Version tested: DS
Guitar Hero and the Nintendo DS make an odd-looking couple, but the decision to produce hundreds of thousands of wacky clip-on plastic peripherals is perfectly sound. Activision and RedOctane have driven rhythm-action to unprecedented success on home consoles (over a billion dollars in revenue, for instance), and Nintendo has widened the market for handheld games with unprecedented videogame controllers. Guitar Hero: On Tour can look as silly as it likes - it's a match made in money, as the game's more than 300,000 US sales demonstrated last week.
But Guitar Hero and the Nintendo DS also make an awkward couple. The guitar peripheral is a chunk of plastic a bit like a fingerless mitten, which grips the DS by plunging a cartridge-shaped protrusion into the GameBoy slot. The DS is rotated 90 degrees and held like a book, with the touch-screen on the right-hand side for people who play guitars the traditional way, while the left hand holds it by the peripheral, which has a strap to fasten it around the hand and leave the fingers free to press the fret buttons when prompted. But the peripheral frequently slips out of the GBA cartridge slot, sometimes enough to disrupt communications and force you to reboot the game, and the strap restricts finger movement - exactly what it's there to enable. The best you can do is an uncomfortable compromise that stresses the base of your thumb.
The core Guitar Hero gameplay is intact but compromised. The top-screen shows the familiar fret-board gameplay area, with notes descending towards a line at the bottom. As notes pass through this, the player holds the corresponding fret button and uses the stylus to strum along on the touch-screen. There are only four fret buttons, compared to five on the traditional controller, but the difference is absorbed by a recalibration of the difficulty levels, which curve smoothly upwards. The problem is the strumming.
You're expected to use a plectrum-shaped stylus to brush the touch-screen across a guitar graphic for every note, but a single back-and-forth motion with constant screen contact doesn't work, and more comfortable tapping gestures only work when the DS senses some movement on contact, so in practice you're slashing awkwardly but rhythmically at the screen - an action that jiggles the DS in your hand, which makes it difficult to see the gameplay area on the touch-screen. Even proper strumming seems to be measured inconsistently, breaking otherwise-perfect sequences and potentially losing you points or even getting you booed off if your performance dips below a certain threshold, forcing you to replay the entire song.
Other features from the original game also make the transition. The best-implemented is the whammy bar. When you're holding fret buttons down after strumming to elongate a chord, you can scrub the touch-screen to bend the note back and forth, which increases the amount of points you receive. Star Power - the points-multiplying special power - also returns, and is still built up by completing a highlighted sequence of notes without error. But it's activated by blowing or shouting into the microphone, which is overly sensitive - not enough to pick up the noise of the music itself or your frantic strumming slaps, but enough to take its cue from other noises like a passing bus, or the train you're on, or even a gust of wind. Star Power is often best deployed to try and grind your way through particularly complex sequences, and having it triggered by accident is a massive problem on the higher difficulty levels.
The quantity and quality of the music is also a concern. There are 26 songs in total (25 of which are listed in our comparison of the UK/US and multi-language European editions), which is an understandable shortfall given the size of a DS game-card relative to the capacity of a DVD-based console game, but the quality of the sound - whether through the DS's tinny onboard speaker or over headphones - is noticeably poor. The quality of the actual line-up as subjective as ever, but we could have done without the ageing "All Star" by Smashmouth (surely a pop song anyway?) and Blink-182's "All The Small Things" and with a bit more along the lines of "Pride And Joy" by Stevie Ray Vaughan, "Black Magic Woman" by Santana and "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" by Pat Benatar.
Structurally the game is serviceable. The Career mode unlocks songs in sets of four with an encore song at the end of each tier, and can be played at any of the four usual difficulty levels. The toughest of these - Expert - is largely unplayable with this control scheme, but having spent a few hours polishing off Medium we were able to get past enough of the game's quirks to succeed to the halfway point on Hard. The previous games' Practice mode returns to help you through difficult tracks, allowing you to take sections of the song as either guitarist or bass-guitarist and go through them without the pressure of the scoring mechanic. The only difference is that you can't change the speed of the song to nail it in slow motion first.
The most sizeable addition to the DS game is Guitar Duels, where you play a track as a tug-of-war between yourself and an AI or human player (over local Wi-Fi), using power-up attacks to try and disrupt your opponent. Power-ups are collected by completing highlighted sequences of notes, as you would with Star Power, and deployed by tapping specific icons on the screen. On the receiving end, you find yourself having to re-attach a guitar string with the stylus, blow out a fire with the microphone or scribble a signature on a fan's underpants, and also cope with passages of increased difficulty or having the screens flipped over to disorientate you.
There are other basic one-off duelling and co-op multiplayer modes too, although we couldn't test them because they require two copies of the game. Given the amount of people who bought it in the US, you can probably expect to find a few opponents when it ships here, although online play would have been nice.
Then again, you won't need online play if you don't buy Guitar Hero: On Tour, and given the problems with the control system and sound quality, we can't recommend it. Guitar Hero has fallen short a few times before, but never for these reasons, and the sense that you're failing at it because of problems with the peripheral and software rather than your own lack of ability is a decisive blow for the DS spin-off. Rhythm-action fans would be much better served by tracking down Elite Beat Agents and its Japanese cousins in the Ouendan series than attempting to make the best of this brave but flawed experiment. Oh well, at least it will buy them some more mansions.
5 / 10
Guitar Hero: On Tour is due out in Europe on 18th July.