I should probably admit that when I received Band Hero for review, it already had a couple strikes against it. First, I’m a metalhead at heart, and pop music in general doesn’t really float my boat. As a general rule, the louder and angrier the music, the more I typically like it. There’s not much in the pop realm that fits that bill. Second, I’ve always been a bit perplexed by the portable versions of Rock Band and Guitar Hero. It seems to me that most of the fun for music games comes from playing with a peripheral that at least roughly simulates playing a real instrument, whether it be guitar, drums, or vocals. The actual Simon-esque button pressing is quite secondary to feeling like you’re actually on stage jamming out in front of adoring fans. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been completely bought in to the genre ever since I first busted out “Ziggy Stardust” on Guitar Hero 1. But playing these games on a handheld device without any actual sense of music immersion has always seemed a bit strange to me.
All that said, I approached Band Hero with an open mind. I figured that since Guitar Hero and Rock Band have been fantastic avenues for exposing me to music that I otherwise would have completely missed, so maybe Band Hero DS would do the same. The entire idea of Band Hero is to appeal to a wider range of people (read: tweens) than the metal-heavy Guitar Hero games did, and that attitude is reflected in the both the overall aesthetic and the poppy soundtrack. The 30-song list is decent enough, although there are a few head-scratchers in there that make you wonder who, exactly, they are really trying to target:
– The All-American Rejects, ‘Believe’
– Avril Lavigne,’Girlfriend’
– Black Eyed Peas,’Let’s Get It Started’
– Blink-182,’First Date’
– Boys Like Girls, ‘The Great Escape’
– Duran Duran, ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’
– Eagles of Death Metal, ‘Wannabe in L.A.’
– Evanescence, ‘Call Me When You’re Sober’
– Fall Out Boy, ‘Thnks Fr Th Mmrs’
– Foo Fighters, ‘Monkey Wrench’
– Kaiser Chiefs, ‘I Predict a Riot’
– The Killers, ‘Spaceman’
– Kings of Leon, ‘Manhattan’
– KT Tunstall, ‘Suddenly I See’
– Lacuna Coil, ‘Our Truth’
– No Doubt, ‘Excuse Me Mr.’
– Pink, ‘So What’
– The Presidents of the United States of America, ‘Lump’
– The Pretenders, ‘Boots of Chinese Plastic’
– Queen, ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’
– Queens of the Stone Age, ‘No One Knows’
– The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, ‘You Better Pray’
– The Rolling Stones, ‘Under My Thumb (live)’
– Spin Doctors, ‘Two Princes’
– Sublime, ‘All You Need’
– Sum 41, ‘In Too Deep’
– Ugly Kid Joe, ‘Everything About You’
– Vampire Weekend, ‘A-Punk’
– The Vines, ‘Get Free’
– Weezer, ‘Troublemaker’
Are the players that get excited about Avril Lavigne and Fall Out Boy songs even going to know who Ugly Kid Joe or Duran Duran are, and vice versa? It seemed to me like the developers may have cast their “pop music” net a little too wide, and ended up with something that lands in either “meh” or “Uh, who?” territory from both older and younger gamers.
The basic setup will feel very familiar to anyone who has played the Guitar Hero series before. You begin by creating a custom character, and the game provides a decent amount of flexibility in this department. There are a wide variety of faces, hair, clothes, makeup, and instruments to fit any personal style. Once you’ve created and named your avatar, you can fill out your band with the stable of familiar Guitar Hero names. All the regulars are back, with Clive Winston, Axel Steele, Midori, and Johnny Napalm, just to name a few. However, they’ve all been given a fairly tame pop makeover for this edition. Axel Steel’s spikes and leather jacket are gone, and in his place is someone that looks like a reject from a Hanson audition. All the characters have gone through a pretty similar taming process, which I suppose is to be expected from a game with a lighter tone.
Once your band is complete and named, you jump immediately into creating a setlist. You can choose up to three songs to play in a set. All 30 tracks are unlocked from the beginning, which is both good and bad. The good is that less patient gamers will have access to everything right from the start. The bad is that there’s no sort of progression through different stages or venues that unlock more difficult songs. I always thought that part of the fun of the console versions was starting out as a small garage band, and gaining popularity and more difficult songs as you progressed. Not having this sort of advancement method takes quite a bit of the enjoyment and sense of improvement out of the game. You do unlock new venues and earn cash to spend on cooler duds, and there are also some in-game achievement badges such as achieving a certain star-level, hitting 100 notes in a row, or playing a specific venue a certain number of times. Completists will probably enjoy trying to track down all of these badges, which could extend the game’s longevity. Once your setlist is picked, the lights dim, and you’re on.
A quick gameplay overview for those who have been living in a cave for the past 5 years. Notes will descend down the screen on one of 4 strings, and you have to press the button of the corresponding color in time. Your choice of 5 difficulty levels will either increase or decrease the speed and frequency of the descending notes. The songs play very similar to the console versions, with mulitpliers that will raise your score the more notes you hit in a row, and Star Power accumulating when you hit star-shaped notes correctly. It’s worth noting that there is no indicator of difficulty level in the song list, so until you become familiar with them, you’ll run the risk of putting the hardest and easiest songs in the game in the same setlist without realizing it. Band Hero also adds “stunts”, which are short mini-games such as tossing merch to crowd members, guiding the lead singer as he crowd-surfs, or pulling a roadie from the grip of adoring fans. These games provide instant star-power if completed. They are fun enough, I suppose, but I found it rather distracting to suddenly shift to one of them mid-song, then try to jump back into the song. The graphics are decent enough overall, with both the venues and the characters rendered in 3D. The characters will go through their typical stage antics, none of which you’ll actually pay attention to since you’ll be completely focused on the note charts.
The peripherals are where a game like this either gets a standing ovation or gets booed off the stage. Unfortunately, Band Hero landed squarely in the latter for me. The biggest change to Band Hero from previous portable music games is the inclusion of all the instruments. In addition to the Guitar Grip we’ve seen in previous DS versions, Band Hero also comes with a drum overlay. This rubber sheath slips over the bottom half of the DS, and turns the D-pad, A, and B buttons into the same colored drum pads you’d see on the big boy versions (red, green, yellow, and blue). With this overlay, you can finger tap your best Neal Peart impression on your DS buttons. I initially had a really good time with this, but as I moved into some of the more difficult songs, I soon realized two things. One, I felt rather silly simply tapping along on the buttons, and two, I could only thumb-tap to the beat for about 3 songs before it really started to hurt. Maybe this is just a side-effect of 30+ years of gaming, but I really had a hard time playing the “drums” for more than a few songs, as my thumbs just aren’t conditioned for that sort of rapid movement. In addition, trying to both tap and keep the DS still so you could actually see the notes as the come down the top screen was infuriatingly difficult, especially on some of the faster songs. Maybe some of the twitch-gamer types will fare better here, but the drums left me pretty cold.
Vocals suffered from a similar issue. Not being familiar with most of the songs, I depended on the karaoke-style vocal track to be able to read the lyrics. Problem was, the microphone had a hard time picking up my voice unless I held the DS right up to my face. If I held it close enough to get an accurate mic, I couldn’t see any of the words as they came across the screen. So, as you can imagine, playing Band Hero as a vocalist ended up in frustration as well. This is probably not a great loss, as my vocal prowess falls somewhere between Tim Armstrong and Nivek Ogre (Google ‘em, kids).
I was hoping the guitar would be the game’s saving grace, but it fared no better for me. The DS grip slides into the GBA cartridge slot, and provides a grip with four colored frets. It comes with a “pick” stylus, and you strum the touch screen while pressing on the fret buttons. It’s really a pretty nifty concept, but unfortunately, the Guitar Grip was designed for people with far smaller hands than me. I could barely get my big meat hooks around it, and even when I did, I found the buttons to be far too small and too close together for comfort. I’m an Expert level guitar player on the console versions, but I found myself flailing about trying to use the pick and guitar grip in this version. It had the same problem as the drums, in that trying to “strum” and hit the fret buttons naturally moves the DS around in your hands, which makes it incredibly tough to keep your eye on the note charts. I tried a number of hand positions and could never really find one that felt comfortable or kept the DS from nauseatingly bouncing around.
I’ll be honest, it’s tough for me to truly give Band Hero a fair grade. The setlist didn’t excite me at all, but I’m also not really the target audience. I found the peripherals to be quite uncomfortable and incredibly awkward to use, but they were probably designed for someone with much smaller hands in mind. In the end, I guess I’ll just say that if you’re really desperate to take your music games everywhere with you, the setlist turns your crank, and you find the Guitar Grip and Drum Overlay comfortable, then add 15 points to my score because Band Hero isn’t a terrible option. If you don’t require portability, however, I’d stick with the console versions. At least that way you can actually have some immersion and pretend you’re playing an instrument.