Do we really need a portable Guitar Hero game? That is the question I asked out loud when I first heard that Activision and RedOctane were considering bringing their hugely popular franchise to the Nintendo DS. While I love rocking the fake plastic guitar at home, I wondered if it would be the same on the go. It turns out that my skepticism was justified, because Guitar Hero: On Tour, Activision's first portable Guitar Hero game, turns out to be nothing more than a lame cover band masquerading as the real deal.
First things first, Guitar Hero: On Tour actually comes with its own accessories, much like it's console brother. In order to play the game you have to attach a fret board to your Game Boy Advance game port. This addition not only increases the size of your Nintendo DS, but it also makes the game feel more like a traditional Guitar Hero game. And believe me, you definitely need that attachment, because it's about the only thing in the game that resembles a real Guitar Hero game.
To play the game you have to flip the Nintendo DS to its side, so that you're playing it much like you would read a book. From there you slip your hand into the strap connected to the fret bar and get ready to rock. The concept is the same as any other Guitar Hero game, you are tasked with the job of hitting differently colored gems as they move down the "note highway". To strum you have to use a very special guitar pick stylus (I'm not joking) and rub it over the touch screen, which shows you a picture of a guitar.
The truth is, Guitar Hero: On Tour is exactly what you think it is. Although the graphics take something of a hit, the game plays remarkably close to what you've seen on other consoles. You still have star power notes (which allow you to rock out for double the points), hammer-ons and pull-offs (which allow you to hit notes without strumming) and the cool whammy bar effects. Even the game's story mode is basically just you doing the same things you've done in other Guitar Hero games. This is, for better or worse, exactly what you expect out of a portable Guitar Hero game.
Unfortunately the game's major flaws show up almost immediately. For one thing the fret board accessory is extremely uncomfortable. I tried it on both an old Nintendo DS "fat" and the new DS Lite and in both situations I found my hands getting cramped after only two or three songs. Even with only four fret buttons (as opposed to the normal five), Guitar Hero: On Tour's controls hurt my hand and made playing the game a painful experience.
Another big problem is that the game's soundtrack is all over the board, including only a few good songs ... and way too many cover songs. That's not to say that there aren't some noteworthy tracks to play (We're Not Going to Take It by Twisted Sister is a lot of fun) , but most of the good stuff is done by somebody other than the actual artists. And to make matters worse, there are a number of good bands that are stuck with questionable tracks. For example, the extremely early Red Hot Chili Peppers song is good, but wasn't there a better song they could have used? The same goes with Nirvana and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
For the most part the 25 songs in Guitar Hero: On Tour feel like they were chosen at random by a couple of teenagers. How else can you explain the inclusion of Smash Mouth, Los Lonely Boys, No Doubt, Maroon 5 and American Idol's own Daughtry. If these songs appeal to you then chances are you're going to have a lot of fun playing through this abbreviated Guitar Hero game ... assuming you can get over the pain of actually playing this thing.But the game makes one big error that ends up ruining the whole experience - it just doesn't feel like you're playing guitar. Don't get me wrong, the console games aren't exactly hardcore guitar simulators, but at least you feel like you're playing a guitar. The problem here is that strumming on the DS touch screen doesn't feel right and you never really get the same sensation of playing this at home in front of the TV. I'm not entirely sure how they could have made it any better or different, it may just come down to this being a game that didn't need to go portable.
Not only does this game not feel right, but it also punishes you for rocking too hard. You have to beware of getting too into a song, because it doesn't take much to accidentally nudge the Guitar Hero: On Tour fret accessory out of the Nintendo DS. While this may not sound bad, accidentally removing this from the DS effectively ends the game, leaving you with the option of staring at the screen of death or completely restarting your console. It's just another one of the many problems associated with this game.
If you can get passed some of these imperfections then you'll be treated to a lot of the same things you would find in the original console game. You still have the multiple difficulty settings, you can pick from a number of characters, there's still a story mode and you can even play these songs against another DS owner. In fact, the multiplayer mode is perhaps the only part of the game that actually feels new and original.
In a lot of ways the multiplayer is taking its cue from the battle modes in Guitar Hero III; players battle for power-ups that will make your opponent screw up and ultimately fail out of the song. However, in this game you have a number of cool Nintendo DS power-ups. For example, you can set your opponent's guitar on fire, which will make him blow into the Nintendo DS's microphone to extinguish the problem. Another power-up requires your opponent to sign his name for an adoring fan. And in yet another interesting twist the screens will switch, which can really mess you up. All of these cool powers make me wish that there was a better game for me to use them in, but alas you're stuck listening to crappy covers of songs you don't even like while your hand cramps up with pain.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about the game is that the audio is surprisingly good. Nintendo DS games are not known for their crisp audio fidelity, so it's easy to be excited when a company comes around and bucks the trend. The audio is still not CD quality, but it sure does sound better than most of the games I plug into my Nintendo DS. It's a shame that the Nintendo DS card didn't allow for more songs, I can only imagine what gems were left on the cutting room floor.
It's not that Guitar Hero: On Tour is bad, but it does feel incredibly unnecessary. I'm not sure I needed a portable Guitar Hero game, though judging from early sales I may be in the minority. Even then, the music and interface just doesn't work for me and the controls never feel like you're actually playing a guitar. If that's not important to you then by all means give this game a try, but be warned that this game comes with a number of unfortunate limitations.