Developer: Vicarious Visions
Release Date: June 22, 2008
I have a confession to make.
I am a rock star.
Yes, it's true.
No flash photography or autographs at this time, please.
I'm not a huge rock star, mind you. It's highly unlikely that you've ever heard of me or my band unless you're a fervent fan of an extremely niche form of music, but that doesn't change facts — I've been there, man. Such memories: three albums, two recording contracts with different labels, tours, backstage mayhem, and we even got to work with one of the biggest producers in the business. I have a new career as a tattoo artist, so I don't do as much musically as I used to, but my time as a Z-list industrial god has left me with a particularly sharp lust for the heady delights of stardom. That's where Guitar Hero comes into the picture.
I missed out on the first two incarnations, as I'm primarily a PC gamer, but I got a Wii a while back, and that allowed me to dive headlong into Guitar Hero III. I love it. Naturally, the opportunity to get my hands on (pun absolutely intended) Guitar Hero: On Tour for my trusty little Nintendo DS was just too much to miss. Fret away anywhere the mood strikes me? Sign me up!
On Tour is essentially the same as its predecessors, only miniaturized. In this version, you are the front guitar god for a small band playing (probably illegal) gigs in the subway. Your spectacular skill draws the attention of a manager who sees dollar signs in your six-string ego, and thus you are fast-tracked to iconic status, blazing a trail from the subways to skyscraper rooftops to overseas gigs and beyond.
Four characters from previous Guitar Hero titles are available to choose from, and there are two new additions as well. The beautiful plumage of Axel Steel's mullet, the majestic spires of Johnny Napalm's Mohawk spikes, the resplendent punk attitude of Judy Nails, and the elegant sophistication of Pandora's goth-nurse outfit; we loved them before, and we still love them now. Gunner Jaxon and Memphis Rose are the newcomers; Gunner is one of those effortlessly cool slackers from the Seattle coffee bar/grunge circuit, and Memphis is a southern-fried belle.
Once you've chosen your "hero," you then choose the guitar they will wield, and which outfit they'll sport. Your options are initially limited, but as you play through the game and earn money, you'll unlock more and more choices for style, coloring, and guitars. In truth, these skins are about the only real incentive there is for replay, so I hope you're exceptionally keen on completing your wardrobe. I may be getting somewhat ahead of myself, though.
In order to facilitate the frantic button-mashing that is the cornerstone of the Guitar Hero franchise, Vicarious Visions has sculpted an interesting peripheral that slides into the GBA cartridge slot on the front of most DS units. This is what you use to press down on the frets, and you use the touch-sensitive pad to strum. On Tour displays whichever guitar you've selected, and using the pick-shaped stylus that comes with the game, you strum along. The whammy bar is similarly maneuvered using the pick, and overall, the entire effect is surprisingly smooth and intuitive.
The praise pretty much stops here, however. The strumming and finger work is smooth, but having to awkwardly bend your wrist at an unnatural angle to do so and still see the screen is not. At best, it causes some discomfort to play for extended periods of time. At worst, this is a repetitive-motion disorder generator packaged in the trappings of rock stardom. Additionally, the fretboard peripheral has no clip to secure it to the DS, and it slides out of the GBA slot far too easily. When it does (and it is a "when," not an "if"), it halts the game and you're forced to reboot your DS. My final gripe with this external toy is the Velcro strap. I hadn't even gotten three hours of average use out of it, and the stitching had ripped, leaving me with a useless strip of fabric. I've yet to find a replacement strap at my local game retailers, so now it's a delicate procedure playing On Tour.
Now, music is essential in a game that's centered on a virtual rock star experience. Sadly, On Tour fails on this front in a couple different ways. For starters, there just isn't enough music, which is, I believe, a clear indication of the limitations of cartridge technology. There are 25 songs, and apparently a bonus track is hidden in there somewhere. I've completed the game on easy and medium, and neither difficulty has yielded an extra, so I'd presume it's a perk for those who've wrapped the game on the expert setting. However, I have no desire to permanently disable my wrist, and I have a broken strap that has made the more vigorous fretwork virtually impossible anyway, so there's no bonus track for me. When all is said and done, what it comes down to is that you can wrap On Tour in around two hours and see pretty much all the game has to offer. Once you've cleared it on easy, the only difference you'll see in stepping up the challenge is skins for your character. This is hardly replay incentive.
Now, one can argue that if the music is good enough, then these issues don't matter. Rocking out is paramount. As far as I'm concerned, the music isn't very good at all. Admittedly, I'm a pretty raging music snob, so I might just have an inflated sense of expectation. However, I would say that this selection is in fact the weakest of the franchise. Guitar Hero is usually good at providing a solid cross-section of genres; On Tour skimps on (or ignores entirely) metal, rockabilly and punk, three of the most guitar-centric formats on earth. What you do get is an excess of radio-pop-punka-roll and classic rock culled largely from previous Guitar Hero titles. I'm fine with old-school, but I have next to no patience for what I hear secreting out of contemporary radio. What is even worse is how wimpy much of this "rock" is; several tracks feature prominently in ads for a local soft-rock AM station. I can endorse neither rocking nor rolling to such pabulum.
When all is said and done, I think Guitar Hero: On Tour is a good idea that never really soared past the "Can we do it?" phase of development. Why there wasn't more attention paid to ergonomic design when putting together the peripheral is beyond me. You were inventing this thing from scratch, guys, so you could have molded that plastic any way you wanted it to! Finding a way to pump more music into the mix should have been a higher priority as well. Even with these issues though, On Tour is an amusing gimmick that's sure to coast along fairly well on the "Hey, neat!" factor that is so deeply ingrained into the Guitar Hero line. Sadly, that will be the game's epitaph: "Here lies Guitar Hero: On Tour. It was almost awesome."
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