In all honesty, I’m probably too young to be having nostalgic feelings. However, when in a heated debate about games from our childhood, both my friend and I let out a lengthy “aghhhhh” of satisfaction when Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock was brought up. Once upon a time, these rhythm games were the biggest thing in the world, with multiple installments being released each year between various competing franchises.
This wasn’t an unwarranted fad or just our fond memories either, at its peak (with the second game) the Guitar Hero series was being greeted with 92% ratings Metacritic. Activision reported that my beloved Guitar Hero 3 was the first single video game to gross over $1 billion at retail in 2008. YouTube videos of people completing perfect runs of notoriously difficult songs, sometimes entirely from memory, gained millions of views.
A major component of this success was found in the unique way they had of impacting your personal life. Hand on heart I know I can say that I wouldn’t be the person I am now without Legends of Rock (last time I mention it I promise), it introduced me to a whole new genre of music and an entire catalog of songs I now know as “Guitar Hero tunes”. There are fewer joys in life than throwing on a custom made playlist featuring these gems.
Even for artists themselves, this effect was particularly true. Having a song of yours featured in one of these games was genuinely a big deal, providing an immediate monetary gain as well as some excellent exposure that could bring lifelong fans to your work. To recap then, we have commercial and critical success, combined with a diehard fanbase and the support of music creators themselves; these games truly were inescapable.
So what happened? Well, dear reader, have you ever heard the story of Icarus? He flew too close to the sun and melted his divine wings. In many ways, rhythm games were also a victim of their own success. The model which Guitar Hero popularised was quickly replicated, with the market becoming oversaturated with clones such as Rock Band. As the variety of choice grew, audiences became split between the options, leading to diminishing returns for both manufacturers and developers alike.
In order to recuperate these losses, new instruments were introduced, such as extortionately large drum kits, which took up half the space in your living room, bass guitars, which added nothing to the experience, and microphones, which sucked all the joy out of gameplay as you’re forced to listen to your mate who thinks he can sing, belt out ‘Living on a Prayer’ for the ten millionth time. Breaking news mate: you suck. These new peripherals not only added very little to the games, but they also drove their prices sky high. The original Rock Band, coming bundled with a full 4-piece set, cost over $150. I think that may be the best way to alienate your key demographic I’ve ever seen.
To compensate even further, rhythm series started branching off into gimmick titles that made use of the various instruments. Titles such as LEGO Rock Band, or band specific entries began to flood the scene, adding to the already grating multiple releases a year formula. Whilst being an unnecessary hit to the wallet, these titles lost that exploratory aspect of gameplay and seriously reduced the targeted market from the general public to specific fanbases. Sure, it’s fun to see LEGO David Bowie strutting around on stage, or to play your way through The Beatles’ discography, but these experiences don’t come close to stumbling into love with a song you’ve never heard of before.
Revisiting these games even today, they’re still fun as hell at their core. I and my aforementioned pal recently picked up a now cheap copy of DJ Hero for the first time and had an absolute blast. The main principles of the gameplay, being accessible enough for casuals to pick up and play whilst half drunk at a party or attempting a song you’re unfamiliar with, whilst having a difficulty curve that allows those dedicated enough to master the layered controls, are as solid and captivating as ever.
From this pre-existing foundation then, it should be relatively simple to recapture the magic that took over the world. It’ll have been a decade since the last numbered entry in the Guitar Hero series come September (which let’s face it is the major hope for a rekindling), prime reboot time after such a long rest. The music world has similarly progressed in favor of an era-spanning journey; retro is the new big thing. There’s certainly a case to be made for an attempt to capitalize on the success of other media like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, whilst throwing in modern efforts from the likes of Radiohead or Wolf Alice.
Alternatively, the grime scene has never been bigger, with Stormzy even headlining Glastonbury, so why not test the water and expand the potential audience with a DJ Hero successor featuring Kendrick Lemar and Skepta? As long as whoever takes the plunge to try and relaunch the rhythm empire doesn’t make it cost enough to break the bank, capturing the home-grown, garage-band feel that drew people to the genre originally, I can see no reason why the glory days cannot return.
That being said, a few years back both Harmonix and Activision hoped to recapture that lightning in a bottle with Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live, respectively. Rock Band 4, despite backward compatibility, failed to make an impression and ultimately destroyed peripheral maker Mad Catz. Guitar Hero Live, on the other hand, had more of a “games as service” vision as well as a completely new peripheral, but that also failed to really capture an audience with Activision shutting down its servers last year.
Of course, I am really campaigning for these games – in their purest forms – to come back just so I can experience the euphoria of the motion sickness that came with them. Come on, you know what I’m talking about. When you played Guitar Hero for hours on end before looking away and having everything in your surroundings move towards you like those anxiety bringing notes. Well, that and I have about half a grand’s worth of plastic guitars sat around my house gathering dust. I just want to pretend I’m Slash again, guys.