11. 'Guitar Hero: Van Halen'
Release Date: Dec. 22, 2009
Number of Songs: 34 (25 from Van Halen, 19 other artists)
Three months prior to the release of Guitar Hero: Van Halen, Harmonix released The Beatles Rock Band, the best single-band focused music game released. But even without the relief of that competing release, Van Halen feels like an afterthought, a game made because someone had a leftover license to a bunch of Van Halen songs and wasn’t sure what to do with them. There’s Van Halen’s relevancy to younger players to consider (Did Activision think all the kids loved Superbad because “Panama” was in the movie?), and the lack of the band’s full history in the game isolating actual fans. Coupled with the lithe soundtrack and features, Van Halen isn’t bad necessarily because none of the songs are fun to play — it’s mediocrity is what leaves such a bad aftertaste.
10. Guitar Hero: Aerosmith
Release Date: June 29, 2008
Number of Songs: 41 (29 from Aerosmith, 12 from other acts)
Guitar Hero’s first foray into band-focused spin-offs proved there was life in the idea, even if Aerosmith doesn’t do much to set itself apart from the main Guitar Hero games. But, like Van Halen, Aerosmith feels like a side project with its smaller tracklist, despite the Aerosmith-flavored avatars and locations. It suffers from the problem all band-centric games inherently have — if you’re not an Aerosmith fan, there’s little incentive to seek out the small list of other acts included, none of which are particularly fun or challenging.
9. Guitar Hero: On Tour
Release Date: June 22, 2008
Number of Songs: 25
Look, we would be happy to never try playing Guitar Hero On Tour and its sequels again. The guitar grip peripheral attached to the Nintendo DS resulted in consistent hand cramps. But for the pop-loving side of any fan’s music sensibilities, On Tour provided some surprisingly fun mass-appeal tracks and proved that something that shouldn’t have worked could do so on the small screen. In hindsight it’s more of a novelty than a worthwhile experience that makes no real case for revisiting, but at the height of Guitar Hero’s popularity and with rose-tinted glasses on, it’s an impressively functional and occasionally fun offshoot.
8. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock
Release Date: Sept. 24, 2010
Number of Songs: 93
Warriors of Rock delivers the biggest on-disc setlist of the franchise, but it’s a setlist that tries to please fans of every rock subgenre and ends up not really succeeding with any of them. That is, unless you’re a Rush fan – all seven parts of “2112” are featured in the game. But the iteration was introduced so late into the life of music games that many of the songs are familiar or second and third cuts from acts whose biggest songs have already appeared in previous games. And while Warriors, still offering all-band gameplay, seems to focus on bringing the game back to its rocking roots, it feels less like a back-to-basics rebirth and more like a quiet last breath as the franchise went into hibernation.
7. Guitar Hero 5
Release Date: Sept. 1, 2009
Number of Songs: 85
Guitar Hero 5 was released at an odd point for the franchise and music rhythm games in general, and despite a solid enough setlist, it did not come without its own oddities. The inclusion of famous performers like Kurt Cobain and Johnny Cash works more as a selling point than it does in affecting the gameplay in any major capacity. And the GH Studio, which allowed players to create their own songs, was more refined but still approachable for a small slice of the audience. The actual gameplay changes made the band focus more accessible and easier to navigate, which can make or break the flow of a virtual concert experience. Though it may smooth over the problems of its predecessor, Guitar Hero 5 feels like a point at which the series didn’t quite know where it wanted to go or what it wanted to be.
6. Guitar Hero: World Tour
Release Date: Oct. 26, 2008
Number of Songs: 86
While Guitar Hero was the better selling franchise coming off of Guitar Hero III, it aped the full-band experience Rock Band introduced with the follow-up World Tour. The major instrumentation difference came with the drums, which had five pads and a bass pedal as opposed to Rock Band’s four pads and pedal. The experience on the whole couldn’t quite stack up to Rock Band with this first foray, so why does it rank higher than Guitar Hero 5? Simple: the setlist. Sure, it has plenty of overlap with the track list of Rock Band 2, but ignorning that, it’s filled with a number of songs we love and love to (virtually) play even more.
5. Guitar Hero: Metallica
Release Date: March 29, 2009
Number of Songs: 49
Activision found a sweet spot with its band-focused formula in Guitar Hero: Metallica, the second of the three. Yes, you undoubtedly need to be a fan of Metallica to enjoy – otherwise you might as well bump this game to the bottom of the rankings – but it’s still easy to appreciate the fact that this project was born not just out of commercial interest but a love of the band. Metallica, however, is not for the faint of heart. The band’s tracks facilitated the need for an Expert+ difficulty for drummers, which supported the use of an additional bass pedal. Metallica may be one of the franchise’s most audience-specific entries, but that distinction is what makes it feel like such a cohesive package.
4. Guitar Hero
Release Date: Nov. 8, 2005
Number of Songs: 47
Believe it not, there was a time when Guitar Hero wasn’t just a ubiquitous name, it was a surprising oddity in a sea of shooting and adventure games. The initial outing from Harmonix proved there was more than a novel idea behind putting a plastic guitar in players’ homes: There was also a solid and amazingly fun gameplay mechanic that wasn’t just enjoyable to learn but challenging enough to make players want to improve. Letting players feel like rock gods in the comfort of their own living room was an unrivaled concept, though the initial entry shows its age thanks to the number of covers and the light set of options. But because of the musical pedigree at Harmonix, the release launched one of the biggest gaming phenomena of the last decade.
3. Guitar Hero Live
Release Date: Oct. 20, 2015
Metacritic: 79 (PS4), 82 (Xbox One)
Number of Songs/Highlight: 42 on disc, hundreds more streaming via GHTV
We expressed our issues with Guitar Hero Live in our review but despite them, Live proved one important thing about the genre while potentially establishing its future. The game delivered a guitar controller setup different from any before it, and it works – perhaps even better than the traditional five-button configuration. It feels more like playing an actual guitar, channeling the immense satisfaction that first experiences playing Guitar Hero likely delivered. The live-action campaign is silly and the on-disc setlist is weak, but GHTV offers a Spotify-like streaming service that, while still in its early days, could potentially be a fascinating method for playing and discovering music.
2. Guitar Hero 3
Release Date: Oct. 28, 2007
Metacritic: 79 – 86
Number of Songs/Highlight: 73
Guitar Hero III was the first non-Harmonix-produced entry in the franchise, and while it may not be as fully featured as its successors or play as well as its predecessors, the game succeeded in ensuring that the franchise could not just survive but still be viable in other hands. The Gibson Les Paul controller included in the game is also one of the franchise’s strongest peripherals, and coupled with an impressive setlist, Guitar Hero III proved an instrument-specific title could still be a blast (even if Neversoft’s initial note-charting paled in comparison to that of Harmonix). As the franchise grew to be about the full band, it lost some of the magic that III still held despite its problematic charting. And for better or worse, it was also the game that launched a thousand YouTube videos of players completing and perfecting DragonForce’s “Through the Fire and Flames.”
1. Guitar Hero 2
Release Date: Nov. 7, 2006 (PS2), April 3, 2007 (360)
Number of Songs: 64 (PS2 version), 74 (Xbox 360 version)
Even in the days when Guitar Hero had to mostly resort to covers, Guitar Hero II crystalized the potential of the franchise with a fantastic soundtrack and the solid foundation of the original game. Triple-note chords were introduced, practice modes let players improve their plastic shredding skills, and multiplayer sowed the seeds of what would become Rock Band. Guitar Hero II also helps train players in one of the smartest learning curves the series ever produced, something future games would often take for granted. From the hits like “Monkey Wrench,” to the epic tracks of “Jessica” and “Free Bird” to the Harmonix-included songs like “(Push Push) Lady Lightning,” Guitar Hero II may not have the most accessible soundtrack, but it is easily the one we had the most fun playing… and replaying many more times. The Gibson Explorer 360 controller, despite how loud its strum bar may be, is still our favorite controller of the franchise.