Zach's break with plastic instruments.
I had a religious experience in a Best Buy.
The year was 2005, and the local (and new) Best Buy had an interesting demo unit on the floor. The game was called Guitar Hero, and I watched a kid pick up the bulky plastic faux-guitar and attempt to play a song I don’t recall. I was intrigued, but not sold. The kid, who was probably 10 or younger, failed the song. He wasn’t so much disappointed as puzzled, and put the guitar down and walked away. I stepped up to the plate. It didn’t take long to realize that one needed only use the strum bar to scroll through the menus. My fingers wrapped easily around the upper neck of the guitar, resting comfortably on those big colored buttons. I recognized the Dance Dance Revolution influence, or perhaps common ancestry. I chose a song I was familiar with—“Smoke on the Water”—and it was off to the races.
Ladies and gentlemen, there have been very few moments in my life that I can point to where my mind was blown. Meeting my future wife, going to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology as a youth, going to my first Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference, and my first E3 all stack up pretty high. Somewhere on the list, though, is playing that Guitar Hero demo in Best Buy. It was something I’d never experienced. They could’ve made this a DDR game, or just had you press buttons on a controller in time with the music, but this was something special. This was an evolution of Taiko Drum Master and/or Donkey Konga. Something about holding that hunk of plastic like a real guitar and holding buttons while strumming a plastic bar awoke something in me.
I didn’t fail the song, but I didn’t do perfect, either. It took me a little while to “get it,” and I didn’t realize, at the time, that you could hold down the correct fret button before it reached the “goal line” before strumming. I was doing them both at the exact same time, which makes things more difficult. Still, there was skill involved. Finesse. I loved it. I bought the game almost immediately and fell instantly in love with it, as did many of my friends. We actually “jammed” every night, which was easy because we were all living in the same apartment building at the time. I beat Expert mode. My favorite song became “Bark at the Moon.” One of my friends bought the game for himself, and we experienced the somewhat disappointing two-player mode. It was more fun to hand off the guitar on single-player mode, seeing who could accrue the highest score on any given song.
I learned how to strum up and down, which allowed me to dominate Hard and Expert modes. By the way, the addition of the fifth fret to Hard and Expert really changed the game, too. We all struggled for a long time with hand position and shifting your hand (quickly) to accommodate that fifth button, but once that motion clicked, it was like riding a bike. Hard and Expert suddenly became better and more fun than the easier difficulties. It felt like you were playing the game the way it was meant to be played.
You better believe I used those stickers. I used them ALL.
When they announced Guitar Hero II, everybody went crazy. The addition of a bass player mode sent us all into a frenzy—finally, a two-player mode that mattered! That was a day-one purchase. We hammered on our guitars so much that one of the strummers broke—something about the internal spring popping off—but I somehow managed to fix it with super glue. My parents bought me a wireless guitar for my birthday. “Freebird” became our Guitar Hero anthem. Oftentimes, a third friend in the room would begin singing along with whatever song we were playing—predicting where the series and genre was headed. We played Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II for months on a nightly basis, and I can’t say any of us had ever done that with any game prior.
Guitar Hero III was announced relatively quickly, and while we were excited, we weren’t AS excited as we had been for Guitar Hero II. It was the inclusion of master tracks that enticed us most. Still, it was another day-one purchase, and I actually took the day off work—something I’ve never done before or since—to play through the entire setlist with my friend Luke. We played co-op on Hard, and I began to see some cracks in the game’s design. Somewhere around the final track set, I believe at Metallica’s “One,” I hit a wall. I was wholly unable to pass a certain solo sequence. I don’t remember if I was playing lead or bass, but whatever it was, the song was unbeatable for me, at least in co-op. It would later prove to be unbeatable in single-player, too. Likewise, the game’s final song—“The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” seemed like an impossible task. Somehow, Luke was able to beat these games, and I humbly asked him to beat them for me. He did, and even though I continued to attempt them, there were three or four songs in Guitar Hero III I just could not conquer.
The series was becoming hardcore in a way I didn’t appreciate. You might ask why I didn’t move on to Rock Band, and the reason is fairly petty: I just didn’t like the notes. I felt like the timing was different in Rock Band, and I was used to the round notes and timing of Guitar Hero. I also saw that both franchises were ultimately getting the same songs, either on-disc or as DLC.
Guitar Hero 4, aka “World Tour,” was the next game. The inclusion of drums and a microphone instantly told me where the series was headed, and I approved. I actually got people together to play it as a group. The game is great, and a little easier to handle than GH3—even the final set list isn’t that bad. The inclusion of “Pull Me Under” as the credits song was fantastic. I liked Guitar Hero 4 a lot. In fact, it’s the only GH game I still own, though I’ve given away all my other instruments, and I use the microphone for podcasting now. But I kept a guitar. I still plug it in from time to time and jam. I’ve lost a lot of the skill I used to have, and it’s tough for me to get back in the groove now, but I can still appreciate it. The last Guitar Hero game I owned was Band Hero, which I reviewed for the site and featured a bunch of Top 40 pop tunes that made me want to kill myself. I blew through that game, because while Guitar Hero proper was getting more hardcore, Band Hero was made for middle school girls who swoon over Adam Levine, so every difficulty felt nerfed. I didn’t keep that game around very long, as you might imagine.
Of course, there were other Guitar Hero games, like Aerosmith, Metallica, and two hand-cramping-but-somehow-impressive DS games. I just kind of burned out on “plastic instrument” music games about the same time everybody else did. Rock Band 3 and Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock weren’t exactly million-sellers. The market had reached saturation, and nobody wanted more plastic crap in their living room. The only other rhythm game I played in the years hence was Let’s Tap, and that barely counts. It’s more of an experimental title than anything else—well worth the $2 I paid for it, though (new!). But then I found Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy.
This happened last week. I’d sold my 3DS Taco to VG Tribune Roundtable host and friend of the site Jesse Waldack. I took some of the resulting scrilla with the intent to buy something new for my 3DS XL, but was paralyzed with indecision between New Super Mario Bros. 2, which, as you may recall, sparked some impassioned responses from the latest Staff Roundtable or a game I knew virtually nothing about: Theatrhythm. I did what any rational person would do when faced with this sort of dichotomy—I asked Twitter. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of the latter, even from people who had played and enjoyed NSMB2. Coincidentally, that hive of scum and villainy (aka GameStop) was having a sale on Theatrhythm, which further forced my hand.
I actually had a positive experience there. It felt wrong, somehow.
Anyway, the game is great. It’s a little bit like Amplitude, Frequency (or, for you young whippersnappers, the Rock Band Unplugged for PSP) or, yes, Guitar Hero. Three types of notes stream across the screen from left to right, and your job is to tap, hold, or swipe them once they hit a target zone in time with the music. There are three variations on this game—the most engaging involves four tracks where your party of four Final Fantasy characters fights a line of monsters. Although the track list is limited to three tracks from each of the 13 FF games (plus one bonus track), Theatrhythm manages to stay fresh with lots of challenges and difficulty levels. Changing up your party, experimenting with items and abilities, and grinding “Dark Note” challenges for rare item drops keeps me coming back for more. It’s the kind of game that keeps me up late at night, because each song is about two minutes long, and I can always get “just one more in” before during off the lights.
So am I back on the rhythm game bandwagon? For now, I guess I am. Maybe it’s because so much time has passed since I picked up a Guitar Hero instrument seriously, and I think I needed the break. Rhythm games are fun, but you can have too much of a good thing. Activision drove their franchise into the ground, and I think that was a factor in the public’s fading interest in Rock Band. But now that a few years have passed, games with new ideas like Theatrhythm can crop up out of nowhere and find an audience, and that makes me happy.
Postscript: I should mention that I play the Patapon games and love them to death. Now there’s a series where you can just get into a “zone” and play for… well, as long as your PSP’s battery life allows. Even though Patapon is technically a rhythm game, I consider it separate from everything else, because you’re not matching notes as much as coming up with a song on the fly as the situation demands. It’s a strategy game with a beat. FEEEVAH!