Member the games you used to play? We member. The basement at the Hardcore Gamer office has a section known as the Crust Room, with an old grey couch and a big old CRT TV. All the classic systems are down there collecting dust, so in an effort to improve the cleanliness of our work space, we dust off these old consoles every so often and put an old game through its paces, just to make sure everything stays in working order. We even have a beige computer with a floppy disk drive.
The world can change a lot in just a decade and nothing drives this point home more than looking back to 2006. It’s common now to walk into a random dwelling and stumble across enough plastic Gibson knockoffs and plastic drums to outfit several bands, but back in 2006 finding a plastic five buttoned guitar was a bit of a rarity. Guitar Hero came out for PlayStation 2 about the same time Microsoft unleashed the Xbox 360. About a year later, Guitar Hero II came out for the PlayStation 2 and an Xbox 360 version followed five months later, and this was the beginning of when just about everyone graduated from being lord of the strings on air guitar to becoming five button virtuosos. Or at least four button virtuosos — that orange button can be tricky.
The guitar controller was still a new novelty for most people, since this was before a new version of Guitar Hero or Rock Band was released every three weeks. While critically and commercially successful, Guitar Hero II led to some polarizing reactions within my circle of friends, namely those that primarily consider themselves musicians or gamers. The latter category enjoyed the rhythm game a lot for its addictive gameplay, while some of the musicians struggled with trying to follow the rhythm the game wanted them to play that didn’t always match up to how someone would actually play the song. And there were always the few on both sides that took the game way too seriously.
Guitar Hero II isn’t actually about playing guitar. Saying it is would be like saying Call of Duty is comparable to going to the shooting range for firearms training. There is some carry over between being a guitarist and playing Guitar Hero II and having proficiency with one can help the other, but they are still different skill sets. Guitar Hero II is all about fun and escapism. Call of Duty you get to pretend to be a war hero, Grand Theft Auto you get to pretend to be a successful criminal, God of War you get to pretend to be a god and Guitar Hero II you get to pretend to be a rock star.
For simply being a game to play with friends, Guitar Hero II was incredibly fun. The rhythm of the music didn’t always completely match up to how the game wanted the player to strum, but in spite of that criticism, the controls were tight and responsive. The gameplay was addicting. Regardless of what difficulty level that was selected, the story mode progressive was properly balanced where songs would get more difficult as the game advanced, so the player would naturally improve their skills just by playing through the game. The final boss, for lack of a better term, was having to play Free Bird, and this was presented in the genius way of making fun of what a cliche it is for people to yell out Free Bird at concerts and by asking a few times are you seriously going to play Free Bird?
The songs featured in Guitar Hero II were a good mix of different styles of rock from different eras. Since this was before Guitar Hero had risen to ridiculous levels of popularity, the songs featured in the game were cover versions. Most of them were faithful renditions, though there were a few surprises out of left field like the change on the guitar solo in Heart Shaped Box. There was an impressive main setlist featuring songs by major bands such as Guns N’ Roses, Iggy and the Stooges and Alice in Chains along with a selection of bonus tracks that featured some lesser known artists, such as Voivod and Buckethead. Two personal favorites from the bonus setlist were Thunderhorse by Dethklok and Trogdor by Strong Bad, mainly because neither was actually by a real band.
Guitar Hero II was a blast to play solo, but kind of like how playing guitar alone in your bedroom isn’t the same as playing in a band, getting a second guitar controller to play with a friend was much more enjoyable. Typically the game would be played cooperatively, since it only makes sense to both try to play a song as well as possible, competitive band play doesn’t work too well since if you make one member play badly it just makes the song sound bad. The cooperative nature of the game didn’t do anything to stifle any trash talking and competitive nature of who can score more points on a song. One of my favorite memories of this game was playing with a friend who could outscore me on any song on expert easily, but had never touched an instrument in his life. He made sure I knew this too, so after he bested me on The Trooper for the zillionth time I picked up one of those old fashioned guitars, the kind that has strings, and played The Trooper for real. What ever degree of smug jerk you can imagine me being to him after that, you’re probably not making me smug enough.
Some nice side effects of this game were that it helped get some people more interested in music. One can only press plastic buttons to a song for so long before they want to get a feel of what actually playing a real guitar is like, so this did serve as a catalyst to create some musicians. Another benefit was just exposure to so many bands people are bound to discover a new artist they enjoy or rediscover someone they’ve forgotten about. One friend has become a huge fan of That Handsome Devil and Guitar Hero II was his introduction to them. I was not a fan of early Avenged Sevenfold, but hearing Beast and the Harlot on this game showed me they changed their sound and ended up giving them another chance and now own a few of their albums.
The Rock Band and Guitar Hero games aren’t what they used to be as far as popularity goes. They seemed like a fad that lasted for a few years and with over-saturating the market a lot of us have several plastic instruments collecting dust. Neversoft ended up taking over Guitar Hero after this and developed Guitar Hero III, and while including Slash and Tom Morelle was neat along with actually licensing the bands’ songs, the gameplay just wasn’t as fun as Guitar Hero II. Harmonix had moved on to creating Rock Band, adding vocals and drums and creating a much more immersive game and better for social environments since a four person band was possible compared to just two guitarists. Music games like this will probably never reach the popularity they had in the final years of the aughts, but during that time a lot of people had a great time pretending to be rock stars with their friends.
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