Some time ago, I remember talking with another journo about what made games so great. One thing we came up with was that a really good game can get close enough to replicating an experience you’ll never have that your imagination can fill in the blanks and you can get just a little bit of the buzz that you might get from the real thing. I’m never going to drive a Ford Mustang at high speeds down the Vegas strip, command Roman legions or (thankfully) battle for survival against plague-ridden yokels in some weirdo Spanish village, but thanks to games I can get an inkling of what that might feel like.
Clearly, this formula doesn’t work for every game (Lumines, Final Fantasy or Fahrenheit for example), but it definitely works for Guitar Hero. It’s a game that appeals to that little bit of adolescent brain that always wishes we were the axe-slinging wild-man, scorching the fretboard at the front of the stage with a searing solo, then effortlessly dropping down into a grungy, syncopated riff. If you’ve ever been a wannabe Hendrix, Steve Vai, Van Halen or Page – even (though let’s hope not) a Malmsteen – then you really need to find a copy. Now.
OK, so it is a rhythm action game, but like Sambo di Amigo or Donkey Konga, it’s one that works because it’s been partnered with a brilliantly designed chunk of hardware. The Guitar Hero controller is a cut-down plastic copy of a Gibson SG – the mighty axe played by Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and AC-DC’s Angus Young – equipped with five coloured buttons on the neck, a strum trigger and a whammy bar. While playing the game, you get a stylised version of a fretboard scrolling down towards you with notes – mapped to the five coloured buttons – highlighted on it. When the note hits the spot, you strum the trigger and press the appropriate button. Sometimes you have to hold the note for a required time, at other times you might even have to play two at a time for a chord. And if you’re feeling fancy, you can use the whammy bar to add vibrato or bend the pitch upwards or downwards.
It sounds simple, and in easy mode it is. You can choose a guitar hero to play, a six-string to wield, and before long you’ll be moving from small-time gigs in seedy basement bars to larger venues, theatres and finally the festival stage. The game starts off with relatively simple songs full of basic meaty riffs – Joan Jett’s I Love Rock and Roll – then takes you through slightly fiddlier numbers – Black Sabbath’s Iron Man – to widdly epics – Hendrix’s Spanish Castle Magic. On Easy mode the game only uses three buttons and keeps the notes to a minimum, yet it still captures that feeling of strapping on a guitar and blasting riffs from a hefty Marshall stack.