When it comes to rhythm games using plastic instruments, I have been pretty vocal about my adoration for the Rock Band series. However, that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten how I came to love these games in the first place: the Guitar Hero franchise. The moment the demo for the first Guitar Hero hit GameStops, I was instantly obsessed, and I spent an obscene amount of time mastering the setlists of Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II (on the PS2 and 360, even). After the lackluster Guitar Hero Rocks the 80s, Harmonix jumped ship and went on to create Rock Band, while Guitar Hero III failed to capture the same magic and addictiveness that the previous games in the series had. Because of this, 2008 was the first year that I didn’t buy a Guitar Hero game, instead saving my money for Rock Band 2 and accompanying downloadable content.
When Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, another spinoff from the main Guitar Hero series featuring songs from Guitar Hero, GHII, GHIII, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, and Rocks the 80s, was announced, I found myself instantly nostalgic for the early days of the franchise. Even though I didn’t particularly enjoy Aerosmith or Rocks the 80s, and felt that GHIII paled in comparison to the first two, I was blinded by the thought of getting to play “Free Bird” again, only this time with a full band. Guitar Hero: Smash Hits uses a recycled playlist with gameplay elements introduced in 2008’s Guitar Hero: World Tour, and as a result the whole thing ends up feeling a little stale.
Guitar Hero: Smash Hits gives players the option to embark on solo or band careers, compete in head to head competition, create recordings to share online, and create their own rockers. As per usual, the game supports both online and offline multiplayer, and the “Expert +” drumming difficulty from Guitar Hero: Metallica has carried over for some songs. Smash Hits has 48 songs, significantly less than the 86 in World Tour; to make matters worse, Smash Hits doesn’t support any of World Tour’s DLC. That’s also actually one song less than Guitar Hero: Metallica, but at least with a band-themed expansion, you know you’re getting a full setlist of songs you love; the same can’t be said of this game. I knew about the limited number of tunes going in, but still thought that it would be a good setlist based on my love of Guitar Hero and GHII. Of course, this is completely subjective, but I was pretty disappointed by the track listing. Smash Hits was supposed to be the best songs from previous games in the franchise, so why is there no “Paint it Black” or “Ziggy Stardust”, yet I was forced to play “Psychobilly Freakout” and “Cherry Pie” again? I understand that Activision needed to keep the songs varied to attract as wide an audience as possible, but with only 48 songs in a full-priced game, the good ones were few and far between for me.
Aside from a limited and questionable setlist, the game’s interface left something to be desired. I first started the career mode as a band with another player, and we soon found out that we couldn’t create our own characters from the selection screen, instead being made to choose one of the game’s classic rocker personas. I later found out that characters can be created in the solo career and used in the band career, but if you’re starting out with other players, none of you will be able to make original musicians. The character creation in Smash Hits is definitely lacking, and since my time with World Tour was limited, the only thing I have to compare it to is Rock Band, which I feel has superior character creation. The character models in Smash Hits are strange-looking, but honestly, these problems are something I could easily forgive in a rhythm game. What was more frustrating was finding out that I had to start my career all over again while playing solo. This was an issue in the first Rock Band as well, but that was back in 2007; band games have moved forward since then, or so I thought.
The heart of any game of this genre, though, is the ability to emulate musicians by using guitar, bass, or drum controllers (or singing, which is done with an actual microphone). For the most part, Smash Hits does offer entertainment to fans of rhythm games. The game follows Guitar Hero’s typical tiered storyline, with a certain number of stars having to be unlocked in one venue before moving on to the next. Some of the songs now have different note placement, and can feel kind of “off”; this brings me back to the main reason I stopped supporting the Guitar Hero series: it just doesn’t feel right anymore. The gameplay has suffered from GHIII onward, and I feel that the game design is inferior to that of Harmonix. Additionally, there are some minor aspects that I felt were flawed, like the fact that the entire band shares Star Power, yet activating it only multiplies one player’s score.
The problem with nostalgia is that it often makes you remember the past in a more positive light, or causes you to forget the reason that things aren’t how they used to be. Yes, I loved the Guitar Hero series once upon a time, but the genre has evolved, and it’s Harmonix and Rock Band that are leading the evolution. While Guitar Hero: Smash Hits is a solid option for fans of music games, the short and inconsistent tracklist alone makes it not worth the price. The fact is, every single song on the disc is already available in another game, and most of them have been for years; in fact, I still have the first three Guitar Hero games in my library, and I certainly don’t feel the need to pay another $60 just to add more instruments to the few songs in the game that I really love. To make matters worse, a handful of the songs in Smash Hits are available in Rock Band, and the fact that the game doesn’t support DLC gives gamers even less reason to buy it. Guitar Hero: Smash Hits will keep you entertained for a few days, but it certainly won’t replace either Rock Band or Guitar Hero: World Tour as your regular party game.