"Guitar Hero" isn't selling music, it's selling fantasy. By placing a plastic guitar in your hand and offering a set list of rock anthems, "Guitar Hero" temporarily transforms you into a stage-commanding idol.
This affordable make-believe has caught fire on almost every console imaginable, and now Activision hopes it can turn the Nintendo DS into a vessel for rock n' roll dreams. But without the actual guitar as a conduit, "Guitar Hero: On Tour" is the equivalent of a cover band.
In lieu of the guitar controller, "Guitar Hero: On Tour" ships with a four-button grip that snaps into the Game Boy Advance cartridge slot on the bottom half of the DS. You cup your hand under the DS, slip your palm through a strap and then press the colored buttons in a similar fashion to the frets at the top of a guitar. While pressing colored buttons that correspond to on-screen notes, you "strum" the bottom screen of the DS with a guitar-pick-like stylus that also comes in the box. To use the whammy bar, just rub back and forth while still touching the screen. To utilize star power, a score multiplier earned by hitting perfect riffs, you must make noise into the DS microphone.
Does it work? Technically, yes. But there are a literal handful of drawbacks that keep "On Tour" from truly wowing. Although the strap is adjustable for comfort, using the buttons aren’t terribly comfortable for an extended gaming session — especially if you play "On Tour" either sitting on the couch or lying in bed.
The game is actually better suited for standing up, which leads you to wonder why you don't just play the real-deal "Guitar Hero" on a console, particularly because the "Guitar Hero" guitar controllers are incredibly comfortable — more so than the guitar that shipped with "Guitar Hero" rival, "Rock Band." Without the fifth fret, good players will breeze through "Guitar Hero: On Tour" in record time, too.
Although the songs included in "Guitar Hero: On Tour" sound good coming out of the DS speakers, there are just too few of them. With only 25 songs and no means of downloading more, you will see and hear everything from "On Tour" sooner than expected. (Of course, a potential hand cramp could add some longevity to the game as you put it down and rest.)
The set list for "On Tour" veers wildly, sometimes offering a great guitar-driven song like Twisted Sister's classic "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "Black Magic Woman" by Santana, but also grabbing at radio-friendly hits to cater to the assumed younger audience for the DS. There is nothing heroic about playing a Stray Cats or Smashmouth tune.
"Guitar Hero: On Tour" offers a two-player duel mode, pitting gamers against each other in competitive guitar riffs. As you tear through songs, you toss power-ups back and forth to thwart the other player's note streak. For example, you can set your opponent's guitar on fire, forcing them to blow into the DS microphone to put out the flames.
If cooperative play is more amenable to your tastes, you can also jam with a friend through the game's entire catalog. The multiplayer stuff is quite easy to set up and if the guitar grip had been more comfortable, this would have been a winning feature as this wave of music games — "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" — are always more fun with a crowd.
Vicarious Visions is an accomplished DS developer, and it shows in the look and atmosphere of "On Tour." The game is a very accurate visual facsimile of the console game, right down to good-looking in-game guitarists and backdrops for your various gigs.
But a reasonable facsimile is just not enough here, especially when "On Tour" costs $20 more than the average DS game and just isn’t comfortable enough to play in anything but short bursts.
If you already have "Guitar Hero" for a console, you are better off downloading additional songs for it or looking into the new Aerosmith edition of "Guitar Hero.” And if you are completely new to "Guitar Hero," pay the extra for the real deal on one of the consoles. Just like in rock 'n roll, authenticity matters.
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