A few months ago, Activision did the seemingly impossible and brought Guitar Hero to the Nintendo DS. With its unique Guitar Grip peripheral and touch-screen strumming, Guitar Hero: On Tour was a competent representation of the fretting and picking experience found on the consoles. However, mechanical and ergonomic issues hampered the game from being as fun as it could have been. Guitar Hero On Tour: Decades, the newest Guitar Hero game for the Nintendo DS, adds song sharing in multiplayer mode--but ultimately leads to the same disappointing, hand-crippling experience as before.
For anyone who isn't familiar with how the portable Guitar Hero games are played, the DS is held like a book, with your strumming area and interface items (star power, score, note streak) on the touch screen and the note highways up top. The Guitar Grip peripheral slides into the Game Boy Advance port of the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo DS Lite. It features four fret buttons, down from the console's five, and you'll wrap your left hand (or right hand for Lefty Flip players) around the back so that your fingertips press the buttons. To strum, you use the included pick-shaped stylus to swipe anywhere on the touch screen. As with other Guitar Hero games, you play notes by strumming while holding down the correct fret button as the scrolling notes come in contact with the fret icons at the bottom of the screen.
It's still impressive that the fretting and strumming experience is able to mimic the console guitar experience, and when it works, pulling off crazy solos feels really good. Several annoyances conspire to make sure that it doesn't always work, though, and for On Tour veterans it wouldn't be the first time. The peripheral hasn't been improved with any type of anchor and remains prone to sliding out of the DS midsong, prompting a reboot. Rapid strumming still doesn’t always register properly, and the included pick slides around in your hand and ultimately isn’t as good to play with as the regular stylus. Anyone who experienced discomfort with the Guitar Grip the first time around can expect continued discomfort here, and if you're new to the franchise on a handheld, be prepared for forearm tightness or hope that you're one of the lucky ones who don't experience the pain.
Should you adapt to its ergonomic and mechanical issues, On Tour: Decades at least provides original versions of each of its songs, with no covers whatsoever. The tracklist spans five decades of music from the '70s up until today, with several songs taken from the recently released console version of Guitar Hero: World Tour. The songs are charted fairly well and can be fun to play, from the deliciously '80s "Any Way You Want It" by Journey to the intense triplets in "Tarantula" by the Smashing Pumpkins. On Expert, the satisfying, finger-twisting solos from Lynyrd Skynyrd's live version of "Sweet Home Alabama" are as faithful as they can be to World Tour's version. As with On Tour, there is some pop rock present, with such songs as Paramore's "Crushcrushcrush," The All-American Rejects' "Dirty Little Secret," and Jimmy Eat World's "The Middle" representing the more modern decades.
Even with the variety of songs and the fact that they're all original versions, you can still expect the same crackly audio quality that plagued On Tour's set list. It's not entirely surprising, and not every song sounds as bad as those in the previous game. But it's still a downer when almost every song lyric that starts with an "s" comes out fuzzy, and distorted guitars sound a just little too distorted.
On Tour: Decades, then, feels more like an expansion pack. The issues from the previous game remain, and the same career mode and (admittedly impressive) duel mode are present. It's not as if the game is completely devoid of improvement, however, as it adds both a bass/rhythm career path as well as song sharing with the original On Tour. Many of the bass and rhythm note charts tend to be a bit boring, and so song sharing is the more intriguing improvement. If you play with someone who owns On Tour but not On Tour: Decades, the song lists from both games open up for you. This is a nice touch that at least saves you the aggravation of having to switch out games to play the full list of portable Guitar Hero songs, and it also gives owners of only one of the games a taste of what the other has to offer.
The simple truth is that Guitar Hero On Tour: Decades doesn't do enough to improve the flawed experience from its predecessor. Song sharing is nice, and simply offering new tracks would be fine if some of the portable franchise's more standout problems were fixed. If you were able to enjoy the first game, you'd do well to add 28 more songs to your catalog. But until Activision and Vicarious Visions work to improve the fundamental flaws, it's best to keep your distance--unless your idea of a guitar hero is someone with cramped hands, a guitar pick that doesn't strum, and a guitar that keeps getting unplugged midsong.