"Guitar Hero gets the axe," ho ho. The cliches were certainly flowing thick and fast at the news of Activision's cancelation of the Guitar Hero franchise this morning. While the term "RIP Guitar Hero" was a trending topic on Twitter earlier today, it saddened me that the pervasive fondness for a franchise that was so culturally powerful at one point was tainted by disdain for the way its publisher had treated it. When all is said and done, Guitar Hero was important. It spawned a revolution (albeit brief) in the way that the games industry viewed its audience, and it helped break down cultural and generational barriers in ways that few games since Pac-Man or Space Invaders have managed to successfully achieve.
Numerous outlets have already run numerous editorials about the decline of the brand and the destructive nature of Activision's approach to it, so I don't want to bang that same drum here. For me, Guitar Hero's significance was something personal. Over the course of the (guitar-based) music genre's five-year "cycle" I may have switched allegiances to Rock Band in the latter years, but that first release back in 2005 was something truly special. I can remember the impact it had on me and those around me at the time, and while no one believed at the time that it would grow into the titan it became, we all knew it was something unique. When emboldened to comment, I think we all would have stuck our necks out and said it would develop a rabid cult following at best. How little we knew.
Back in my youth I played guitar in a rock band. I had really long hair. I was much thinner. I played long, technically complicated but emotionally vapid guitar solos in front of moderately sized crowds at horrendously rough rock clubs in the north of England. I occasionally wore leather pants, though I never particularly found them comfortable. My girlfriend at the time insisted they were quite becoming, but I never believed her because they were hot, weighed twice as much as a conventional pair of trousers, and constantly felt like the crotch was hanging an inch lower than it should. Anyway... I digress. Bottom line? Between the ages of 16 and 23 if you'd have asked what I really wanted to be, it would have been to be a guitar-shredding rock star.
Clearly that never happened. By the age of 24 my career was taking off, and I just didn't have the time to rock any more. I left the band, and rarely played live in front of a crowd ever again. I still played (and still do) but the dream was gone. I was never going to be the next Nuno Bettencourt, or Yngwie Malmsteen, or...oh I dunno, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai or (test your guitarist geek cred here) Francis Dunnery or Vinnie Moore. Also, it didn't help that long, technically complicated but emotionally vapid guitar solos became spectacularly unfashionable in the mid-90s.
Jump forward 10 years or so though, and Guitar Hero brought all of those old emotions flooding back. That initial release may have come packed with a Gibson SG replica (a guitar I never particularly aspired to own, as I don't like how it looks or feels when holding it) and 30 of the 47 songs may have been covers rather than original recordings, but it was a deeply empowering experience. I still remember the first time I successfully played along to "Iron Man" and the sense of giddiness it inspired.
Guitar Hero (and Rock Band) did far more than help realize teenage fantasies though. It introduced us all to a deep connection with music that nothing had managed to achieve previously. Sure, there had been plenty of rhythm-based music games, but there was something magical about strapping on that guitar and playing along. Not only that, but as later iterations brought more and more varied music into the experience, they became stunning engines for music discovery.
Over the course of the last 20 or 30 years, the way we all discover our tastes in music have changed so much. When I was an early teen, much of my early knowledge game from two places; the older brother of my best friend, who seemed to own every heavy metal album ever released, and a tiny record shop in the town close to where I grew up. I would be told "If you like X you'll love Y" and that was pretty much how my taste was formed. There was no Napster, no Shuffle, no Genius playlist. I would learn riffs by playing over the top of records, much to the annoyance of my parents.
To 16 year-old me, the idea that one day I would be discovering new music by playing it in a videogame would have been beyond comprehension, but here we are 20-something years later, and my iPod is full of tracks that I bought because the first time I heard them was in either Guitar Hero or Rock Band. DragonForce? Avenged Sevenfold? Talk about a resurgence of long, technically complicated but emotionally vapid guitar solos! All music that reminds me of being a teen, and all stuff that I heard for the first time in one of these games.
My own children, now reaching an age where music other than the theme tune to Star Wars is starting to mean something to them, will be able to forge a connection with songs in ways that I never would have been able to imagine when I was a kid. I'll be able to introduce them to classics by playing these songs with them, and in turn they'll be able to express their tastes through an interactive medium rather than just hiding in their room with their earbuds in.
For this, I raise a goblet of rock to Guitar Hero and declare my sadness at its passing.