Today, publisher Activision killed the Guitar Hero franchise. For a series that once threatened to become the biggest thing video games had ever seen, it was quite an inglorious end.
The first Guitar Hero was released on the PlayStation 2 in 2005. Developed by Harmonix, the team behind Amplitude and Karaoke Revolution, and published not by Activision by by RedOctane, it brought the previously arcade-only experience of playing a plastic guitar in a video game (see Guitar Freaks) to a home console. And it was great.
With a replica Gibson SG and perhaps the finest soundtrack ever assembled for one of these games, it was a breath of fresh air for an industry too long reliant on making games about shooting things.
It also contains my favourite Guitar Hero song of all time, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas Flood.
Success in the video game industry means more success must follow, so a year later, Harmonix released Guitar Hero II, which was this time co-published by RedOctane and Activision.
While again the tracklist was outstanding, testament to Harmonix’s knowledge and passion for all genres of music, the second game also gave the world an insight into what was to come in later years. Product placement was suddenly everywhere, and while reviews were great, there was already a sense that the only real differences between the first and second games were the tracklists.
Guitar Hero II also saw the franchise strike out from its PlayStation 2 roots, appearing on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console, where instead of using a Gibson SG came packing a Gibson X-Plorer instead.
The third Guitar Hero title, and first “expansion” in the series, was Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the ’80s, released in July 2007. It’s seen now as Harmonix’s “Greatest Hits” album, in that it was a rushed, cheap product slipped out the door to fulfil contractual obligations and get out from under the publishing sway of Activision.
By the time the expansion shipped, developers Harmonix were already under new ownership – picked up by MTV Games – and were hard at work on a competing product, Rock Band.
Only a few months later, the third “full” Guitar Hero game would be released. With new developers (Neversoft, formerly of Tony Hawk’s fame) and a release on no less than six platforms, it’s seen by many as the high water mark of the series, if only in terms of the balance between critical and commercial success (though for the first time it saw a marked decline in its aggregate review scores).
While Neversoft clearly lacked the expertise of Harmonix in selecting tracklists or cultivating a real “rock n’ roll” aesthetic, they did at least try and add some new features to the series, like boss battles and online multiplayer.
Late 2007 also saw the release of the first Guitar Hero game for mobile phones. The less we say about these, the better.
Here’s where the wheels really start to fall off, as now-sole publishers Activision begin the process of milking the franchise to death. Barely six months after the release of Guitar Hero III – which itself was released less than six months after Rock The 80s – Neversoft and Vicarious Visions released Guitar Hero: Aerosmith.
It was a puzzling move. There was clearly potential for one-band Guitar Hero titles, but of all the bands in the world, Aerosmith? Its relevance to the kids of the 21st century was limited, and the expansion’s poor review scores and muted reception were testament to this. In fact, about the only truly noteworthy thing about GH: Aerosmith is the fact it was the last Guitar Hero game to only allow players to use the guitar and/or bass.
That was because, only a few months later, Guitar Hero: World Tour was released. Combating Harmonix’s new series “Rock Band”, which allowed users to not just play guitar and bass but also sing and play the drums, it was the first game in the series to feature new instruments. Those being, of course, the drums and vocals.
Between its lack of originality, high price and Neversoft’s continued struggles to truly shape something unique out of a franchise they’d merely inherited, the game performed (relatively) poorly, selling far fewer copies than Guitar Hero III. Its critical reception was also mixed, reviewers generally tending to favour Harmonix’s Rock Band.
It was about now that the series probably should have taken a break. Taken stock of what it could be in the future. Give consumers a chance to catch their breath. But no, as is Activision’s way with major franchises, there was no time for breaks.
In late 2008, the first of several Guitar Hero games for Nintendo’s DS handheld was released. While ridiculed in the press for its need for a custom peripheral, the first – Guitar Hero: On Tour – sold over one million copies.
In early 2009, an arcade version of the game was released in the United States. It never really took off. Probably because while it’s fun looking like a dork in the privacy of your bedroom,it is not fun looking like a dork in public.
Guitar Hero: Metallica was released in early 2009, and while this was a far superior offering to Aerosmith (Metallica and its ilk resonating more with many gamers), it was… just another Guitar Hero game. It’s remembered now as one of, if not the best games in the series, but its timing certainly contributed to the general sense of Guitar Hero “fatigue” that would ultimately be the series’ undoing.
Only four months later Activision really begins to take the piss. Guitar Hero: Smash Hits is released, a compilation gathering the songs from the first two, Harmonix-developed Guitar Hero games and expanding them to allow them to be played using all the instruments now at the franchise’s disposal.
By now, you can see Guitar Hero’s legs buckle and its breath become heavy, as it struggles under the weight of too many games released too close to each other.
Barely three months later and there is another major Guitar Hero game released, this one simply titled Guitar Hero 5. With improved multiplayer, a great singleplayer “campaign” mode and tweaked music creation studio, it’s one of the better entries in the series, at least in its post-Harmonix era.
Reviews were solid and sales were solid, but the game will perhaps long be overshadowed by the controversies that followed in its wake from its use of avatars based on real musicians. The former wife of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, for example, was not exactly happy with his appearance in the game.
Only two months after the release of Guitar Hero 5 comes the series’ lowest point. Recognising that all this rock n roll wasn’t going to appeal to wholesome families or small children, Activision and Neversoft release Band Hero, which is what happens when you want to make a Guitar Hero game with Taylor Swift and Adam Levine in it.
Only one month later and a third, ill-advised “one band” game is released. Guitar Hero: Van Halen, a title even Activision seemingly regretted since it was giving copies away to people who bought Guitar Hero 5, was sent to die at Christmas 2009. It was derided by critics and shunned by fans, selling barely 250,000 copies worldwide.
To recap, then, in 2009 Activision released five Guitar Hero games. Five. In a single year.
After a 2009 in which Activision ground the franchise into the dust, 2010 saw a welcome break, with only one major game – Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock – released. In what would prove to be the final game for both Neversoft (who were shut down) and the franchise, a tepid tracklist and tired design consigned the game to the dustbin of history, as it sold poorly and received only lukewarm praise from critics.
Which then brings us to today, and Activision’s decision to cease development on the franchise. While a sad one for fans – and, let’s be honest, we were all fans at one point or another – it was also to be expected.
The licensing of these songs is expensive. The manufacture of millions of plastic instruments is expensive. To sustain a costly series like that the games need to sell, and it became apparent around the time of Guitar Hero III and World Tour that, once you brought drums and vocals into the mix, there really wasn’t anywhere else for the franchise – or genre – to go.
While the $US2 billion in sales the series amassed over a six year period is an impressive tally, Guitar Hero will be best remembered as perhaps the greatest “party” video game the world has yet seen, its varied tracklists and pick-up-and-play accessibility making it popular with everyone, not just hardcore gamers.
The fact it let you pretend to be a rockstar for a night probably didn’t hurt, either.
Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.