Guitar Hero has made the rounds, appearing on all of the current consoles. However, the series' use of licensed music and reliance on large plastic guitars made it seem like you'd never be able party like a rock star on a handheld--especially the cartridge-based Nintendo DS. But never underestimate the lure of making money when it comes to innovation. Vicarious Visions has found a way to bring the Guitar Hero experience to the DS in the form of Guitar Hero: On Tour. Although this accomplishment is impressive from a technical standpoint, a small setlist, a cumbersome fret attachment, and a high price tag ($50 USD) make it seem as if the focus was on whether Guitar Hero: World Tour could be made, and not if it should be made.
On Tour's most unique aspect is how it is played. Rather than a plastic guitar, the game comes with a four-button "guitar grip" that plugs into the Game Boy Advance slot. The game works on both the DS Lite and the original DS as well, with the help of an included small plastic adapter. If you're right-handed (there is a lefty flip mode), you'll slide your left hand through the adjustable wrist strap, cradling the DS in your palm like an open book. Notes scroll downward on the left screen and you push down on the corresponding fret buttons with your fingertips. There's no physical strum bar; instead you use the included guitar pick-like stylus to strum across the guitar that is displayed on the right screen. It takes a little bit of practice to get the strumming motion down, and even when you do, the game doesn't always register your input. This can be frustrating when you're trying to improve your high scores, but it isn't an issue that renders the game unplayable.
As in other Guitar Hero games, there are four difficulty settings: easy, medium, hard, and expert. The game gets harder by throwing more notes and more complicated note patterns your way. The more correct notes you hit, the higher your score will be. If you miss too many notes, you'll deplete your rock meter and fail the song. Hitting all of the notes in a highlighted section gives you star power, which once activated will multiply your score by up to eight times. Star power can be deployed by yelling into the microphone, but the microphone is so sensitive that if you're on the train or bus, the ambient noise is typically enough to activate it. If your surroundings are quieter and you're not in the mood to look completely insane yelling "rock it!" in public, you can hit any of the face buttons or the D pad--you can't use the shoulder button(s), which is curious because doing so wouldn't have required you to stop strumming the way that hitting the other buttons does.
According to the game's developer, it took more than 20 prototypes to get On Tour's unique controller attachment right. Unfortunately, whether or not they got it right is a point of contention. The unit at first seems to fit snuggly into the GBA slot, but it's possible for it to work itself out in midsong. This brings up an error screen that tells you that you're rocking too hard. Unfortunately, you can't just push the unit back in and continue; you've got to turn the system off and start the song over. Playing for any length of time can be extremely uncomfortable, and don't be surprised if you experience lingering pain in your wrist or elbow after the shortest of play sessions. Even playing a single song can be enough to cause discomfort. While the size of your hands is certainly a consideration, the attachment is functional at best. Given that the game actually begins with two screens that instruct you to keep your wrist straight, take frequent breaks to avoid cramping, try different play styles to find one that's comfortable, and even visit the game's Web site "for more play comfort suggestions," it's apparent that someone was aware that the game could present physical problems for people. It would have been nice to be able to play the game with some sort of alternate control scheme, but such an option isn't available.
Guitar Hero: On Tour's tracklist consists of 26 songs, most of which are new to the series. Most of On Tour's songs are performed by the original artists. In fact, "Pride and Joy," which appeared as a terrible cover in Guitar Hero 3, is performed by Stevie Ray Vaughan in On Tour. There are a few songs, such as ZZ Top's "La Grange" and Steve Miller Band's "Jet Airliner," that are covers, but all of the new versions are well-done. The soundtrack ranges across a wide swath of the rock-and-roll timeline, but seems to be more focused on music from the last 10 years than previous games; the inclusion of Daughtry and Los Lonely Boys could be good or bad based on your rock-and-roll upbringing. A few of the songs, such as Smash Mouth's "All Star," and "This Love" from Maroon 5, would be better described as pop than rock, so their inclusion may be off-putting to series fans used to nothing but rock. There aren't many older tunes, but classic rock is represented with songs such as the Doobie Brothers' "China Grove," Lynyrd Skynyrd's "I Know a Little," and Santana's "Black Magic Woman." Songs from the '80s include the Stray Cats' "Stray Cat Strut," Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl," Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It."
Of course, opinions on the setlist will vary by taste, but there are some aspects of the actual sound that clearly could have been improved. The audio quality of the songs is downright poor, especially if you're listening through the DS's speakers. A pair of headphones will make the songs listenable, but will also highlight the low fidelity of the tracks; voices sound tinny and guitars lack "oomph." Obviously, space was an issue when trying to cram everything onto a cartridge, but the music has been compressed to the point that it sounds like an AM radio. With only 26 songs in the game, it's disappointing that some of the longer songs weren't trimmed to make room for either the inclusion of more songs, improved sound quality, or at the very least, to make them more interesting. Disregarding the obvious benefit that a shorter song is easier on the hands, cutting 60 seconds from songs such as "China Grove" or "Spiderwebs" would not only have freed up some space, but would also have made those songs less repetitive, less painful, and more fun to play.
The career mode is very no-frills. You select a guitarist and then play five songs in each of the five levels: a subway, a rooftop, a parade, a Greek arena, and on a battleship. The game can be beaten in less than two hours, and you can find some replay value by replaying songs to earn more money, which can then be used to unlock new outfits, guitars, and guitar designs. The presentation is merely adequate, but the frame rate is steady, which is the most important thing.
There are no boss battles in career mode, but there is a guitar-duel option available from the main menu that offers a similar experience. This mode is playable against either the CPU or another person who has a copy of the game via local Wi-Fi (there is no online play). There's all sorts of nonsense to distract you from your main goal of playing notes: You might have to blow on the DS to put out a flaming guitar, or scribble down your name to get rid of an obnoxious autograph hound. Though creative, these uses of the touch screen don't make for a very fun experience. Other multiplayer modes include faceoff (players alternate riffs), pro faceoff (play the same notes), and co-op play, in which one person plays lead guitar and the other plays rhythm or bass guitar depending on the song. These modes offer a healthy amount of replay value, though the uncomfortable controls may limit the length of your play sessions to just a few songs.
Guitar Hero: On Tour lacks many of the characteristics of the console versions of Guitar Hero, but the main ingredient that's missing is fun. It's simply not enjoyable to contort your hand around the DS and listen to 26 low-fi songs while you strum the touch screen and fight the pain in your hand.
Editor's Note: This review previously stated--as the game's packaging does--that Guitar Hero: On Tour features only 25 songs when in fact there are 26. GameSpot regrets the error.