Grading the games that let you live out your pop-star fantasies -- and humiliate yourself in front of your friends
Guitar Hero III

In the corner of my imagination where I have ruled as a rock god since my adolescence, I have always been Prince. His classic 1987 concert flick Sign ”O” the Times plays on an endless loop, but with me as the Purple Rain superstar — minus the tight pants and naughty innuendo. After all, what would my parents think?

But recently, I had that fantasy destroyed by a force more powerful than Freudian anxiety: Guitar Hero, the mega-popular videogame that allows you to unleash your inner Eddie Van Halen. Launched in 2005, the Guitar Hero franchise — six versions in all — has sold 21 million copies. An eagerly awaited new installment due in the fall, Guitar Hero World Tour, will add drums and a microphone to the mix, just like chief rival Rock Band, which itself has sold millions and will soon field a hotly anticipated updated iteration. The new rock revolution is here — and it’s being played not on Stratocasters and Les Pauls, but on Xboxes and Wiis.

Both Guitar Hero and Rock Band take the career trajectory of a typical rock group — backyard beginnings to industry-showcase breakthrough to arena-rock domination — and translate it into the familiar videogame structure of levels, challenges, and Game Over! In Guitar Hero, to move from ”Starting Out Small” to ”Your First Real Gig,” you have to successfully complete a set list of rock staples like ”Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and ”Rock and Roll All Nite.” Notes are presented as glowing discs of colors, racing toward you on the neck of a cartoon guitar like cars on a five-lane freeway. Using a faux Gibson, you have to finger-tap the corresponding colored buttons while strumming a flipper. It seemed so Twister simplistic to me in concept…until my hands curled into arthritic balls after just eight songs. And that’s playing the ”Easy” mode. In short, I stink at Guitar Hero, which makes daydreaming about being Prince pretty hard, given that I can’t even fake-play Foghat’s ”Slow Ride.” Still, I’m hooked: Guitar Hero is the aerobic version of Sudoku — an addictive puzzle you can’t put down. I’ll take out the trash, honey — just let me get through ”Suck My Kiss” first…

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock — the game’s current flagship edition, which came out last October — lets you play as one of several characters (I dig Xavier Stone, a Jimi Hendrix clone) and weaves in real rockers who pop up periodically for duels; to date, I still haven’t gotten past Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, released in June, furthers the reality blur by superimposing Aerosmith’s career on the Guitar Hero III template — instead of ”Starting Out Small,” you begin at Nipmuc High, site of the group’s first gig — creating something akin to an interactive Behind the Music. Ripping through ”Sweet Emotion” while an animated Steven Tyler prances around twirling his scarves is a kitschy kick. But it’s easy to imagine how it could have been an even deeper experience. Why not add a commentary track in which Joe Perry talks you through his monster riffs?

Still, Guitar Hero‘s engagement with pop culture promises to keep the franchise fresh and innovative. (Guitar Hero: Prince? Please?!) But Rock Band, with its multiplayer, multi-instrument play (the game comes with a guitar, a mic, and even a drum set), isn’t for me. Where am I supposed to put all that junk when I’m not playing it? Besides, my experience of Rock Band consists of watching friends play while sweating bullets that someone’s going to force me to fumble through the Killers’ ”When You Were Young” in front of other people. I’ll stick with Guitar Hero III — and keep my new array of embarrassing rock-god poses confined to my living room. When it comes to making a fool of myself, I am strictly a solo act. Guitar Hero III: A Guitar Hero: Aerosmith: B- Rock Band: B+