When Music Dominated Games: Guitar Hero II Ten Years Later

Believe it or not, it has been ten years now since the release of Guitar Hero II, a game in which people live out their rock star dreams using Fischer-Price toys. If you’re in your mid-twenties like me, you probably have a lot of memories of the Guitar Hero series. For a period of time, the rhythm genre was the thing in video games to the point of breaking into the ‘casual’ market being dominated with the fresh release of the Nintendo Wii. Many of my friends back then were in music classes, so I was exposed to Guitar Hero pretty early on in its life. Not being as musically talented, I wasn’t exactly great at the game. However, Guitar Hero II ended up making a large impact in my life as a gamer.

Like many stories of junior high school, this one begins in a Wal-Mart. See, for some reason RedOctane didn’t send out a demo disc of Guitar Hero II to the store that was only ten minutes away from my school. Instead, someone decided to just put in the actual game into the demo display and let that be good enough. It didn’t take long for a friend to sort out that this was the actual game, which basically created a daily ritual for my group of friends: immediately after the prison of junior high let out, we’d make our way down to the Wal-Mart and set up camp around the Guitar Hero II display. Thanks to a clever cheat code, we immediately had access to the entire library of songs and we would hammer away for two to three hours away a day.

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How does someone whose musical ability stretch past being able to count time actually play Guitar Hero II alongside far better equipped players? Guitar Hero II changed the way multiplayer worked in a way that allowed for players of any skill to join the fun. One mode featured players taking on guitar and bass parts to work together to play through a song together. Another was competitive, but allowed individual players to select difficulty curves differently. For our Wal-Mart camping party, this was perfect. We could rotate players more efficiently because two could play at the same time without feeling disadvantaged. Now, what we were experiencing was a mysterious thing that used to be far more ubiquitous called ‘local play.’ This setup allowed everyone to come together over a common interest and enjoy it all at once. At the risk of sounding much older than I am, there is something special about having a group altogether in front of the same game. While online multiplayer has gotten far more reliable and enjoyable in the same ten years since Guitar Hero II’s release, it just doesn’t have the same effect as a communal play session.

Then, there was the star of the show. Guitar Hero II featured 64 tracks (on the PlayStation 2 edition), and many of them were covers instead of master tracks. In spite of this, the tracklist of GHII represented a decently diverse set of songs representing decades of rock music. In fact, the tracklist is a great starting study of the different evolutions and digressions of the genre. Junior high me was exposed to veteran classic rock acts like Cheap Trick and Rush. We could learn a song by Black Sabbath that wasn’t “Crazy Train.” (It was “War Pigs.”) We were far more welcoming of these classic tracks because music more modern for the time also saw representation. Not to mention the truly bizarre entries like Buckethead’s “Jordan” and the best song of the game, which is of course “Trogdor.

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Music was the way the Guitar Hero series transcended the standard gaming culture. While there are far more games for differing audiences today, back in 2006 that wasn’t exactly the case. The standard libraries of game consoles at the time didn’t offer things for entire groups of people. Yet, Guitar Hero II is game where Kansas and Avenged Sevenfold fans can do the exact same thing they would do in their rooms with headphones in-pretend to play the guitar. There is something genuinely universal about the pretend guitar play that makes up Guitar Hero, and it is honestly a shame more games like this didn’t drop during the PS2 era. That console is still the highest selling console of all time, and sat as home DVD players for millions of families but not used as a game machine for most in the house. But there was Guitar Hero II. Imagine a parent hearing the music of their own youth coming from their own teenager’s video game and what the reaction, even interest might be. Imagine if more games were able to transcend generation gaps like that. 

Somehow, a gaggle of about 12 teenagers didn’t draw attention as fast as you’d think, but eventually the Wal-Mart caught on to what we were doing in their store every single day. Surprisingly, they weren’t exactly pleased with kids coming in and not buying anything. Future displays made sure to not make the same mistakes and had demo discs. As a group, one of us had to break down and buy the game so the after school shenanigans could continue. By that time, the hype was beginning to die down. Eventually, Guitar Hero II gave way to a sequel that was less inspired, along with a fracturing of the development team that led to a music game arms race that caused the whole genre to fall by the wayside. Even with the newest title, Guitar Hero Live, being pretty good, having the game never brought about the same crowd or experience that was found at the peak of the genre. Yet, those weeks spent playing Guitar Hero II religiously still sticks in my head. I will even on occasion envision a powerful driving song rolling across the fret board and pretend that I’m back on the Wal-Mart floor. 

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Guitar Hero II may very well have been a product of its time. A music game capable of simply being a well done music game enjoyable at any skill level with familiar music just doesn’t seem like something that we’d see in today’s market. For a brief moment in gaming history, the biggest game on the scene wasn’t about jumping platforms, or punching, or shooting. It all about playing music. Perhaps, though, I’m not the only one who has a story about crowding around a perfect performance of “Less Talk More Rokk.” Maybe we’ll yet see another game inspired by Guitar Hero II that can dominate the landscape of games and show them to be capable of more than they are. If not, I’ll always have “Thunderhorse.

Travis began a life obsessed with technology with his cousin's classic Game Boy and a copy of Tetris. He was horrible at it, but has yet to forget that experience. These days, Travis looks to explore the intersection of culture and technology that has come to define our world. When not preparing a project, you can find him catching up on the latest comic books or playing an arrangement of different video games-particularly honing his Super Smash Bros. skills. He is still terrible at Tetris.