Guitar Zero

Maybe the next generation won't even play instruments. Clapton and Hendrix? So passé.

As evidence of the game's ubiquity, a South Park episode called "Guitar Queer-O" aired November 7; 4 million viewers, many of them still chattering about the show, tuned in to make it the most-watched telecast of the year on Comedy Central, according to a network news release. At Java D'Lites, a tournament rarely passes without mention of the episode's magnificence.

"It's like, how Stan's dad tries to convince the kids that real guitar is also rockin', but then later he sneaks down in his underwear to play his son's game!" a Java D'Lites denizen says.

The response (again and again, in fact): "Real guitar is for old people!"

Arthur Granquist and James Olsen organized the first-ever South Floida Guitar Hero competition.
c. stiles
Arthur Granquist and James Olsen organized the first-ever South Floida Guitar Hero competition.
Adam Mitchell of North Lauderdale and Ryan Jotkoff of Hollywood, compete at Underground Cafehaus in Ft. Lauderdale. Those are bras on their heads.
Jacek Gancarz
Adam Mitchell of North Lauderdale and Ryan Jotkoff of Hollywood, compete at Underground Cafehaus in Ft. Lauderdale. Those are bras on their heads.

In the episode, characters Stan and Kyle become expert at the game, so much so that a mysterious talent agent shows up, signs them, and invites them to a sex and coke party. Funny, gamers say, because it's not so far from the truth. The glorification of Guitar Hero is very real.

Google Guitar Hero and a slew of YouTube clips pops up, some of which have been viewed more than 5 million times. The most popular tend to include young experts like Ben, an 8-year-old who can be viewed rockin' out to "Psychobilly Freak Out," one of the most difficult songs on GH II, and "Through the Fire and Flames," the hardest on III. Under his latest video (he's posted 25 in all), there is an ongoing debate that includes more than 35,000 comments on whether the kid is actually a robot. If he's not, well, that's just sad, some jealous viewers conclude.

"He officaly dosen have a life!!!!" writes JustWasBOred. [Sic.]

"And neither do you for posting on this video," answers AntonZZZiegler.

Becoming an expert takes time, though anyone who dedicates a few hours a day can improve rapidly. That's the whole point of the game, says one of its creators, Alex Rigopulous, who wanted to give people who lack discipline (and let's face it, that's most of us) the chance to feel like real rock stars.

To start the game, players choose from rock avatars such as "Lars Ümlaüt" and "Axel Steel." They select from guitar options like the Gibson Les Paul or the Gibson Flying V, and they choose a song. They can compete or work together to "beat" the song. Or a player can opt for "career mode," which involves performing a series of increasingly difficult songs at increasingly large venues, simulating the real path of a rising rock star.

As the game begins, a digitized world of rock stardom appears on the television screen, complete with worshiping video crowd. The rock avatars swing their instruments as lights flash and the song loads.

Then, on a virtual conveyer belt shaped like a guitar's fretted neck, color-coded pellets sail toward the gamer, eventually arriving in stationary hollow circles of the same color. That's when the player must hold down the button of the matching color on the neck of the guitar controller and simultaneously strum a toggle on the body. When the player's timing is on, notes played by real musicians are released. The magic of the game is that the gamer feels like he is responsible for the music.

Sound easy? When seas of red, green, yellow, orange, and blue notes are flying at gamers, many lose their cool. And of course, that's intentional.

Founders Rigopulous and Eran Egozy wanted the game to be challenging enough to keep the interest of players like Lozano but accessible to beginners and nongamers too. They were well-versed in the challenges of creating a game for the masses.

As grad students at MIT in the early 1990s, they started the Cambridge, Massachusetts,-based company Harmonix. In 1999, they began creating music videogames — The Axe: Titans of Classic Rock came first, then Frequency, then Amplitude. All were critical successes and allegedly fun, but they didn't stick around. Then the company partnered with Red Octane, another small company that specialized in accessories.

In 2005, the companies worked together on Guitar Hero, the first innovative rock game to come with a guitar as its controller. GH tapped into that widespread desire to become a rock star. Though it cost a relatively hefty $100 for the game, it crashed into pop culture faster than you can say "You rock!" (The game reminds players of this with each song conquered.)

After the wild and unexpected success of Guitar Hero — it picked up five Interactive Achievement Awards, including the coveted Outstanding Innovation in Gaming — Harmonix quickly released a sequel, Guitar Hero II, in 2006. Guitar III from Activision came out late last year, in time for the holidays. There was also Rock Band, a Harmonix game that includes a drum set, karaoke mic, a lead guitar, a backup guitar, and a bass. In 2007, sales of the Guitar Hero games exceeded $820 million in the United States — a record for a single franchise in any one year, says David Riley, a spokesman for the marketing research company NPD.

The one fly in the ointment has been a lawsuit. Members of the Romantics have sued the makers of GH II in Detroit, claiming that the remake of their song for the game sounded too much like the original. For the most part, though, musicians — some of whom admit to playing Guitar Hero on their tour buses — see that the exposure of having a song in the game might be lucrative. Even Metallica, of Napster-hating notoriety, has signed up.

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