The nights were cold in the November of 2006. Despite a crisp wind in the air, students made their way from all over to crowd into a little basement apartment on the dark side of campus. The news had spread by word of mouth: good company, cheap drinks, and a free concert where all the classics would be played. Not a bad deal for a poor college kid.
As they filtered in and warmed up with watered down cocktails, the students noticed something odd: the guitarist was not on stage with the rest of the band. He was casually standing with the crowd, beer in hand and axe slung over his shoulder. Even as the drummer counted in for the first song, the guitarist made no moves for the stage. He simply chugged the rest of his brew, adjusted his instrument, and began to play side-by-side with the crowd.
It was unlike anything they had ever seen before: a concert where the crowd was part of the act. The setlist was entirely request-based, random party-goers could sing with the band, and the guitar was passed around for everyone to have a chance at stardom. While this scenario sounds like some sort of surreal concert experience, I am merely describing what could be one of a hundred different nights playing Guitar Hero at my apartment in college.
Before the plastic guitars hit the scene, most exposure to rhythm games came in the form of Dance Dance Revolution and Karaoke Revolution. While these games sold well within niche markets, they lacked universal appeal for two main reasons. First, both game series appealed to limited musical markets. There was plenty of pop music, both American and Japanese, but that is about all the Revolutions had to offer. The second reason is the core gameplay is based on singing or dancing in front of a group. For players who are not blessed with a hefty mix of natural talent and coordination, performing well in these games may take weeks of practice, and even more time is required to feel comfortable playing in front of a crowd.
Guitar Hero hit a larger market by providing an easy-to-pick-up gameplay mechanic. This rock-star simulator did not test players on their natural singing abilities, or ask them to master the coordination of stepping on arrows along with fast-paced beats. Guitar Hero merely asked people to include a piece of plastic as they naturally played air guitar to their favorite rock songs. Making a guitar-shaped controller was also a brilliant move. The tactile satisfaction of holding a guitar while strumming away at “More Than A Feeling,” dramatically throwing the neck of the instrument skyward to gain bonus points through a complex solo; the entire experience of playing Guitar Hero would be lost if the player had to translate their movements to a traditional controller.
Developers at Harmonix took another step to ensure widespread appeal by dipping their cup into the deep, Eldritch well that is Rock Music. The setlist for Guitar Hero was an excellent mix of heavy metal monsters (“Bark at the Moon”), classic rock icons (“Smoke on the Water”), and even some more recently released popular songs (“Take Me Out”). For fans of that ole’ rock and roll music, there was plenty to offer. As the series continued into its fourth and fifth iterations, other instruments were added to the arsenal, and download content expanded the musical options exponentially.
Unfortunately, like so many rock stars before it, Guitar Hero grew too massive, and collapsed under the weight of its success (and rampant drug use). Soon, every home had a set of plastic instruments to play with, so there was no need to buy a new little guitar or drum kit with each game release. As motion sensor controllers offered games like Dance Central and Just Dance to the market (without clunky instruments to clutter apartments), people began to ignore the once great Guitar Hero, and the series which filled every home (and college dorm room) with music faded to black.
Despite so many people moving on from Guitar Hero’s rock offerings to the house-music style of Dance Central, I will never forget this fantastic game series and the happy memories it provided. Besides being one of the very first games that Laura and I played together, Guitar Hero transformed my apartment in college from a den of nerd stylings into a hall of rock. After all, not everyone wants to come over and spend their Friday night playing video games; but everyone does want to come over and be a rock star. Especially if drinks are free.