Guitar Hero is a music game that comes with a guitar-shaped controller. There are five “fret buttons” on the neck, and a strum button on the body. (It’s somewhat inconsistent on the model it uses – sometimes it pretends to be a guitar with a single string and five frets, and sometimes it pretends to be a guitar with five one-fretted strings.) Pretty standard game mechanics: a song plays, “notes” come down the screen, you have to strum when they hit the bottom while holding down the appropriate fret keys. (With a few minor twists that I won’t go into here.)

The songs are various sorts of rock music; I was only vaguely familiar with most of them, but that doubtless has more to do with my musical background than anything else. Pleasant enough, at any rate. (Miranda particularly likes singing along to “I Want to Be Sedated”.) I hadn’t played any of the songs on a real guitar (other than a few notes of that Deep Purple song); they unaccountably neglected to include “Alice’s Restaurant” as one of the choices.

Four difficulty levels; in the easiest, you only use three fret keys, in the next one, you use four, and in the last two, you use all five. I started on the easiest level, and was pretty unimpressed. A standard button-pressing game; less fun than DDR, and I didn’t like the music as much. (Not that the music was bad, just that DDR’s music is better.) Also ridiculously easy, so I thought I should give the other difficulty levels a try.

The four-fret version was a noticeable improvement. With only three buttons to press, the link between the notes that were playing and the fret buttons was somewhat tenuous. With four fret buttons, however, there weren’t so many glaring mismatches: runs of more than four notes in a single direction are a good deal rarer than runs of more than three notes, for example.

And, actually, playing the game started feeling like playing a musical instrument. To the extent that some of my musical bad habit came back to me: on difficult bits, I was gripping the neck rather too tightly, which is one reason why I could never produce a good vibrato on a violin. The five fret versions (especially the toughest level) felt even more realistic; playing five frets with only four fingers obviously presents certain difficulties, but, with a bit of practice, my fingers were sliding up and down the neck with grace. Quite a lot of fun, really.

Having said that, there were parts of the higher difficulty levels that I didn’t like nearly as much. I really enjoyed richly textured sections. Sections where the notes came faster than the rate at which I was comfortable were not so much fun. There are some techniques that relieve the need to strum all the time, but it’s not so easy (for me, at least) to do those reliably in long fast runs.

And this is where the comparison to a real musical instrument showed problems with the game. If I’m playing a piece on the piano with a tricky fast bit, I’ll concentrate for a while on that part, playing it slowly until the notes are in my fingers, after which I’ll speed up gradually. With the game, however, I didn’t have that option: I had to restart the song from the beginning, at full speed, and hope that I’d do better next time. Which is something I’ve been trained to accept in other sorts of games (albeit not without resentment – see multiple forms in final boss fights without a save point), but here, I just gave up and moved on to songs without such passages, knowing that a better world is possible.

Quite good game. I’m not planning to buy the sequel, and DDR is better, but a lot of fun none the less. Of course, maybe the lesson is that I should spend more time playing piano and less time playing video games…

Now that I’ve finished this and all the sudoku puzzles in Brain Age (good puzzles on the intermediate and advanced levels), I’m back down to only playing two games at a time. Which is much better. That should be enough until Okami comes out in early September; if I’m really lucky, the rumors of a Wii launch on October 2 will pan out. If not, I guess I’ll put more memory in the mac and get Civ 4.

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