The Rise and Fall of Guitar Hero

Through the fire and flames we carry on!

By Jon Stevens. Posted 09/16/2014 09:00 5 Comments     ShareThis

The Guitar Hero series has gone down in infamy over the last decade. Initially a surprise hit which took the gaming world by storm and spawned a billion dollar franchise, like its guitars, drums and mics which clutter our closets, it’s been pushed to the back of our minds. But despite the fact that only the shadows of its mass market appeal remain, it has still had a significant impact on games in a way that can still be seen today.

As many will know, despite becoming one of the most well-known rhythm games, Guitar Hero certainly wasn’t the first. Dancing games like Dance Dance Revolution (Dancing Stage in Europe), had been around in arcades and, to a lesser extent homes, since before 2000. Even Nintendo had gotten in on the action with Donkey Konga in 2004– a fantastic GameCube game which saw players beat the bongos to the… beat, and which led to the release of the equally brilliant platformer, Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat.

Guitar Hero was a revolution though. Co-developed by RedOctane and Harmonix in 2005, the game was heavily influenced by the Japanese GuitarFreaks series, which RedOctane was hoping to bring to a Western market. The combination of the guitar controller and a soundtrack made up of 47 rock hits from artists like Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, and Queen was a massive success. The game won numerous awards (it currently holds a score of 91 percent on Metacritic) and sold so well that it spawned a sequel the following year which expanded beyond the PlayStation 2, where the previous game had been an exclusive. Guitar Hero 2 featured improved gameplay, multiplayer, a larger song list, and even took advantage of Xbox 360’s online features to offer DLC songs (though their price was heavily criticised).  The result was even greater sales figures and critical reception.

It was at this point that there were changes being made behind the scenes, though. RedOctane was bought by Activision in 2006 for $100 million, while Harmonix went onto be purchased by MTV Networks. As a result, future installments of the series were handed over to Neversoft, the developers behind the Tony Hawk series, while Harmonix would go on to develop Rock Band.

Despite this, by the release of Guitar Hero 3 (the first entry on a Nintendo platform), the series had become so well-known that it even warranted a parody on an episode of South Park (“Guitar Queer-O”). Everyone knew that this small piece of plastic didn’t make you a rock god, but it had managed to capture that feeling of being one! This third entry to the series included online play, full support for DLC, and the most difficult song in existence: “Through the Fire and Flames” by DragonForce (with the highest score on this included in the Guinness Worlds Records). Activision claimed that GH3 was the best-selling game of 2007, but while it was well received, overall scores were ever so slightly below what was given for the previous entries.

The success of Guitar hero was not to go unchallenged though. The series’ previous developer, Harmonix, showed up in 2007 with a new game, Rock Band, which upped the number and type of instruments that gamers could play. By the release of Guitar Hero: World Tour, which followed suit by introducing its own full band-play, Harmonix had gone on to release Rock Band 2. Now while World Tour introduced a number of new features to the series (On Wii, it was the first Guitar Hero to support download functionality), the comparisons to Rock Band were clear and it didn’t radically improve on the (albeit expanded) formula set out in both Rock Bandand previous games. While each successive game would continue to refine this, from this point on, the series had begun a steady decline.

True, Guitar Hero 5 was still well-received by critics and continued to add new features, such as allowing players to immediately jump in and play music from the menu screen, but sales had seriously begun to stutter at this point and it would go on to sell around 50 percent less than its predecessor. This reflects a wider decline in the rhythm genre which began to take place in 2009– partly a result of the fact that people generally had less money to spend at the time, but there were a number of far more explicit reasons behind their waning popularity.

By 2009 and 2010, gamers were experiencing plastic guitar induced fatigue, that much was clear. A main entry in the Guitar Hero series had been released every year from 2005-2010, and despite added features and minor improvements, the gameplay itself had changed very little. This may not have been a problem (how much could you really change the Guitar Hero gameplay?), except for the fact that the market was being flooded with rhythm games. Alongside the five main entries, another five other Guitar Hero games were released during that timeframe, alongside a plethora of portable and mobile versions. Not only that but the series also expanded into a more family oriented arena with Band Hero in 2009, as well as in a brand new direction with the DJ Hero series after that.

Not only was Guitar Hero over-saturating its own market, but there continued to be even more competition. The Rock Band games had also became popular (especially as you could transfer songs between games) and had its own spin-offs, like The Beatles: Rock Band and Lego Rock Band, which only exacerbated the issue. Indeed, the immense popularity of the genre and the desire to capitalise on it, was one of the main reasons why it was run into the ground. Even the attempt to return to the roots of the series with Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock couldn’t stop the closure of the studio responsible, ensuring that it would be the final entry in the series.

Despite this, though, Guitar Hero had a phenomenal impact on the wider gaming world throughout its years of popularity. It encouraged social gaming like never before, and it was able to expand video games beyond its traditional audience in exactly the same way that Wii Sports had. Their popularity also directly led to games like Rocksmith, which utilised the same gameplay in order to teach people how to play a real guitar.

In fact, it’s highly likely that without the success of Guitar Hero, there wouldn’t have been a renewed focus on rhythm games at all in the last few years. It showed that these games could sell well and shouldn’t be relegated to the arcades, leading big names to have the confidence to take a chance on games like HarmoKnight and Theatrhythm.

Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock Artwork

For now, though, Guitar Hero will remain a sad tale in how not treat a successful franchise. While it’s a bitter pill to swallow, it’s arguably something that has led even the big publishers, so often accused of failing to innovate, to try and resolve the similar complaints raised against their other franchises. Hopefully, if nothing else, it is a lesson that these developers will be able to learn from.

5 Responses to “The Rise and Fall of Guitar Hero”

  • 1294 points
    Robert Marrujo says...

    I loved the heck out of Guitar Hero (and Rock Band). It’s a damn shame that Activision literally ground the series into dust. The premise was brilliant, and so long as musicians kept making music, the series could have gone on indefinitely. If they’d been less aggressive like EA was with Rock Band (well, by comparison at least), the series might have had a shot at being a real mainstay. Maybe it’ll come back one day.

  • 678 points
    amishpyrate says...

    This is one fad I’m glad had an end. This series did help bring in more casual gamers though. I knew a lot of people that didn’t play games who purchased a system for guitar hero. Activision also drove Tony Hawk games into the ground which is a shame. I loved that series

  • 849 points
    ejamer says...

    Great article.

    I’m betting that this series (and Rock Band) will have a huge wave of nostalgia in 5 or 10 years. Great music and encouraging you to spend time with friends – no wonder it was such a success!

    • 207 points
      Jon Stevens says...

      I can still remember the people queuing to play the demo kits in game shops!

      It was so popular, I’d be surprised if they didn’t at least try to bring it back at some point — just like how they are now with Singstar.

  • 285 points
    Kyle England says...

    The Guitar Hero crash was a huge one. Just about 4-5 years ago entire aisles of stores– ones that are now home to Skylanders and Disney figures– held enormous boxes filled with plastic instruments. When I first went to college and hit up all the local used game stores, they had stockpiles of Rock Band and Guitar Hero kits to the point where they would not accept any more trade-ins of those accessories.

    DJ Hero and DJ Hero 2 were really standout games that I am sad to see fell by the wayside along with its sister brand. The music mixes were really cool, and the turntable controller was much better than a plastic guitar in my opinion.

    It’s interesting to see the entire rise and fall of a genre before your eyes, like a miniature economic bubble that bursts. Perhaps in 2020 we’ll see another company come along with a reboot just called GUITAR HERO to remind us that 15 years ago we loved to play with silly instruments that made us feel godlike.

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