Although I'm a huge supporter of the Guitar Hero franchise, I've never been much of a fan of Activision's Guitar Hero On Tour line of portable games. There's something about the required guitar grip and crummy hit detection that drives me up the wall. And the fact that the company was able to produce three different versions in just over a year only manages to make the thing more intolerable. Knowing that I was going to review what looked a lot like the fourth installment in the On Tour series, I was understandably skeptical. Thankfully I kept an open mind, because what I discovered is that I actually kind of like Band Hero on the Nintendo DS.
Band Hero on the DS does exactly what Guitar Hero World Tour (ironically not Band Hero) did for the consoles; it gives you the option to play the part of a guitarist, drummer, bassist or the lead singer. This means that you not only get the standard guitar grip, but you'll also have a cool drum peripheral that fits the Nintendo DS like a glove. Toss in the DS's built-in microphone and you have enough pieces to form your own virtual band and tour the world.
The hardware has always been the big draw to these portable Guitar Hero games and Band Hero is no exception. If you've played any of the previous On Tour games, then you will have already formed an opinion about the guitar grip. The Band Hero grip is no different; in fact, best I can tell is that they just reused the pile of grips stacked up in the Activision warehouse. How else do you explain the "Guitar Hero On Tour" branding that is painted onto this Band Hero guitar?
The real addition is the brand new drum grip (their wording, not mine). This rubbery peripheral is places around the bottom half of the Nintendo DS so that the four colors (yellow, blue, red and green) are covering the D-pad and face buttons. While I've always had problems with how the guitar grip felt (a problem that has not been resolved in this installment), I found myself having a good time drumming using this rubber accessory. It's not the most sophisticated add-on I've seen, but it turned what was always an unpleasant experience into something I looked forward to going back to.
This time around Activision has completely ditched support for Nintendo's older, fatter DS. Instead you get a game that is intended to be played with the Nintendo DS Lite. The good news is that unlike the Guitar Hero On Tour games, Band Hero is partially compatible with the Nintendo DSi. While the guitar grip won't work (it still requires a Game Boy Advance slot to work), you will be able to use the built-in microphone and form-fitting drum peripheral. Of course, neither the drums nor the guitar grip will work with the upcoming Nintendo DSi XL. So either Nintendo is going to need to stop making new versions of their DS, or Activision will need to figure out a way to support four different systems at once. I don't envy their problem.
Wait ... did I say that there's no support for the older, fatter Nintendo DS? Well, it turns out that is not entirely true. Despite what the box says ("Exclusively for the Nintendo DS Lite"), people with older systems can still have a lot of fun. Assuming you already own an older, compatible guitar grip, you shouldn't have any issues playing guitar and bass. And all Nintendo DS consoles have microphones for you to sing into. What's more, there's nothing about the drum grip that requires you to use the rubbery attachment. Instead you can push the left and down buttons on the D-pad and the "A" and "B" face buttons to recreate the four colors. Everything is in order on the note highway, so all it takes is one or two songs before it feels completely natural. In a lot of ways this design made the game feel more like Rock Band Unplugged, a game I really liked earlier this year.
I'm happy to say that both the drumming and singing is handled better in this game than the guitar work. When it comes to the guitar grip I still have troubles with note detection and it cramping up my hand, but I've already spent three reviews complaining about that sort of thing. The drumming and singing is a little better, mostly because it doesn't physically hurt you to play it. I'm not as critical of the drums not feeling exactly right, but mostly because they are a lot more fun to play around with in this game.
The singing can also be fun; however I'm not sure how entertaining it will be for the people around you. Seeing as this is a portable game, I worry that I'll start to hear people belting out Black Eyed Peas songs in public. The Nintendo DS microphone does seem sensitive enough to where you won't have to get too close, something that concerned me going in. The words are also large enough to read and the game seems a little more forgiving than its console counterpart. Still, I can't imagine people only using this game to sing, if you need karaoke that badly you might as well play one of the console Hero games (or any of the dozen other karaoke games spanning multiple systems). This addition feels like it's mostly there to round out the band; almost an afterthought when compared to the drumming and guitar playing.
All of these different instruments are designed to be played at the same time, giving four different Nintendo DS owners something to do. Much to my amazement, this aspect of the game is completely successful. While I may not like playing using the guitar grip, I do know people who don't have that problem. Plus, I also know a singer who doesn't mind looking like a fool by singing into their portable game system. And me? I'm having a genuinely good time with the drums. I can see how this mode can become as addictive as the console games, even if there are a few quirks along the way.
The track list is also solid, mixing songs from the console Band Hero and brand new tracks that probably should have been in the console game. While there are a lot of bands targeted at the younger demographic (including Avril Lavigne, Fall Out Boy and Pink), there are some old time crooners and big rock names that made me do a double take. I was happy to see bands like Foo Fighters, Kaiser Chiefs, The Killers, Queens of the Stone Age, Weezer and The Rolling Stones make the cut, just to name a few. I'm not going to say that the whole 30 song track list is spectacular, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.
Fans of the Guitar Hero On Tour games will already know what kind of modes to expect from Band Hero. You get the standard campaign (where you go down a list of songs and complete them for points and stars), a mode where you can customize your band and the various multiplayer modes. On top of this list you get a cool mode that allows you to connect this DS game to the Wii version of Band Hero, giving you a few brand new interactive modes that can really add to the experience of both versions of the game. And did I mention that there are achievements? It's true; the game gives you a bunch of challenges, unlockables and rewards for your effort. None of this stuff is as deep as what you get from the console games, but it's enough to keep you going until the next Nintendo DS "Hero" game hits stores.
After three different Guitar Hero On Tour games that hurt my hands and convinced me that the "Hero" franchise wasn't worth porting to the Nintendo DS, I'm more than a little surprised to recommend Band Hero. This game goes a long way to prove that Activision really is trying to add something to the formula. I still have issues with the guitar grip, but I had an absolute ball with the drums. I was also impressed with the multiplayer modes and the interaction with the Wii version of Band Hero. Now this is a "Hero" game that I can finally get behind.
The game gives you all of the modes you have come to expect from the Guitar Hero franchise, including a decidedly limited career mode (complete with short video clips that set up each wacky venue you get to rock), a quick play mode, online multiplayer and the Guitar Hero Studio (where you can create your own Band Hero songs). Band Hero also includes a Sing-Along and a Party Play mode, which allows players to play in a friendly, non-competitive atmosphere. None of this is Earth shattering, but it, along with the game's five dozen songs, will keep most casual gamers busy for some time to come.
Fans of the Hero series are also able to import songs from other Guitar Hero titles, though there is a small fee attached. While I love the idea of being able to take your song collection from game to game, I wish there was more to do with the additional songs. The same holds true for the downloadable content, which you can also use (and buy) in this game. The Band Hero campaign is extremely basic, with no real weight to it. I'm hoping that one of these days Activision will take a page out of the Rock Band playbook and offer a more robust campaign mode. Heck, even LEGO Rock Band features a full-on world tour mode that actually gives you a reason to keep buying brand new songs.
While I'm digging through the game's negative points, I was saddened to hear some of the cuts that have been made to these songs. There's the obvious stuff, such as references to drugs, alcohol and sex. I get why they did that, this is, after all, a family friendly E10+ rated product. But a few of the excised lyrics aren't inappropriate in any way that I could figure out. It's a shame that in order to make the product they had to error so much on the side of caution.
The graphics, audio and presentation are all exactly the same as what you found in Guitar Hero 5. Even the enhancements are the same, such as the ability to start a song without even going into a menu screen. I also like that each of the songs has its own unique challenge, which can net you an additional 3 stars per song. The new gameplay mechanics (including the guitar's touch notes) are all accounted for as well. If you liked the look and feel of Guitar Hero 5, then you shouldn't have any problem with Band Hero.
While the music selection isn't my cup of tea, the game is on par with Activision's other recent Hero titles. If you know a younger gamer who has been chomping at the bit to play Guitar Hero, this family friendly title may be a solid alternative. Outside of the track list there isn't much difference between these two games, but that doesn't bother me. Despite the song choices, I had a good time with Band Hero, and at the end of the day that's all that matters.
At long last Activision releases a portable "Hero" game that I actually like. While Band Hero isn't perfect, it does offer more than just painful, hand-cramping guitar mechanics. This time around you can drum and sing, two modes that prove to be a lot of fun on the go. Throw in some fun multiplayer gameplay and Wii connectivity and you have a huge step in the right direction!