 2" was released for Playstation 2 (and later for the Xbox 360), it had become a pop culture phenomenon.

Besides putting rhythm-action games on the map as a popular video game genre, the series became one of the most popular game franchises of the last two years. It's achieved the same sort of cultural relevancy as "Halo" and Madden," spreading across demographics by being both accessible and deep. Most importantly, it's managed to integrate two of the biggest entertainment industries - music and video games - in an unprecedented way.

The recent release of "Guitar Hero 3" for Wii, Xbox 360, Playstation 2 and Playstation 3 solidifies the brand's place in the pop culture pantheon, adding famous shredders Slash and Tom Morello as bosses and drastically increasing the number of original recordings in the game instead of covers. It also features online play for the first time.

"Guitar Hero" has been a phenomenon at St. Olaf as well. It's a staple of common rooms in Ytterboe pods, and it attracts hallmates into the rooms of dozens of students. It's even managed to break into the sports games and "Halo" rotation popular among football players and other athletes.

Paul Schwingler 09, the starting right tackle of the St. Olaf football team, originally scoffed at the idea of "Guitar Hero" when he saw a demo kiosk in Best Buy two years ago. It was only when he came back to St. Olaf and found his friends playing it that he decided it was worth a try. "It's really addicting," he said with his Ytterboe pod's gigantic HDTV, game systems and Guitar Hero controllers behind him.

It's not all jocks and bros who are into the game though. Leigh Maesaka 08, a history major, started playing "Guitar Hero 2" this summer on her brother's PS2 when she couldn't find a job. "It's music for everyone who can't actually play an instrument," she said, noting that "it's like DDR,' only sitting down."

Victor Wong '08 also tried "Guitar Hero 2" first, in this case at a friend's apartment last year. He said he heard people talking about it and that it had generated a lot of word-of-mouth buzz. "People said it was really addicting," he said, adding that his roommate Tony Waldschmidt `08 has been playing it several hours a day since "Guitar Hero 3" came out last week.

Though "Guitar Hero" has hardcore appeal at its highest difficulty, it's often praised for being highly accessible, even if you're not very good at games. "If you've never played videogames before, you can play on easy," said Wong, who started on medium difficulty and is now working his way up to hard. He contrasted it with "Halo," saying that "Guitar Hero" isn't as competitive to play together with other people, and thus is more fun. Schwingler agreed, saying that out of the Halo-Madden-Guitar Hero triumvirate, he likes "Guitar Hero" the best because it's a "change of pace" from the other games. Maesaka said that she likes that "Guitar Hero" is not complicated to control and that there's no dying like in other games.

One of the biggest reasons "Guitar Hero" has been so popular is that it's centered on something that everyone likes: music. Many games over the past decade have featured soundtracks full of well-known, licensed songs, but never before has the synergy of music and gaming come together quite as successfully as it has in the "Guitar Hero" series.

The sets of songs in each game cater to a wide variety of tastes and age groups, from The Rolling Stones to Metallica to The Killers. This diversity hooks people in with songs they know and enjoy and then introduces them to songs and bands they never knew about. Wong said that he had never listened to classic rock until playing "Guitar Hero," and now he has a healthy appreciation for it. "I love listening to music, but I'm bad with [playing] music," Schwingler said. "To feel like you're playing it is pretty cool," he added.

The social experience of playing "Guitar Hero," with its silly plastic guitar and potential for both outrageous air guitar gyration and karaoke-like humiliation, is how many students on campus have come to know the game. Schwingler said his group of friends operates on the "dib system", where each person takes a turn by claiming who goes next. As many as six or seven people will take turns sometimes. Wong said that there's a similar system in his pod, but his competitive roommate sometimes takes more turns than he should. "It's tearing our pod apart," he joked.

"Dance Dance Revolution" blazed the rhythm game trail in the late `90s and early `00s, but "Guitar Hero" launched the genre into the popular consciousness. Though most students said they haven't played other rhythm games, "DDR," "Elite Beat Agents" for the Nintendo DS and the karaoke game "SingStar" for the PS2 have all rode the rhythm-game wave to success in the last few years.

Maesaka and Schwingler both expressed excitement over the upcoming "Rock Band" from Harmonix, EA, and MTV. "Rock Band" will be released on Nov. 20 for PS3 and Xbox 360, and will ship with a drum kit and microphone, in addition to a guitar controller. This set-up will allow a fully-fledged band to rock both online and off. "We're looking forward to playing as a group," Schwingler said. His pod decided to hold off on buying "Guitar Hero 3" in favor of the upcoming "Rock Band."

"Rock Band" will have plenty to live up to in "Guitar Hero 3's" wake, which has garnered well-deserved critical praise since it was released last week. Though the novelty and innovation of the first two games has unfortunately worn off, and the presentation is hardly "next-gen" looking (even on PS3 and 360), the challenging and expansive new setlist is debatably the best of the series, including standouts "Even Flow" by Pearl Jam and "Paint it Black" by The Rolling Stones. Then there's "Through the Fire and Flames" by Dragonforce, the hardest song in the game, with lyrics like something out of a "Dungeons & Dragons" fan fiction piece.

Also, the newly added online modes work well, and they provide great opportunities to play against friends or hone your skill against strangers. The wireless controllers provide new freedom for rocking out, finally allowing players to strut across their dorm rooms like Angus Young or jump around like Flea.

The future looks bright for rhythm-based games like "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band." The question now is what comes next? Activision, who published "Guitar Hero 3," has filed trademarks for "Drum Hero," "Band Hero" and even "Keyboard Hero," so more instruments are definitely in the pipe. Meanwhile, EA has promised entire albums available for download to play on "Rock Band," including Nirvana's famous "Nevermind" and The Who's "Who's Next." This raises the possibility of an iTunes-like music download service, only for songs you can actually play. Rock on, indeed.

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