Every once in a while a game comes along that offers an experience so radically different that it becomes an instant classic. Offering some breakthrough control scheme or gameplay idea, these types of titles are worthy of attention if only for escape from the usual abundance of drab, genre-specific games with little in the way of creativity.
All consoles seem to have their fair share of these treasures and are often defined by them. For example, the Sega Genesis had titles like Ecco the Dolphin and ToeJam and Earl, the Super Nintendo had Pilotwings and F-Zero, the Saturn had Nights, the Nintendo 64 had Waverace, and the Dreamcast had Seaman. Each one of these titles made a mark and altered how we view games in general - some even spawned new genres. Years from now they will all be remembered as key titles for their respective consoles. When I think of the truly groundbreaking and unique titles for the PlayStation, a few come immediately to mind: Parappa the Rappa, Bust a Groove, and, of course, Guitar Freaks. Making use of a guitar peripheral for the PlayStation, Guitar Freaks is one of the most original and entertaining titles to ever hit the console scene.
The premise is simple: You have a guitar, and it's your job to play the melody lines of accompanying music. Here's how it works. Guitar Freaks has a vertical bar staff in which notes float to the top of the screen (similar to Konami's other Bemani games, such as Beatmania). There are three different-colored bars (red, green, and blue) that coordinate with the three respectively colored buttons on the guitar. As the notes reach the top of the staff, you're required to strum on the guitar while holding the coordinating button. The basic objective is to hit as many correct notes as possible - your progress will be measured with a fighting-game-esque health meter (miss too many notes, and your game will come to an abrupt end). There are also guitar symbols that will rise on the bar staff, and these require you to tilt the guitar up at an angle to attain applause - just like a real rock star. After you complete a level, you'll get a rating screen showing how many notes you hit, how many you missed, and other statistics. This screen will also give you an overall rating (on a grade-school scale of F being the poorest and A being the best, with special ranks for when you're close to perfection). How long your game will last depends on your song grades. For a game that is based on music, Guitar Freaks has some of the best tracks around, and it has a good variety, ranging in style from uppity pop-like songs to the blues and from surfer-style songs to hard-core metal tracks. And amazingly, they're all catchy. Extremely catchy. You'll find yourself grooving along with the music while you're playing the game and then humming the songs later on when you're not playing.
Guitar Freaks, while not exactly pushing the graphical limits of the PlayStation, is very aesthetically pleasing. While you play along with the music, you're treated to a barrage of images and cartoon video segments in the remaining portion of your TV screen - a music video of sorts. These images and segments are really crazy, almost seeming sickly perverse at times. Screens filled with wide-mouthed grinning cats or goofy human-headed dogs are not out of the question. These all fit perfectly with the insane nature of the game, go well with the beat, and keep the flavor fresh.
Controlwise, Guitar Freaks is spot-on, provided you're playing with the specially designed guitar peripheral. The guitar is perfectly designed and just happens to be one of the coolest gaming gadgets ever devised. The buttons are easy to handle (even when the music intensity is high), and strumming becomes second nature after a few plays. The guitar is pretty sturdy too, standing up to countless abuses from other editors in the office during heated jam sessions. The game can actually be played with the PlayStation controller, but not only does it completely detract from the fun, it's about ten times as difficult. Don't even think of picking up the game unless you're prepared to spring for at least one guitar.
What's ingenious about Konami's Bemani line of games (the company's music series - to which Guitar Freaks belongs) is that the titles require more than just traditional gaming skill. You really have to feel the music to excel. And as you learn the songs, the game becomes easier. Even the game's easiest song (Cutey Pie) will present somewhat of a challenge the first few times you play the game. After a few days, though, you'll be able to breeze through Cutey Pie without missing a single note. And with the wide variety of tunes, all of which feature different difficulty levels, there's no real fear of ever completely mastering the game. Some of the songs, no matter how hard you practice, will always present a challenge. Where Guitar Freaks really shines is in the replay department. This is one of those games that can - and will - be picked up again and again. Every few weeks you'll find yourself in need of a Guitar Freaks fix, and you'll drag out the guitars for a jam session. With plenty of songs to unlock and options to try, Guitar Freaks just seems to offer an endless amount of entertainment, especially with two players - hook up a second guitar and go at it with a friend. There's nothing quite like the fun of trading off the melody lines with your partner in songs like Cool Joe. It's a shame that a title like Guitar Freaks will never make it to the US. As far as we know, Konami has no intention of bringing it here, because the company doesn't find it viable for the American market. Konami could be right, though - the concept of playing a video-game guitar title would seem somewhat absurd to most US gamers. However, with more than 25 million PlayStation consoles sold in the US, one would think that the game, if properly priced and marketed, could find an audience in the States. It should be noted that other companies have tossed around the prospect of attempting to license the game from Konami in order to bring it here. This seems like an unlikely occurrence though.
So while Guitar Freaks may never make it to the US, it's currently available in Japan and is an import gamer's delight once you get past the pesky mod chip lockout protection. If you're looking for something fresh and different, then definitely place this gem at the top of your list of games to buy. Konami ought to be commended for flexing its creativity, and hopefully many more unique titles like this will follow. Guitar Freaks is a game of remarkable order that no true collection can be complete without.