Review / Guitar Hero: Smash Hits (Xbox 360)

Music/rhythm games sure have come a long way in the past couple generations. PaRappa the Rapper, released for the original PlayStation back in 1996, will always hold a dear place in my heart for its insanely catchy tunes and adorable cast of characters. However, if you peel away the fantastic art and music direction, I must sadly admit that game was a not much more than a glorified exercise in musical Simon says.

Now this isn’t a deconstruction of the genre at large. This is a review of Activision’s Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, the latest cash crop and fourth standalone expansion in the series, so let’s skip all of the efforts by Namco and Konami in this area for the sake of brevity. When you look at Parappa’s rapping in comparison to the much-celebrated Guitar Hero franchise, it’s hard to believe that’s where the modern rhythm game got its start just over a decade ago. By building on the basic structure of Frequency (and its sequel Amplitude) and employing a full-on guitar peripheral, the partnership of developer Harmonix and publisher RedOctane produced a sure-fire hit. Simply put, they empowered gamers by making the player feel like a living room rock star, something no other rhythm game had accomplished at that point.

That was 2005. Fast-forward four years later. After Guitar Hero II for PS2, Harmonix and RedOctane split, with the former developing Rock Band for MTV Games and EA, and the latter being consumed by Activision along with the Guitar Hero name. As it stands now, there are two Rock Band titles, four Guitar Heros and, with the release of Smash Hits, an additional four Guitar Hero expansion discs. We’ve gone from a single guitarist to a full band, from offline to online multiplayer, from disc-only songs to endless DLC, and if nothing else, from poor to poorer. So what’s next? Time to go back to 2005…

As the title suggests, Smash Hits features a collection of songs from the first five titles of the franchise, before Guitar Hero learned a lesson from Rock Band and invited the other musicians along. Specifically, the titles in question are Guitar Hero I-III, Rock the 80s, and Aerosmith. This is essentially the main draw of this latest expansion disc. If you really loved those songs from the good old days when you were still learning how to play five colored notes with only four fingers on the neck of your plastic guitar, then this game is for you. But what does Activision and developer Beenox have the show us this go round that’s new and innovative to the series?

Not much. If you’ve played Guitar Hero before, this expansion is really more of the same. This disc has virtually identical features to what was featured in Guitar Hero: Metallica, meaning every song is unlocked in the Quick Play mode from the get-go, drummers can challenge themselves with the Expert+ difficulty level, and you unlock setlists rather than gigs in career mode. If you liked those additions, then hooray for you, but you may see a distinct pattern forming here. That is, to put it bluntly, if you like the greater songs of yesteryear, and you like where the series has progressed to thus far, that’s exactly what your getting, no more, no less.

However, there are a few quirks that may bother some gamers, specifically those that have become accustomed with how these songs used to be played. First off, the note structure for many of the guitar tracks have been altered for reasons unknown, so if you’re the kind of facemelter who specializes in turning away from the screen to flip off your friends in the middle of “Bark at the Moon”, you might be in for an unpleasant surprise. Along the same vein, the game utilizes purple notes that can be played without strumming on the more difficult solos in the game, making it much, much easier to fail out. In my opinion both of these issues aren’t welcome, but at the same time they don’t really detract from the game enough to ruin the experience.

The biggest problem with this game as a standalone expansion is its complete denial of the existence of DLC. Not only are none of these songs available for purchase to play in other Guitar Hero games, but there’s no option to play other songs that you’ve downloaded to your hard drive in this game. To put it bluntly, this simple design flaw is rather quite annoying.

So what are you getting with Smash Hits? You’re getting classic Guitar Hero, upgraded for the band experience, and made more accessible for the musically challenged. If you’re still a beginner or just painfully nostalgic, this might just be for you.

+ Great song list
+ More Guitar Hero is never a bad thing
+ New way to experience old favorites

– No real innovations to speak of
– Possibly too easy for true living room rock stars
– Might just be too soon for a greatest hits