I’m Holding Out for a (Guitar) Hero
by Jason Vandenberghe

I want to talk about my love affair with Guitar Hero. For those living under a sand dune in Darkest Escarpion, Guitar Hero was something of an out-of-left-field smash hit rock-and-roll rhythm game, which has spawned multiple sequels and multiplayer band games.

It’s a game where you play air guitar for points. Pretty much.

It sports the most amazing add-on controller ever: this marvelous creation called the mini-Gibson SG, a device that is so like a musical instrument as to be indistinguishable from one.

Note that I did not say it is indistinguishable from a guitar. Because, of course, it is in practice; comparing the mini-Gibson here to a real guitar is a little like comparing a kazoo to a trumpet. True, both require breath to make noise, and both require some skill (in varying amounts) to operate, but there is where the similarities end. One is a maker of sound, and the other is an instrument.

That said, there is an enormous amount of skill one can apply to this stupid game. Just imagine: Dance Dance Revolution, only with a guitar.

It’s unbelievably fun. And, I’m really good at it.

Now, I wouldn’t normally make such a bold claim. Modesty is, after all, a virtue, and it is important to keep your perspective in such things: there is always someone better than you out there, and it’s best not to over-celebrate your own successes. I feel these things to be true, in my bones, and in no way wish to misrepresent my accomplishments.

So I brought proof.

Before we talk about that, though, I want to break this game down a bit, and discuss its genius. It’s one hell of a game.

To begin our discussion, let’s establish the Facts:

In this game, colored dots scroll at you while a song is playing, and you have to “play” the right “note” at the right moment. If you succeed, yaay. If you miss, boo.

“Playing” a note means pressing the right colored button, and “strumming” the little lever that represents the strings. It feels amazingly like playing a guitar, in practice.

There are four difficulty levels in the game - Easy, Medium, Hard, and Expert.

In “Easy” mode, you only ever have to worry about three of the five buttons. This is nice for the uncoordinated, as you never have to move your hand, and the notes come at you in a nice, leisurely pace.

In “Medium”, they add the fourth button, which you have to either press with your pinky (often awkward), or shift your hand position (tricky to do). And they expect you to be able to handle faster notes, and more of them.

You can imagine this, I bet: it’s a timing game, like many others, with the added cool factor that it really feels like a guitar. Hit one of four inputs, at the right time… if you played PaRappa the Rapper, you’re not too far off here.

…and then the wheels come off.

In “Hard” mode, a couple of important things happen. The first thing you notice right off: the notes come at you literally twice as fast as in the previous two levels. The second thing is that the fifth button starts to appear in songs, which makes the skill of relocating your hand on the neck a requirement, no longer optional.
And… well, you kind of have to start playing the solos. Which means chains of tightly packed notes, all in a row.

They mean it. It’s hard.

The two most difficult songs (and, not surprisingly, the last two songs in the game) are “Cowboys From Hell” by Pantera (oh yes, yes, more metal, bring on the metal) and “Bark At The Moon” by Ozzy Ozbourne. It… took some time, and the development of whole new playing techniques, to overcome this obstacle.
See, this is where it starts to get crazy. “Expert” mode is something completely different.

In Hard mode, one has the impression that the designers are aware of your fear of the fifth button. They tease you with it, as if knowing that every time you see one of those babies appear on the screen, scrolling towards you, your stomach cramps, and you hope you’ll get it. In contrast, the designers working on Expert mode have only disdain for this fear. “Get used to that button,” they say, “because you’re going to be hitting it whenever we damn well feel like you are.”

Gone, too, in Expert mode, is any pretention that you will not be hitting every goddamn note the lead guitarist played in the song. In Hard, they let you off the hook here and there, and allowed some notes to “represent” note phrases. This was in order to preserve your sanity. Note to self: the Expert mode designers are trying to drive you insane. Was the sound in the song a chord? You’ll be hitting two buttons at once. Was it played at speeds few humans can even comprehend? Join the band, brother, because that’s your job now.

As an aside, I want to say that it is very strange how much playing this game is like learning an actual instrument. Anyone who has struggled with real-world instruments knows the cycle of learning one goes through, and that same cycle repeats itself here. I would go for days and days without progressing, banging my head against the same goddamn song, and then one day I would pick up my “guitar”, and a song that was insurmountable the day before would be simple.

I get better at this game when I sleep. Just like the real thing.

I only have one more thing to say on this topic, and it is this:

I have beat Guitar Hero on Expert Difficulty.