Anyone Can Play Guitar

What the video-game industry can learn from a plastic ax.

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s remembers the Power Pad, that flimsy red-and-blue mat that allowed Nintendo users to simulate track-and-field events with their feet (or, if they were feeling particularly lazy, their hands). In practice, the Power Pad was little more than a seizure simulator. It’s hard to think of anyone who bears less resemblance to an elite athlete than a spastic, out-of-breath gamer stomping on a floor mat.

Up until a few weeks ago, I thought all video-game peripherals were the same. Something like a dance pad can create a weird, new type of play, but it’s a stretch to say that it accurately simulates the real activity—Dance Dance Revolution is fun, but it’s hardly dancing. I changed my mind, though, once I started playing Guitar Hero.

Guitar Hero, which was developed by the Massachusetts-based company Harmonix, comes bundled with a half-sized, guitar-shaped controller that plugs into your PlayStation 2. Like other rhythm games, this one tries to emulate something that takes a lifetime of training: shredding in front of a crowd of thousands. But unlike other rhythm games, where play mechanics are often so abstracted from the activity you’re trying to emulate, Guitar Hero feels pretty close to shredding on a real Fender.

The big difference is, well, the guitar. The peripheral controller, which costs $20 on top of the game’s $50 price tag, is mandatory—the game won’t even turn on if you try to use a regular PlayStation game pad. Having something that feels and plays like a guitar is worth it, though. When you’ve finally nailed the crazy lead parts in Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark at the Moon,” the reward is surprisingly familiar. I got seriously lost in the moment, so much so that I involuntarily started pulling classic rock star moves along with the music. Harmonix shrewdly anticipated such maneuvers—an embedded motion sensor activates a bonus mode when you point your six-string to the sky in the trademark lightning-from-the-heavens metal pose.

Legitimate ax wielders certainly won’t mistake Guitar Hero for the real thing. The Guitar Hero controller condenses six strings into five colored buttons on the neck and a “strum” flipper. Instead of asking you to play an A, the scrolling display will prompt you to hold down blue and red. You’re not at any advantage if you know chords—sometimes blue/red will be an A, sometimes a G—but experienced guitar players will benefit from their greater finger strength and dexterity. Success in the game comes down to about half gaming ability and half guitar chops—pretty much the ideal ratio.

So, if peripherals add so much to the experience, why don’t more games ship with them? Well, there’s an old saw that games that require peripherals don’t sell—and a time warp through an old catalog will prove it out. Just check out the Nintendo graveyard: the Power Glove, the R.O.B. robot, the bazooka-like Super Scope, and even a mouse. All of these add-ons died on the vine because publishers were afraid to sell additional titles that only a small minority of peripheral-owning gamers would be able to purchase.

In this generation, the one ruled by PlayStation 2, the home version of Dance Dance Revolution has sold more than 3 millions copies even though it requires a dance pad. Still, if there’s a game where a peripheral isn’t required—racing titles with optional steering wheels, for example—you can bet that few will pay the premium for the peripheral.

With its upcoming Revolution console, Nintendo is trying something different. Instead of leaving the oddball peripherals to the game makers, Nintendo will ship its next-generation box with a remote-control-shaped wand that tracks motion on three axes. (To watch a teaser video that shows the controller in action, click here.)

Nintendo has figured out that gamers don’t want to pay an extra $20 with each game just to have a unique controller. That’s why the Revolution wand has a tiny port on the bottom into which you can plug other control mechanisms. Need a guitar? All a manufacturer has to do is build a cheap, plastic shell with a few buttons. And all you’ll have to do is slide the Revolution controller inside and go. With the promise that every single Revolution console will have the wand to build off of, developers will surely take more design risks.

Golf clubs and baseball bats seem likely. We’ll almost certainly see swords. Even baby dolls could be rigged to accept the Revolution controller as part of a family simulation, à la the Sims. If the Revolution makes the price of peripherals negligible, we may be entering a new stage of gaming: the virtual reality era. Instead of trying to force our way into worlds with awkward headsets and body suits, we’ll be doing the next best thing: taking a little bit of the game out of the virtual world and putting it into our own two hands.