The Guitar Hero franchise is finished. Or at least, it’s retiring, without much hope of a reunion tour. Activision Blizzard just released their latest investor report, and nestled in the fine print — underneath excessive fist-pumping for the monstrously successful World of Warcraft and Call of Duty franchises — you find the epitaph for one of the most influential series in videogame history: “Due to continued declines in the music genre, the company will disband Activision Publishing’s Guitar Hero business unit and discontinue development on its Guitar Hero game for 2011.”
There was a time when the music-videogame genre was omnipresent. Rock stars proudly touted their love for the series. It was easy to see why: at a time when pop and hip-hop rule the airwaves, the game brought old-school rock to the teeming masses of Halo-addled children. Guitar Hero was also at the forefront of a mid-decade new wave that changed the course of videogaming — the first game was popular a full year before the Wii revealed the buying power of the Casual Gamer.
The franchise reached its high point in 2007, when the mega-selling Guitar Hero III single-handedly turned Slash from a mere cult-retro icon into the All-American cult-retro icon, an immortal superstar who wouldn’t look remotely out of place playing a quick cameo in the fricking Super Bowl. In November 2007, the series was imitated, and refined, by Rock Band. (That same month, Guitar Hero was parodied by South Park, which is always a good demarcation point for when something stops being cool and starts being lame.) Sales started to decrease with Guitar Hero World Tour and hit the cellar with last year’s Warriors of Rock. (Meanwhile, the competition went ahead and created the one legitimate masterpiece of the music-videogame genre: the playful, vividly-detailed The Beatles: Rock Band.)
But I come to praise Guitar Hero, not to bury it. I missed out on Guitar Hero 1 completely — when it came out, I was still stuck in a months-long GTA: San Andreas binge — but I’ll never forget my first time playing Guitar Hero II. The controls of the guitar-controller were bizarre, but intuitive. My buddy got me started on the easier songs — “Carry On Wayward Son,” “You Really Got Me,” “Mother.” I was starting to get the hang of it — I moved onto the “Medium” difficult and never looked back. And then, the revelation point: “Strutter,” with the subtitle “As Made Famous By Kiss” — this was before bands were begging, begging the series to include their original cuts.
It’s a little bit silly just how energetic I felt playing the song. Maybe it’s because I was never in a band growing up, or because I grew up listening to non-badass punk-pop bands like Blink-182 (who I still love, even though their whole musical philosophy was “play the same guitar chord and let Travis drum his brains out.”) But I truly feel like the Guitar Hero games gave players some tiny, almost allegorical sensation approximating what being a real rock star feels like. And it’s an educational feeling — only after playing Guitar Hero did I really understand how a good bassline could rescue a song.
It’s a sad day when a videogame franchise dies. But we’ll always have the memories, to say nothing of the inevitable day when the brand will be sold off and rebooted in some new, nostalgia-baiting form. (Since Guitar Hero was already pretty nostalgic to being with, this will create a nostalgia wormhole that may consume the world.) PopWatchers, do you have any favorite Guitar Hero memories?
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