Image: Danny Johnson
Scott Johnson
Danny Johnson, 13, broke the world record in "Guitar Hero" at the "Guitar Hero" 24 Hour Marathon in Dallas, Texas, May 17, 2008.
By Games editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/1/2008 1:11:16 PM ET 2008-07-01T17:11:16

On May 17, 13-year-old Danny Johnson sat down in front of an Xbox 360 at The Guitar Hero 24 Hour Marathon in Dallas and completely shredded “Through the Fire and Flames.” On expert.

For this feat of finger acrobatics, he earned a score of 890,971 points — and snagged the world record. If that weren’t impressive enough, dig this: Danny strummed his first virtual note just nine months ago.

If you’ve never seen someone play “Through the Fire and Flames” on the expert setting, you should. In fact, check out the videoof Danny’s record-breaking quest, as taped by older brother Scotty (himself a “Guitar Hero” ace).  Even if you think video games are the root of all societal evil, you can’t help but be impressed.

But get a look at Danny’s faceafter he finished the mind-bending metal song. He looks … kind of bummed.

“I could have done better,” he told me. “I missed a bunch of notes.”

“Through the Fire and Flames,” by British band DragonForce, is the Mt. Everest of “Guitar Hero,” the peak all bad-ass plastic axemen (and women) want to bag. It’s an avalanche of heavy-metal madness, nearly eight minutes long with 3,722 notes. Danny says he’s played it somewhere between 300 and 500 times since he discovered “Guitar Hero.”

It’s not his favorite song in the game — not even close. He prefers Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages.”

“It’s a really good song. I can’t believe they actually put a good song on ‘Guitar Hero,’” he says.

Danny knows from good songs. He’s an accomplished pianist, drummer and oboe player. And Scott, Danny’s father, has played a real guitar for over 40 years.  “’Guitar Hero’ is way harder than a real guitar,” says dad.

Dad got a sense of his son’s talent for the game during an Xbox Live Super Bowl event where gamers played the creators of their favorite games. “I didn’t know about ‘Guitar Hero,’” says Scott. “I’m in the granite business.”

But “Dev2,” Danny’s online opponent, clued Scott in to the fact that his son was pretty darned good. The best player he’d ever played against, actually.

“He told me, ‘If your son was 18 years old, I’d say come up to Albany, New York and get him a job as a beta tester,’” Scott recalls.

Instead, Danny started entering contests. The first was a local GameStop midnight madness event for the release of “Guitar Hero III,” where he won a gift certificate. At a “Guitar Hero” contest at the Texas Rockfest in March, he won a custom-made Gibson Epiphone guitar and “destroyed the competition,” according to dad.

When Blockbuster called and asked if he wanted to play the “Guitar Hero” 24 Hour Marathon in Dallas, it was a no-brainer. As it turned out, the event rules prohibited players from competing in the contest and trying for the world record at the same time. So Danny figured he’d just go for the Guinness Book world record.

Danny’s dad says he hit 930,000 points during a dry run, and has been known to get 950,000 in the comfort of his Grapevine, Texas living room. But the day of the competition, Danny was a little nervous. Plus, all the camera flashes popping off during competition threw blinding lights on the TV screen, making it hard to see. Still, Danny long ago memorized his signature song, and he nailed the record — if not his personal best.

For his super-speedy performance, Danny earned a spot in history, some free movie rentals and one of those giant foam “Number One” hands. Brother Scotty, who describes himself as “the biggest gamer of the family,” came in second in the Marathon. He won a bunch of stuff too, including a Wii and a pre-order of the “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” game.

“I used to be better than Danny,” says Scotty. “And then when I found out Danny was better than me, I tried to keep on playing to get better than him, but then I noticed that I’m not going to beat him, so I just decided to record his videos and stuff.”

Danny has his own channel on YouTube— there are 74 videos posted there by his big brother so far. At least half feature Danny going nuts on “Through the Fire and Flames.” But there’s also footage of Danny playing “Fur Elise” in a piano recital, as well as a sweet video montage of Danny as a baby, as a little boy clutching an SNES controller, of Danny and big brother, clad in life jackets, on a boat.

What’s not so sweet? Some of the nasty comments YouTubers posted on some of the videos. Most are unprintable, but they question the veracity of his accomplishments, sneer at his playing style — and suggest that young Danny should get a life.

Danny tries not to let it get to him. “I didn’t get any of that stuff in person, just over the Internet.”

And there are also plenty of people rooting him on. Scotty set up a live stream so the acolytes can watch his brother in action. And for every sour-grapes post on YouTube, there are at least two that say something like: “Dude. You’re awesome. Keep on playing!”

Although Danny is a “Guitar Hero” hero, Dad says success hasn’t changed him. He’s just a regular kid who likes playing “Castlevania,” running around the yard and bouncing on the trampoline.

“The ‘Guitar Hero’ status thing — he never even brings it up,” says Dad.  “If I bring it up he gets mad at me. “

As for future contests, brother Scotty is cooking up some things. And Dad is trying to organize a “Guitar Hero” gathering between the world’s top players. Not a contest — just a gathering, to try and mitigate some of the bad blood, he says. He’s currently seeking corporate backing.

Danny still plays “Guitar Hero” about three hours a day. And even though he holds the world record, he’s trying to do even better on “Through the Fire and Flames,” trying to beat his high score. That poses plenty of challenge for him — if not some irritation.

“I do hate the song,” he admits with some reluctance. “It gets annoying a lot.”

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