Guitar Hero is the greatest thing to happen to video games since the invention of a stereotypical Italian midget plumber. But each new installment is only as good as the songs it comes with, and the series takes its first unsuccessful stage dive with the new Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s.
By “80s” the game developers mean “Hair metal with a touch of new wave and dash of punk. But mostly hair metal.” So if you like lots of Quiet Riot, Poison, Ratt, Skid Row, etc., etc., this is the game for you. But if — like me — you see these bands as somewhat amusing, fun-in-very-small-doses kitsch, then you’ll probably be disappointed.
The songs are okay enough to play once through. But while I still love going back to the first two Guitar Heroes and playing Killer Queen, Ziggy Stardust, Sweet Child O Mine, Tripping on a Hole in a Paper Heart, Crazy On You and a bunch of others, there aren’t many here I’ll be replaying in a year. Synchronicity II and Only a Lad break out of the new wave boundaries enough (the pre-Nightmare Before Christmas bridge at 3:08 gives away that Only a Lad is a Danny Elfman tune even if you didn’t know he was in Oingo Boingo); Iron Maiden’s Wrathchild is both harder and more melodic than the hair bands; Los Angeles (X) and Police Truck (Dead Kennedys) are welcome punk additions to the Guitar Hero canon; and Extreme’s Play With Me has ludicrously difficult riffs that are composed enough that I wanted to practice so I could play through and actually hear them. (Play With Me is the first time in a Guitar Hero game that I really longed for the original version; the many sections seem too choppily spliced together — though it’s very possible they seemed choppy because I missed a bunch of notes — and it’s noticeably different from Nuno‘s smoothly absurd wailing and the reverb-heavy drums of the original.)
But like the overabundance of harder metal songs in Guitar Hero II — as a friend of mine so delicately put it, “But godd—, why do they have to put so much f—ing s—ty metal on it!” — the pop-metal here quickly wears thin without any 80s greats there for balance.
There’s no Living on a Prayer or You Give Love a Bad Name. No Pixies. No Guns N Roses. No Prince (his hits aren’t exactly rockers, but Darling Nikki or I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man would work nicely). No Bruce Springsteen. No U2, for crying out loud. No Van Halen or Metallica. No R.E.M. or Replacements. No Love in an Elevator. No Money for Nothing. No Hells Bells or You Shook Me All Night Long. No Huey Lewis!!! Heck, I’d take Summer of ’69 over 90 percent of the songs in Rocks the 80s.
I realize some of the no-shows are probably because of rights issues. But to have not a single one of these hits or big bands, to put out the equivalent of 30 album tracks as an 80s collection just seems cheap and tossed-off. Not to mention that they’re charging the full 50 bucks for a scant 30 songs (For the same price, GH II for PlayStation 2 has 40 songs plus about 25 unlockable tunes).
The biggest loser in all this are the artists who made the music of the 80s what it was. (Rocks the 80s uses some original recordings rather than high-quality covers for the first time; though if they can use Twisted Sister’s rerecorded and therefore not-80s version of I Wanna Rock, they should have used Crucial Taunt‘s version of Ballroom Blitz.) One of the main pleasures of the first two Guitar Hero games is hearing such a range of songs and how they all connect — how riffs and strum patterns filter from one genre to another, even as it all stays on one branch or another of the rock family tree. In that context, Shout at the Devil, Carry on My Wayward Son, and Rock This Town can stand proudly alongside Can’t You Hear Me Knockin, Free Bird, and Jessica.
But when the bulk of the setlist is second-tier songs presented with half a nudge and a wink, all they have to connect with is each other — and instead of transcending their genres, they just reinforce how silly, derivative and incestuous the music was when taken as a whole
And if the game developers were just saving the good songs for Guitar Hero III? For shame. We want our Welcome to the Jungle, and we want it now!!!