Guitar Hero is without doubt one of the most successful franchises of all time. 2007's Guitar Hero 3 became the first single retail video game to exceed one billion dollars in sales, and by the late 2000s, multiple Guitar Hero games were released each year. But after 2010 the franchise disappeared - and despite a brief resuscitation in 2015 with the release of Guitar Hero Live, it's safe to say the series is pretty much dead.
Despite Guitar Hero sales slowing dramatically in its final years, there is still a dedicated community that wants to play the five fret rhythm action game. In recent years they have tried multiple solutions to keep playing, as consoles and guitars slowly start to die. From creating basic clones to modding Guitar Hero 3, which originally launched on PC, the community has tried almost everything, but never found an ideal solution.
"I had mainly been streaming Guitar Hero 3, a very heavily modified PC version that had so many limitations to it, like a set list could only have 80 songs in it at a time," says Jason Paradise, a former community manager for Rocksmith at Ubisoft and Guitar Hero national champion who quit his job to become a full-time Twitch streamer focusing on Guitar Hero.
One day last year Jason and other streamers in the community received a message that would ultimately change the hardcore rhythm action community forever. Long-time Guitar Hero fan Ryan "srylain" Foster had been working on a new clone, aptly named Clone Hero, on and off since 2011. By March 2017 he was ready to release the alpha to the world, and he targeted some big names in the community not long after that.
"One day out of the blue, the developer of Clone Hero messages me and says, 'Hey, would you like to try this on your stream?'" Paradise recalls.
"I'm like, 'I don't know what this is, let's go for it.' I loaded up Clone Hero, and I played a song and immediately during that first song, I said to the community, 'Oh shit, this actually feels really good.'"
That first stream was initially intended to be a one-off, with Paradise expecting to return to his modded version of Guitar Hero 3. But Clone Hero offered so much more, even in its early stages. Unlimited song numbers, incredibly quick load times, cleaner UI and backgrounds, it had all the basics that a good, modern, Guitar Hero game needed.
It also has art assets taken directly from Guitar Hero. These are placeholder for the time being and certainly raise a few legal questions, which is perhaps a key reason they will be phased out, but they add some familiarity for returning players while looking nicer than the dated Guitar Hero 3 visuals. This is surely a key factor in why so many people give the game a chance, because at first glance Clone Hero just looks like Guitar Hero.
Once the big names started playing Clone Hero, thousands of fans joined them. It's still in alpha, with version 0.20 having just been released, and comes with no songs, but now every release gets a massive amount of downloads.
"When I first started posting public releases of Clone Hero, it was only getting tens of downloads," says Clone Hero developer Ryan "srylain" Foster.
"The last two releases are sitting around 50,000 downloads. It's crazy to see the community for a game once thought completely dead is still alive and going pretty strong. The future's looking pretty good too, since we've got some pretty big things planned that'll take things to some higher levels than what we're currently at."
As Clone Hero comes with no songs, the community is forced to create their own note charts for tracks. As you might expect most skew towards the rock and metal genres, but if you can think of a fairly mainstream pop song there is a good chance there is a chart for it. There is a chart for everything from James Blunt's You're Beautiful and Enrique Iglesias' Hero, to pirate metal band Alestorm and Finish Eurovision winners Lordi. There's even a chart of Alan Partridge's Abba Medley with Gina Langland, but a disappointing lack of High School Musical classics.
All charts are distributed through file sharing, mostly in Google Drive. Much like the Guitar Hero art assets, this raises questions around the legality of sharing the music tracks, and no-one in the community seems to have a definite answer on the subject.
One area that has become popular, and has certainly brought in many new players, is the custom 'meme tracks'. These user-created songs and charts are basically one big joke. They can be as simple as changing the pitch of a song to unbearable levels, through to turning Crash Bandicoot sounds into recreations of iconic songs and putting multiple into a medley. The best meme tracks come from "helvian", a charter who is often credited with creating the meme track genre in Clone Hero.
"I didn't chart actual music, because I don't have any musical knowledge," jokes helvian, who prefers to keep his real name hidden.
"Instead, I created tracks that always had some kind of punchline to them, but in any case were never what was advertised. One of [my] first tracks was an edit of Gangnam Style, which was normal until it held the first 'AAAAY' of the first chorus for a whole minute before ending abruptly."
Helvian then expanded his work, taking on more complex projects. After watching a popular streamer play Chop Suey! by System of a Down and taking inspiration from YouTube Poop style videos, helvian took Serj Tankian screaming the word "table" and inserted it at other points in the song, giving birth to table memes, which would become the basis for countless future meme songs.
Since then, helvian's charts have been turned into popular YouTube videos by streamers. Other charters have started to make meme tracks in a similar style. There is no doubt this is a big reason why Clone Hero is so popular. Videos are racking up millions of views, and are a perfect way of getting into the Clone Hero scene, with Through the Tables and Memes being a pretty good starting point.
But now people are taking the idea of custom charts and songs even further. Over the years, Jason Paradise has come to the attention of multiple musicians, with Matt Heafy, lead singer of metal band Trivium being just one big name who is a fan. Now, Paradise has come up with an idea where he, and the community at large, can collaborate with these musicians through the game.
"I'm working with a music producer right now on the idea, instead of just doing meme tracks like what we've been doing, what if we took an artist or a friend and videotaped them playing, and we had a duel," says Paradise, revealing his new idea for the first time.
"It would be like myself playing Guitar Hero and them in the background on video, and it was the equivalent of a modern-day Guitar Hero boss battle. Fight off against The8BitDrummer [a Twitch streamer who plays a real drum kit on stream], fight against any sort of YouTube guitarist. We can make these boss battles and put them in the game."
While syrlain is the one working on the game itself, the community is helping out just as much, by creating this new content that pushes the game to an even wider audience. It started off with simple joke tracks, expanded into the table memes, and then further into some pretty niche and confusing tracks to anyone outside of the community. Paradise's new idea could push the community even further, and keep Clone Hero growing at a rapid rate.
But for syrlain, Clone Hero is a labour of love. He makes no money from the game, and has no intention to charge for it, although he does mention he may start up a Patreon at some point. He is also clearly more concerned about the community having a good game to play than financial possibilities, saying the only reason he would ever speak to a publisher about selling up would be "if it made sense to do it and would help get more controllers made," which is one of the major issues facing the community. It turns out plastic guitars don't work too well after 10 to 15 years.
Even with limited hardware available, Clone Hero is a massive success story. This fan made clone now boasts more downloads than some big name games, and is growing rapidly by the day. Currently the community is mostly made up of hardcore Guitar Hero and Rockband fans disappointed by the lack of new options, but there is no reason why the millions of former Guitar Hero fans wouldn't come back to play this.
But the influx of new players and requests for more complex features has left the team in a difficult situation. Clone Hero's legacy code is years old at this point, which makes some additions pretty tricky to pull off. So in a recent dev blog, the team announced they are rebuilding Clone Hero from scratch, but it will come with a new name, custom art assets and potentially even its own official set list of licensed tracks.
It is a massive gamble, as development on the current version will slow to almost nothing, and this new project will take time. But it sounds like exactly the thing that needs to happen in order for this amazing community to grow even further - and keep the spirit of Guitar Hero rocking.