So much of the Guitar Hero phenomenon was personal. Anyone can think back and remember the first time they clutched those keys. Green, Red, Yellow, Blue, Orange. Maybe you barely handled the guitar and just marveled at the people on YouTube tapping away meticulously to 100% notes hit. Maybe you've attempted to scale the mountain that is any DragonForce song. Maybe you just really wanted to play Freebird in front of your friends and family. Chances are, you've picked up a plastic guitar.
Guitar Hero's story reads like an episode of Behind the Music, though. Signing that big contract, getting involved in drugs and sex all spelled its downfall. Well, there were no drugs... or sex, but signing with a big label usually means two things: more money, fewer fans.
Harmonix Music Systems were originally known for largely electronic-inspired music games like Frequency and Amplitude. The basic premise of those games was simple. Correctly hit a sequence of buttons to the music and move on to the next track of music. It was a bit like keeping several plates spinning, only with a lot of bass and flashing lights.
When Harmonix teamed up with RedOctane in 2005, their goal was to bring a GuitarFreaks experience to American gamers. Largely an arcade attraction in Japan, GuitarFreaks was never successful in the States. Despite that, Harmonix and RedOctane managed to sell Guitar Hero in 2005 to the console-owning masses.
How were gamers convinced to spend the cash on the first wave of plastic peripherals? Through the marriage of the Rock and Roll persona and the universal appeal of the air guitar. Making an ass out of yourself at home was much more entertaining that embarrassing yourself at the defunct arcade scene in the States.
Guitar Hero covered the gamut of rock and roll music, including tracks like "Iron Man", "Take Me Out". "Smoke on the Water", "Ace of Spades", and "Ziggy Stardust". Guitar Hero II hit a year later in 2006 and checked off a number of wish list items for fans of the first game. Full songs could be played in multiplayer and the setlist expanded to include even more rock anthems and master recordings. If you've never played "Carry On Wayward Son", "Heart-Shaped Box", "John the Fisherman", "Search and Destroy", "Strutter", or "YYZ" you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of Guitar Hero II.
After Guitar Hero II's success on both PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360, the suits took notice. Rock and Roll rarely benefits from money, and the virtual music scene is no different. Activision bought up peripheral designers RedOctane, and MTV Networks picked up gameplay designers Harmonix. The Guitar Hero franchise went for a cool $100 million to Activision who put former Tony Hawk developers Neversoft at the helm.
Fortunately for Harmonix, Activision passed them up, allowing talent and a love for music to continue to grow at the Massachusetts-based developer. In one of the most savage burns the industry will ever see, Harmonix let their baby go to the dark side, letting Activision think they bought the whole package. The suits figured the gameplay was easy and obtaining music licenses would come easy to the biggest publisher in the world.
Rock Band included a microphone, the ability to add a second guitar, and the fan-favorite drum set. Suddenly, any living room could be transformed into the world's biggest stage. An ever flowing stream of DLC only helped to fuel the fervor for the latest music game from Harmonix.
Guitar Hero III, on the other hand, became the object of discourse in the Guitar Hero community. Some fans praised it and lofted it high as the pinnacle of Guitar Hero games. Others claim it the start of a long slow spiral downward. The former group can be found at scorehero.com. The latter tends to enjoy Rock Band.
Activision blew Guitar Hero up to be one of its strongest publishing pillars, lining up a Nintendo DS game, Guitar Hero Mobile for cell phones, and band-centric titles like Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. After Rock Band's big splash with drums and microphones, Guitar Hero: World Tour expanded to include other instruments as well. Alongside Guitar Hero 5, Activision launched the pop-oriented Band Hero and the hip-hop and electronica-oriented DJ Hero. In 2009, 25 separate products within the Hero series could be found on store shelves.
Splintering the Guitar Hero franchise was par for the course at Activision. If it could make so much money on one title, developing 10 could only make more money right? Activision found a way to turn the music gaming genre into a fad, a pathetic phase. Who knows where Guitar Hero would be had it stayed at a more tempered pace.
The bloated brand was trimmed back down and RedOctane and Neversoft focused their efforts to deliver a more taught, trim, and exciting Guitar Hero experience. All accounts pointed to Guitar Hero's last shot at relevance and marketability. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock managed to disappoint on all accounts.
The news of Guitar Hero's end wasn't unexpected. If you didn't see someone trip of the amplifier power chord several times, you were probably too focused on the scorehero.com community to notice. Maybe the music is still playing for you and you never let go of your wired PS2 Gibson SG guitar controller.
Who could blame you? There were far too many good times with Guitar Hero and friends. Maybe you can still pop in that disc of classics and say hi to old friends like Axel Steel, Judy Nails, or Johnny Napalm. They'll still be there for you. You can have your own concert on the roof with the band. Just don't invite the reanimated virtual ghost of Kurt Cobain. The party might end prematurely. Or worse yet, Courtney Love might show up.
The future may look bleak for Guitar Hero right now, but you probably don't have to worry. Remakes, reboots, and re-updates make up what feels like 50% of all games released these days. You didn't think the originator of Rock and Roll gaming could possibly stay dead, did you? It's not a matter of the torch being passed on to Rock Band; Harmonix took the torch with them during the split after GHII. Rock Band will shine on while Guitar Hero takes a much needed dirt nap. Just be ready for the eventual Guitar Hero: Rock of the Dead, with all of your favorite characters in zombie skins and voice-overs by Rob Zombie. I'm claiming Copyright Activision. If you want my idea, you'd better cut me a check.