Guitar Hero on Tour

US Release Date: June 22, 2008
System: Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+
Price: $47.99 at Amazon.com

Concept

The Guitar Hero juggernaut rolls to handhelds with this title for the Nintendo DS. Best Thing Ever, or are they milking the cash cow a leeeetle too hard?

Sight and Sound

I would like to give a detailed review of the graphics, but unfortunately I can't, because when I play a Guitar Hero game my eyes must remain unswervingly fixed on the scrolling note indicators lest chaos ensue. So as for the in-song graphics, I can tell you that the scrolling note indicators scroll smoothly and are easy to read. The few glimpses I caught of the performance animations out of the corners of my eye seemed fine - fairly standard for the GH games and the DS system. Nothing to write home about, but not disappointing either.

Outside of the actual gameplay graphics, GH:OT's visuals are pretty much in line with the current generation of DS games. The menus are fairly standard, even dull; the fun cell-shaded animated cut scenes that the console GH titles have whenever you unlock a new venue are sadly absent, replaced by a picture of a manila envelope that displays while you read a "letter from your manager" telling you about your next gig.

The Guitar Store and customizable characters and guitars are back, and your choices are reflected during gameplay. A number of classic franchise characters are back, and there are two new ones (country guitarist Memphis Rose and grunge-y slacker Gunner Jaxon.) All in all, the graphics are perfectly adequate, but nothing there is going to amaze you.

But you don't play GH for the visuals--it's all about the sound. And here is one place where the inherent limits of the DS come into play: its tiny speakers just aren't up to the task of rocking out. In order to get any sort of immersion in your game, you'll want to use headphones. (It's no coincidence that GH-branded headphones have recently appeared in the DS accessories section of electronics stores.)

With that caveat, however, the sound is decent. There seem to be fewer original tracks on the track list, and a number of the included tracks are repeats from Guitar Hero 3, so you may want to check the list before buying if you're concerned with duplicating songs from one platform to the other.

Gameplay (Controls and Difficulty)

GH:OT remains noticably a Guitar Hero game, but with significant differences in gameplay due to the difference in hardware. The game ships with a hardware peripheral that inserts into the GBA port of the Nintendo DS. (As shipped, it will fit the DS Lite, but it comes with an adapter for the older DS.) To play, you hold the DS in the palm of your hand and wrap your fingers around the fret accessory to push the buttons. With your other hand, you use a guitar-pick stylus to strum on the touch screen while the notes scroll on the top screen. To activate Star Power, you are instructed to yell "Rock Out!" or a similar phrase into the DS microphone. However, if you don't feel like scaring everyone around you with random outbursts, you can just blow into the mic instead. The unintended side effect of this is if you play the game while sitting in front of a fan or air conditioner, the moving air may activate your Star Power for you at random intervals.

When things go smoothly, this control scheme actually works much better than you'd think. The strumming motion is a real strum that feels natural and smooth, and the fret fingering can feel like playing a real instrument - not a guitar, really, but maybe a Flutophone. (Remember those?)

However, the DS is a fixed size and hands... aren't. It's not much of a problem on Easy, but by the upper levels of Medium you are definitely noticing some problems:

  • If you have longish nails, the nails of your fret hand may bump into/scratch your strumming hand. It doesn't hurt but it can certainly mess up a solo.
  • They aren't kidding about hand cramps. On the upper difficulty levels I could only play two or three songs in a row, which definitely interferes with any attempts to lose yourself in the game.
  • On technically challenging songs it's nearly impossible not to bounce the DS all around and lose your place. I found it necessary to brace the DS against my stomach to hold it still.
  • The hardware peripheral with the fret buttons can work its way out of the GBA port. It's very frustrating to suddenly start missing notes only to notice that the button thing has come loose. It's possible to sort of hold it in, but again, that raises the whole hand-cramping issue again.
  • If you tend to get caught up in a song -- and really, don't most GH players? -- you DEFINITELY need to get a screen protector on your DS or you could end up doing serious damage to your touch screen. I often caught myself bearing down really hard. I don't actually know how easy those screens are to mess up, but I'd err on the side of caution here.
    Due to these caveats, I would suggest that if you have non-"standard" sized hands or any sort of RSI in your hands or wrists, you do your best to try before you buy, just to make sure you'll be okay with the hardware.

Fun and Value

How much you'll enjoy this game really depends on how much you love Guitar Hero and how much you need to have the capability to play in on the go. I found it quite engaging and fun... until I had a hand cramp, or the button thing came loose and messed up my score, or whatnot. It doesn't have quite the immersive power of its full-sized brethren, due to how itty-bitty everything becomes on the DS, but I found myself impressed despite myself with the cleverness of the implementation. It isn't nearly as fun as the big boys in the genre, and the accessory makes it more bulky to transport around than a standard DS game (the accessory is almost as big as the DS itself), but if you need to feel like a rock star on the go, you could probably make a decent effort with this. The upcoming sequel will offer a chance to expand the playlist without having to purchase the accessory again, so check out the track lists when you're making your decision.

How to Buy + Should you Bother

Guitar Hero: On Tour is widely available where Nintendo DS games are sold. There is also a special Nintendo DS bundle available, which comes with a silver DS with the GH logo, the game, and the hardware fret button accessory; the bundle might make a nice present for a Guitar Hero fan who doesn't have a DS yet. If you adore the game, there's a sequel due to drop in November, just in time for winter gift-giving occasions.

Should you drop the cash on GH:OT? I would advise renting or borrowing it first to check how well the fret accessory fits your own personal hands. If you can make the setup work for you and don't mind some repeated tracks, it's a fun little addition to the series, though it lacks the realism and immersiveness of the full-sized games.

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