Vicarious Visions brings the full band experience to the palm of your hand.
Since the launch of the original Guitar Hero in 2005, music games have evolved dramatically from a way to relive great guitar solos to a complete band simulation with an expandable music library via downloadable content. A game like Band Hero for the Nintendo DS was inevitable as the genre continues to spread across all platforms, catering to every music taste possible.
Band Hero, the latest spinoff of the Guitar Hero franchise, focuses primarily on current Top 40 acts like The All-American Rejects, Avril Lavigne and P!nk. The game also throws in some older pop songs like “Everything About You” by Ugly Kid Joe and “Two Princes” by Spin Doctors. Unlike the console versions of the Hero titles, there is no downloadable content to extend the longevity of the game. The soundtrack comes preloaded with thirty songs, and that's it. If you're a fan of MTV or Top 40 music, you'll recognize most of them. As in most music games, whether or not you'll enjoy the game has as much to do with the gameplay as the soundtrack.
Like other "full band" music games, Band Hero for DS boils down to three separate play styles: guitar, drums, and vocals. Unlike Rock Band Unplugged for PSP, Band Hero for DS goes for the full accessory-driven experience on the handheld, to moderate success.
The guitar and bass guitar portions of Band Hero are nothing new if you've played any of the Guitar Hero games for DS; you clip an accessory called the Guitar Grip into the GBA port of your DS Lite (the game is not compatible with the original DS or the new DSi) which has four fret buttons. The game is played by holding combinations of the four fret buttons while mimicking a strum motion on the DS touch screen. When playing the game, I found the Guitar Grip to be fairly comfortable, but had much more success when I stopped trying to strum the touch screen and instead just tapped it with the included guitar pick stylus to play the notes. The Guitar Grip will cramp your hand in long play sessions, but I found myself able to transfer my console Guitar Hero skills to the handheld without any problem. It should be noted that the absence of one of the fret buttons in the translation to handheld means that the game is significantly easier at the higher difficulty levels.
While the guitar portions of the game are well done, the drum portions are less enjoyable. In the Band Hero box is a rubber slip-cover that slides over the bottom of the DS and replaces the buttons and D-Pad with circular drum pad buttons, two on each side. The rubber skin is a bit annoying, as you can't close the lid with the skin attached, and it covers up the stylus slot, but the drum buttons themselves feel just fine. Unfortunately, the gameplay runs into a bit of a wall with two sets of vertically-aligned buttons being mapped to four horizontally-aligned notes on the track. It takes a long time to get a feel for which of the drum buttons corresponds to which of the notes on the track, making the gameplay harder than it should be. As a result, it's never all that much fun.
The third portion of the gameplay is the vocal track, which uses the DS microphone to read the pitch of your voice and grade you on how close you are to the original vocal track. The pitch sensitivity is surprisingly accurate, and I found the game to be an adequate judge of singing talent. This game mode plays out like a portable karaoke machine (with an incredibly limited song selection) and it plays the role well.
One of the biggest draws of a full-band music game is the ability to jam with a friend. Band Hero for DS supports local multi-card multiplayer, but in a game like this it seems like single-card would have been a no-brainer. The game comes with both the Guitar Grip and the Drum Grip; why not let you hand one of them to your friend, and transfer a song over to a DS running the Download Play option? The game also has a Fan Requests section which requires communication with the Wii version of Band Hero. This mode consists of specific challenges, and is only unlockable when connected to the console version of the game.
One of the biggest drawbacks that any handheld game can have is a lack of a strong single-player mode, and this is where Band Hero falls the furthest. The game lacks any kind of career mode, leaving you only two things to do when you turn the game on: Quick Play and Manage a Band. Managing your band consists of playing around in a limited character creation mode which mainly contains items that will cost you money to unlock. You get this money by playing songs in Solo Mode.
The game keeps track of how you do on each song for each difficulty level, but makes it impossible to know which instruments you've cleared each song with. If you play through all of the songs using the Guitar Grip on medium, then switch over to drums to accomplish the same task on the same difficulty, all the songs will already be marked as cleared. You can dig a bit deeper into the menus to find out exactly which difficulty levels the song has been cleared at, but it will not tell you which instruments you previously played the song with.
To keep things moving forward in this limited single-player mode, the game has a truckload of achievements for you to unlock, all of which reward you with cash you can use to customize your bandmates. These achievements range from "Get 5 stars on all songs on expert" to "Complete the guitar tutorial." While they give you a sense of forward momentum as you see more and more of them get unlocked, in the end it just feels like a tacked on replacement for a true career mode.
Band Hero for DS is a fun portable music game, but contains enough head-scratching design elements to be frustrating. If Top 40 music is your thing (and to be honest, when it comes to playing Guitar Hero, I'd rather have catchy pop music than 13 minute death metal guitar solos) and the lack of a career mode doesn't bother you, this is a game that will have you rocking out on the go.