And here you thought that the rhythm game genre was getting stale. While Konami still has a firm lock on most rhythm-oriented games, another company called Harmonix has also released its share of interesting rhythm games--Frequency and Amplitude--both for the PlayStation 2. Plus, Harmonix and Konami have teamed up in the past on the Karaoke Revolution series. Now, the Cambridge-based developer is taking a similar approach to the world of guitar rock with Red Octane's Guitar Hero. With its extremely smart approach to difficulty, its great guitar controller, and its killer song selection, Guitar Hero might just be the best rhythm game ever made.
Guitar Hero is played with a special guitar-shaped controller that has five buttons up on the neck, with one on each of the first five frets. Instead of strings to pluck, a small, clicky flipper is on the body of the guitar. And, just for kicks, it's got a whammy bar. The guitar feels pretty solid and generally well-made. The game screen consists of a scrolling fret board that has various colored notes on it. Each color corresponds to one of the buttons on the guitar, which you must hold down while strumming on the flipper. Some notes have lines attached to them, implying that you should hold down that note for a longer period of time, similar to the freeze arrows found in Dance Dance Revolution. Technically, you could play Guitar Hero on a standard PS2 controller, if you wanted to, but it's not nearly as interesting without the guitar. Also worth noting, the guitar isn't compatible with Konami's Guitar Freaks games, so if you're looking to replace your increasingly rare and somewhat flimsy Konami guitars, you're out of luck.
Unlike most rhythm games, Guitar Hero has a career mode that sort of dictates how you should proceed through the five difficulty settings. This is probably the smartest part of the entire game. Anyone jumping into even the medium difficulty setting without a decent amount of experience isn't likely to get very far. But starting on easy, which only uses three of the five buttons, is a great way to get used to playing the game. Also, you'll be playing easier songs when you first start, and you'll work your way through multiple brackets of tracks as you play. Medium difficulty steps things up by only occasionally working in the fourth button. Eventually, you'll start using that fourth button more and more as you move down the song list. Hard difficulty does the same thing with the fifth button, giving you time to get used to pressing it with your pinky, which, let's face it, isn't normally much of a gaming finger. By the time you hit expert, you'll be ready to slide up and down the neck of the guitar to hit all five of the buttons. But it doesn't mean that you'll cruise right through the level, either. Expert gets extremely difficult, especially when it comes time to play the songs' solos. But if you've worked your way through the other difficulties, you'll probably enjoy the steadily increasing challenge.
Aside from the career mode, you can also enter quick play, which lets you play any of the tunes you've unlocked in the career at any of the five difficulties. High scores are tracked in this mode, which is great, but you can't select your player and guitar, which reduces their importance a bit. You can, however, choose your player and your guitar in the multiplayer mode, which lets two players go at it. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like guitars are being sold separately at the moment, so you'll have to either buy two bundle packages or, if you don't want to wait for guitars to go on sale later this year, hope someone in your area also picks up the game. It's a shame that this isn't more readily available right out of the gate, since the multiplayer mode is one of the game's greatest assets. The songs are divided between the two players really well, and you'll trade off solos and such as you play.
In addition to these modes, there's also a very brief tutorial that shows you the basics of the game, including how to use star power. Star power is earned by playing star-shaped notes that come along every so often during the course of a song. If you nail enough of them, a star power meter fills up. Once it gets around halfway full, you can activate star power by tilting the guitar upright. This causes the notes to light up and doubles your scoring multiplier. Since missing a bunch of notes drains your on-screen rock meter and ends your game, star power is also handy in the harder songs, since the notes that are hit in star power mode rapidly sway the meter, which determines how well you're doing overall. The addition of star power gives the game a bit of a strategic element that most rhythm games lack. Now, you not only have to hit all the notes to keep your combo going, but you also want to make sure you activate star power just before a heavy section so you can make the most of its score-increasing effects.