Editorial: On the Death of Guitar Hero

Guitar Hero II Bundle Photo
The last non-Activision main series Guitar Hero release.

Hello there, readers! In this week’s editorial, I once again dive into a game franchise that is no longer a relevant part of today’s gaming culture. Despite what the vice-president of Activision may claim about a so-called “hiatus”, it is clear to most gamers who follow it that the Guitar Hero franchise has died. This week, I would like to discuss the rise and fall of the former behemoth, why the series became as popular as it once was, and why the popularity did not last.

The first Guitar Hero was released in 2005 and featured a main setlist comprised entirely of cover songs. It was an unexpected smash success, and a sequel was released in 2006. Featuring a few master tracks and several more popular bonus songs, Guitar Hero II was a massive success, selling around three million copies in its run. But what made the franchise so successful? It is, after all, essentially Guitar Freaks with more buttons. The small plastic controller, though seemingly gimmicky, proved to be a fun way to play the game. Additionally, the Guitar Hero games were easy to pick up, but were also an excellent challenge on the higher difficulty settings. In creating a game that was fun, easy to play, and difficult to master, Harmonix effectively did what very few companies ever successfully manage: Guitar Hero simultaneously appealed to both hardcore and casual gamers in a way few games ever have. The runaway success of the popular music and rhythm titan would not last, sadly. Guitar Hero: Rock the 80’s, the first spinoff in the series, met with mediocre reviews, and was sold as a full price game despite being, by most accounts, a glorified expansion pack.

Guitar Hero DS Picture 1
This is not a fake picture. This game actually exists.

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock marks the point (for this editorialist, at least) where the franchise began to sink. The third game is the last game I consider to be among the good Guitar Hero games. Guitar Hero III, released in 2007 (noticing a trend, readers?), featured many more songs than its predecessors–around seventy in total. The majority of these songs were master tracks and not covers. Additionally, famous guitarists Tom Morello and Slash recorded motion-capture footage and new songs specifically for the game, and both were featured as boss battles of a sort. In short, Guitar Hero III was an interesting game with a varied setlist and several interesting mechanics such as boss fights. It was also the first Activision-published game in the franchise, and was the first game in the series to see a massive multiplatform release, with versions on the PS2, PS3, 360, Wii, and even PC.

The success would not last. Within three years, three more main series games were released. The fourth game, Guitar Hero: World Tour, added in support for other instrument peripherals, but had a mediocre song list and generally speaking was not as good a game as any from the Rock Band franchise. The fifth and sixth games added little to the franchise and were poorly received, with Activision soon placing the series on a so-called “hiatus”. The former behemoth has fallen, shunned by consumers who once looked forward with excitement to new releases.

Accordion Hero
This one, however, is fake.

What killed Guitar Hero was Activision’s policy of milking games to extinction. Since 2005, there have been six main series games, five console spinoffs, two DS games, a mobile phone game, and even a cheapo toy-store handheld device release. In total, that numbers fifteen games in six years, and this is only counting games with the words “Guitar Hero” in them. This count does not include the Band Hero spinoff, the two DJ Hero games, or the non-Activision Rock Band series. Fifteen games in six years, readers. That is more than two releases per year, for those counting. Guitar Hero is what killed the Guitar Hero franchise, or specifically over-saturation is what killed the franchise. Bobby Kotick and Activision’s heads saw a source of income, a massively successful game franchise, and then sought to milk it for all it was worth. Inevitably, gamers moved on, and the series lost popularity and reached its nadir. Despite what Activision says about a “hiatus”, Guitar Hero is dead, crushed under the weight of its own releases.

What do you think, readers? Am I being cynical; does the franchise actually have a chance of revival? Or am I right in declaring that it is well and truly dead? Let me know what you think in the comments, and let me know if you have any experience with what was once a legitimately fun experience.

7 comments

  1. You’re right in pointing to Guitar Hero III as the last great Guitar Hero game. That game was excellent. The last GH game for the hardcore gamer. Rock Band was the better casual experience, and Guitar Hero freaked out, got diluted and over-saturated in response.

    I also agree that it’s dead. At least for a long time. I kinda miss music-genre games, but not nearly enough to get excited for a new title. Just enough to be willing to join a game of Rock Band 2 or 3 at a party or something. People have enough plastic instruments and either discs or downloadable tracks to satisfy any peripheral cravings for the games, I think.

    It really is too bad. I used to get incredibly excited for new Guitar Hero/Rock Band games, but now mention of either franchise garners an involuntary eye-roll. But, like you say, Activision really knows how to bury a franchise. Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero, and hopefully Call of Duty. Although the latter is a slower death for better or worse.

    Anyway, I’m rambling because I’m at work and I really can’t take the script I’m editing seriously, so I needed to distract myself.

  2. I mean, there’s a cue in this script that calls for A STANDING OVATION!!! A scripted standing ovation? Really?!?!

  3. I do think it stands a chance of revival, albeit slim. As you said, it was the innovation of a game that appeals to both casual and hardcore players that made it such a smash success, but it also makes it difficult to improve upon. Other milked series continue to be able to be milked because, as Final Fantasy and Call of Duty have shown, you just have to make a whole new set of characters and a new plot and slap the old name on it to make a ton of money. Guitar Hero III and its addition of the boss battles are as close you can get to a plot in a game like this, and characters aren’t important at all. In each release, nothing changed but the set list, and while adding new songs is great, there was no way that could sustain itself forever.

  4. I think the chances of a significantly successful revival are slim-to-none. Gamer interest in the franchise just is not there anymore.

  5. Do I think these games stand a chance of revival? I don’t think so. I’ve long been an advocate of stopping these series altogether and simply having the companies ride the sales of their DLC over PSN and XBL. Simply, the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises had little-to-no potential for innovation after so many games, and were continued simply due to their potential to sell more units with brand recognition. Activision is somewhat more guilty of this than Harmonix, though.

    Oh, and stop putting shitty Smashing Pumpkins songs in music games, developers. Just… stop.

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