IGN Review of Guitar Hero On Tour
Because of the strength of the Guitar Hero franchise, it really isn't hard to understand why Activision wanted to expand the series to the Nintendo DS: just slap a familiar brand on the packaging and you're bound to sell enough numbers to justify its existence, right? But something happened when Activision gave Vicarious Visions the go-ahead to turn the guitar jamming game into a portable product: the team actually took the project seriously. The result is a Nintendo DS version of the series that truly feels like it's a part of the Guitar Hero license and not a cheap cash-in.
It's an amazing accomplishment considering you're missing a key component: a full-sized guitar to give you the illusion and feel that you're actually playing an instrument in time to the music playing back at you. You also lose out on the social aspect of having observers watch you jam out to rock classics and contemporary hits -- but if my experience with the game in public is anything to go by, you'll end up with a few lookie-loos peering over your shoulder as you jam out on the Nintendo DS because it's such an unexpectedly cool experience.
Guitar Hero: On Tour takes the core component of the Red Octane original and its gazillion console sequels and accurately reduces it for play on the Nintendo DS. The gameplay remains the same: as the song plays, gems slide down a note highway that represents the guitar portion of the tune. To play that gem, you hold the corresponding notes down on the fret bar and strum. Some gems are energized with Star Power, and you fill up your meter by successfully playing that combination without failing. That energy is used to increase the score multiplier and save you during particularly difficult note strings.
On the console, this is all played through a full-sized guitar that features a five-button fret bar, a strummer that recognizes up and down direction, a whammy bar to warble notes, and a motion sensor to trigger the star power. For the Nintendo DS version, you lose the full-sized guitar, but that's pretty much all you're losing because everything else, with the exception of a single fret button, has been placed in rather intuitive locations on the Nintendo DS thanks to a well-constructed peripheral and incredibly tight programming.
Included in the package is the equivalent of the Guitar Hero console guitar: the Guitar Grip, a device that snaps into the GBA slot and adds four buttons running down the bottom of the system. Strap yourself in and fit a finger over each button, then take out the included touch screen-friendly pick and start strumming away with the music. The game recognizes strums in any direction as well as back-forth strums without lifting up the pick, a technique that comes in extremely handy when you get into the Expert tracked songs. Whamming notes is a simple scribble on the touch screen during the long, extended gems. Everything's handled extraordinarily well in such a small peripheral and package.
The experience isn't without its faults, and they're mostly attributed to the platform itself. Playing Guitar Hero with its screen on the same device as the peripheral is just cause for shaking and shimmying as you try and watch the note clusters. And since you're strapped into the device it isn't the most comfortable -- or accurate -- guitar experience, and when you combine the playing and watching on the unit you're bound to get a little cramped up after a bit of playing. And if you shift a little too much during play -- mostly to readjust your grip or to hand off the system to someone else -- the peripheral might come loose in the slot causing the game to halt in the same fashion as unplugging the guitar controller from the console. But in this case, you have to reboot since Nintendo doesn't allow peripherals to "hot swap" in the cartridge slot. People with harsh first impressions will probably hate it from the start, but those willing to stick with it will easily find the comfort zone as well as adjust to the shaking screen. And the payoff is worth it because Guitar Hero: On Tour is still a blast to play even in its condensed form.
Compared to the console version the set of songs may seem a bit light in the load, both in numbers and in genre. Vicarious Visions managed to squeeze in more than 25 full-length tunes into a Nintendo DS cartridge, a number that might be a fraction in Guitar Hero III but for the handheld platform it's a stunning feat, and even more so when you hear the audio quality: the compression's slightly noticeable but songs are in stereo and sound great coming out of the DS speaker and headphones.
The line-up of songs is where things get a little debatable. The game is clearly being aimed at a friendlier, mainstream, pop-friendly crowd. Oh, there are some hard-driving rock songs in Guitar Hero like Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It," and Daughtry's "What I Want," but you also get the very Radio Disney-friendly tunes like All Star from Smashmouth and Stray Cats Strut from The Stray Cats. But they're so well done with challenging and fun note tracks that you'll probably end up enjoying hated songs in their Guitar Hero format. And besides, it's not all kid-friendly if it's got Maroon 5's This Love, which starts out "I was so high I didn't realize…" Of course, the "high" part's been edited out…but you can fill in the blanks.
Despite the game's lack of a fret button, the game is still a great challenge with a solid difficulty curve -- especially for those who still haven't jumped on the Guitar Hero bandwagon. For those who have, jumping into the Hard difficulty might pose a slight challenge but Expert will still manage to kick your ass. But even if you make it through the single player progression it's still a lot of fun to return to some songs to make the high score table -- the developers set the default score for each song at 100,000 points, so you have something to shoot for. And, of course, the "star ranking" is in place, so you'll want to try for five-star performances if you really want to show people how good you are.
And then there's the multiplayer component: you can play each song cooperatively with back-up and lead guitars split between two players over a wireless local connection. Or, you can enter the fun and frantic Guitar Duel option to compete against that other player…complete with over-the-top power-ups that are made to screw up the competitor. Both modes are highly recommended and give Guitar Hero: On Tour strong legs.
With all that's going on, the developer even managed to get a decent visual engine going to accompany the notes running down the screen. The characters might not lipsync, strum or beat the drum in time to the music, but it's still cool to see them in full 3D and wearing your custom items earned, purchased, and selected.
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