June 25, 2010

The Original Virtual Guitar

The big news from E3 was the prevalance of games that attempt to actually teach guitar, rather than mimicing it in classic five button Guitar Hero style.

My pals at RockBandAide and PlasticAxe had outstanding roundups of their recent hands-on time with a bunch of these new real(ish) guitar controllers at E3:

But before you click through, let’s take a trip back in time … way back, to 1994. When Windows 95 was the latest OS sensation, the Sony Playstation was a hot new console, and the Nintendo 64 was still just a rumor.

The 1994 PC game Quest for Fame was the first (that I know of, anyway) game that attempted to use a full-size guitar peripheral.


The Unsung Story of Quest for Fame documents the game’s brief and somewhat sad history.

Players plug a “virtual guitar” into the computer to make music in the game. Fritz still owns a couple; they’re almost the same size as a real electric guitar and fairly heavy. Unlike the make-believe instrument in Guitar Hero, the Quest For Fame virtual guitar has strings, and there are no colorful push buttons on its neck.

A player watches a window in the computer monitor as a red line scrolls past a series of green blips, like pulses on a heart monitor. When the red line crosses a blip, the player strums the virtual guitar’s strings, and the computer’s speakers respond with Aerosmith hits like “Eat The Rich” or “Walk This Way.” Hit the strings too early or too late, and out come discordant notes and insults from on-screen characters.

Quest For Fame was a hit with critics. “I have seen the future of interactive multimedia, and it rocks,” wrote Stephen Manes in The New York Times. The game acquired a number of avid fans, like Ian Hughes, a virtual worlds evangelist for IBM Corp. in Hursley, a town south of London. “It was wonderful,” said Hughes. “I liked the immersion in the music. You’re in the music and feeling the music.”

If you’re wondering how the game works, I found a video of the game in action via the old British TV show Bad Influence — the Quest for Fame demo starts at 8:20 or so.

Quest for Fame certainly predicted the eventual appearance of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith 10 years later.


Here’s hoping the current crop of virtual guitars …

… fare a bit better than Quest for Fame’s virtual axe did.

June 20, 2010

Details on Pro Guitar Mode

One of the most exciting Rock Band 3 announcements is Pro Guitar Mode.

But how does it work?

This video of a Bang Camaro member playing Rainbow in the Dark on Pro Guitar Expert — while a Harmonix team member describes what’s happening — is the best explanation I’ve seen:

If we look at the frets on the Fender Mustang Pro Guitar

There are 17 rows of 6 buttons — a total of 102 buttons in all.

If you look closely, you’ll notice that the fret buttons are numbered in each row along the top, where you’d expect to see colors on the simpler 5 button guitars. They start at 17 closest to the strum area, decreasing down to 1 at the far end.

So there are a few things on the screen in pro mode, starting with the actual six guitar strings as the “note corridor”.

The bars that come toward you tell you what you’re supposed to be doing with the 102 fret buttons and 6 strings at that time in the song:

  1. The size and location of the bar represents the chords (strings) you’re supposed to cover with your left hand.
  2. The number on the bar represents the lowest fret button your left hand should be on.
  3. The color of the bar (green, red, orange, blue, yellow, purple) represents the strings, red being the lowest string and green being the purple being the highest.
  4. The shape of the bar connotes a chord, and the rough ‘shape’ your hand should be while playing the chord, as noted below.
  5. (as a little notational bonus, if you know how to read music, the actual musical chord you’re supposed to be playing is also printed next to each chord, to the left of the corridor.)

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the “left hand position wave” shows in realtime on the note corridor.

The left hand position wave is telling you where your left hand is:

The number (shown in the wave) always represents the lowest fretted number your left hand is on, and the shape represents where your other fingers are supposed to go. It’s important that you know what your left hand is doing, without having to look down, at any time. The left hand position wave will outline the shape your left hand represents in its current position — if that shape matches the shape of the bars are in the corridor, they will “fit” through!

As for skill level, pro guitar mode runs the gamut from easy to expert, just like classic five button guitar mode:

  • Pro Easy just doing single notes, the correct notes at the right time.
  • Pro Medium introduces chords.
  • Pro Hard is the full guitar part, but stripped down a bit to be more fun and playable in real time.
  • Pro Expert is every guitar note in the song, for better or worse. Chords, notes, arpeggios, hammer ons, pull offs, slides. The whole enchilada!

Harmonix has invented a whole new set of music notation to teach guitar — but you’ll need a copy of Rock Band 3 and a compatible pro guitar — either the Fender Mustang or the Squier Stratocaster — to learn!

January 24, 2010

Fret Nice – With Your Guitar Controller

Ever wonder why you can’t use your trusty fake plastic guitar in other games than Rock Band and Guitar Hero?

Well, wonder no longer! The game Fret Nice (from Pieces Interactive) will soon be available on the respective Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 stores. In it, you use your guitar controller to navigate a 2D sidescrolling world.

I was a little confused how this all works, but it’s explained in a recent GameSpot preview:

How does it work, exactly? It starts out simply enough. You hit the green fret to move left, you hit the yellow fret to move right, and you tilt the guitar to jump. Those three inputs form the core of your movement. Easy, right? Attacking enemies gets a bit more complicated. The rotund bad guys coming after you–think of them as goombahs covered in fur–all have a random number of facial features. One might have a single eye, another might have three eyes with a mouth, and so on. Your job is to leap into the air and zap the enemies by playing the number of notes that match the number of facial features. So, for example, jumping into the air and playing a single blue note will kill that one-eyed enemy, while playing three blue notes and an orange note will kill the three-eyed, one-mouthed beast. You can improvise whatever color notes you play; all that matters is matching up the numbers.

Sounds like an interesting merger of a traditional button-based 2D scroller controls and dynamic “play some songs” interactivity.

Fret Nice is slated to arrive sometime next month (that’d be February), so keep an eye out for it. Unless all you like to do with your fake guitar controller is play fake songs. Total dullsville, man!

September 7, 2009

Mad Catz Wireless Fender Stratocaster Review

Remember that Mad Catz full-size Stratocaster guitar controller? I couldn’t resist its siren call. I am now the embarrassedproud owner of my very own sunburst fake Stratocaster.

The first thing you need to know about the Mad Catz Rock Band Wireless Fender Stratocaster Replica is that IT IS ENORMOUS. It is made from an authentic Stratocaster body, so it is truly a 100% full size guitar. Those other guitars you thought were “authentically sized”? Not even close! See for yourself:

mad-catz-strat-size-comparison

That’s the Mad Catz Wireless Fender Stratocaster Replica next to the previously reviewed Logitech Wireless Guitar and the classic GH3 Les Paul guitar controller. (I didn’t show the GH5 / GH4 guitar, but it’d be a bit larger than the Les Paul.)

The Mad Catz Strat isn’t just full size, but full weight, too. It tips the scales at over 7 pounds with strap.

OK, yes, it’s huge and expensive, but it is also a thing of great beauty.

mad-catz-strat-full

It even comes with a Fender strap (the same one that’s included with the much cheaper Wireless Bass, but who’s counting.)

mad-catz-strat-body

Everything here is authentic — all metal bits and real knobs throughout. There’s even a connection port for the overdrive pedal (the guitar includes the necessary 1/4″ step-down adapter.)

All the standard Rock Band 2 guitar features are present and accounted for, including the effect switch. The strum is of the clicky variety, with the premium Mad Catz “2.5 million cycle” switches.

mad-catz-strat-body-solo-buttons

Flipping it over to the back, we can see the battery compartment (takes 3 AAs, included) and a back cutout. I was initially a little perturbed by the frankenstein-like patchwork on the back of the guitar, but even a real Strat has a similar (albeit smaller) back cutout, as you can see in this picture.

mad-catz-strat-body-back

The headstock, like the body, is from a real Strat guitar, so of course it includes real metal tuning pegs.

mad-catz-strat-headstock

mad-catz-strat-tuning-back

The only part of the guitar that’s plastic is the fretboard; the back of the neck is wood, but the front face is plastic. This is a Rock Band guitar, so the buttons (both solo and normal) are of the standard flat Rock Band variety.

mad-catz-strat-fret-buttons-close

mad-catz-strat-buttons

If you’re concerned about the strategic use of plastic in the fretboard, don’t be. It looks fantastic, and the faux wood effect with metal detailing is first rate. In fact, one of the things I didn’t like about the Logitech Wireless guitar was the odd (and visually jarring) melding of real wood and plastic in its fretboard. The Mad Catz Strat neatly sidesteps this problem by making the fretboard one seamless length of cleverly detailed plastic. The fret buttons themselves feel identical to those of any official Rock Band 2 guitar, with the same action, stop edges and tiny embossed finger position dots.

OK, so we’ve established that this is a guitar so handsome that it utterly blurs the line between fake plastic guitar and real guitar. But how does it play?

The first thing you need to decide is whether you prefer your fret buttons flat (Rock Band style) or embossed/raised (Guitar Hero style). If you love or hate a particular button style, this guitar, despite its awesomeness, will not change your mind. Yes, the “premium” strum mechanism is a bit stiffer and perhaps a bit clickier than a stock RB2 guitar, but it’s a Rock Band guitar through and through. It plays pretty much identically to any other Rock Band style guitar, except it’s substantially larger and heavier. So how much you like it will depend on how you feel about flat fret buttons.

Beyond that, this guitar is large. Did I mention that it’s large? Yes it is VERY LARGE! And HEAVY! I thought I was a fake plastic guitar tough guy, having played with my own custom weighted guitars, and the 6 pound Logitech Wireless guitar with no problems at all. But after playing my first 10 song set with the Mad Catz Strat, my shoulder was killing me. And that’s with a nice aftermarket guitar strap!

If you want a truly full size guitar, be prepared to pay the price in training in your body and shoulders to handle it. Given the size of the neck, you may also need to stretch to reach the fret buttons a bit more than you’re used to. It’s not a deal-breaker (for me at least), but it does take some time to get used to it. And that goes double if you’re a smaller guitarist!

The only real difficulty I had when playing with the Mad Catz strat is with the whammy bar. I guess this is an artifact of the real guitar component locations, but it’s ridiculously easy to hit the back and start knob with the whammy, and it takes some conscious planning to use the whammy without hitting any knobs. The whammy also hangs down much more freely than I’m used to with my other guitars, so it has to be wrangled a bit in use. Don’t get me wrong, overall the whammy works great, but you will have to adapt your whammy style to this particular guitar.

Is this guitar worth $299? If you absolutely love Rock Band style (flat face button) guitars, and you want an awesome looking and great playing full size axe, then absolutely. Well, assuming you’ve got $299 burning a hole in your pocket!

August 30, 2009

Logitech Wireless Guitar Review

I couldn’t resist the lure of those less expensive, revised second generation Logitech Ultra Premium Guitars. I bought the Xbox 360 Orange Logitech Wireless Guitar for myself, and let me tell you — it is a beaut!

Be warned, though: this thing is truly a full size guitar. The body and neck are real, solid wood, which means it also has real guitar weight — a full 6 pounds, 6 ounces with strap.

The attention to detail is outstanding, and the whole guitar exudes an overwhelming sense of craftsmanship. Particularly if you’re used to the cheap plastic axes that ship with Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Note that the black bridge to the left of the strum bar is star power activation (aka the back button), and the chrome-looking — plastic, unfortunately, but it looks sharp — item to the left of the whammy attachment area is your start button.

The headstock also has real metal pegs and tuning knobs.

Turning the guitar over, you can see the battery compartment on the back. The guitar takes two AA batteries (included). The console connect button is inside the battery compartment. A bit inconvenient, but as little as I use the connect button, probably OK. The headset jack and connector port are discreetly placed on the bottom edge, here.

The buttons are totally standard spacing — I held them up against a GH3 Les Paul for comparison and they’re identical. They are a bit quieter than a stock guitar, though I tend to lubricate the buttons on my guitars, so the difference is not huge for me. I do wish the brown plastic was slightly darker brown here so it blended in better with the rosewood.

The touchpad is here and accounted for, just like on a Guitar Hero World Tour guitar. I didn’t get a chance yet to tell if it’s the World Tour analog touchpad, of the Guitar Hero 5 digital style. Another nice detail: the colors of each touchpad area are embossed in the wood above and below, so you can see what color your fingers are on.

The fretboard also has some neat metal detailing as you can see here. The strum, the edge of which is visible above, is roughly the same size as a GHWT guitar strum. In fact, the spacing between buttons and strum is identical — I even measured it to be sure!

It’s definitely a beautiful guitar. I was thoroughly impressed. Well worth $199 just for looks, in my opinion. But how does it play?

The good news is that this guitar plays every bit as well as the GH3 Les Paul or the GH:WT Schechter-alike. I’m a decent (but nowhere near world-class) expert guitar player, and at no point did I feel the guitar hindered my playing. There is of course an initial period of acclimation as this guitar is much heavier and much larger than any plastic axe I’ve ever used. Also, this is (obviously) a Guitar Hero style embossed button layout, which I personally prefer, versus the Rock Band flat button style. Be aware of that, if you have a strong preference.

I was concerned about the optical strum mechanism, but I’m pleased to report that the strum works great! It was a little tight for me in the beginning, but I found it easy to adapt. By “tight”, I mean it is more akin to the short throw distance of the GH3 Les Paul strum than the wider throw GHWTar strum. It’s also less explicity clicky than either, though not quite the “whisper silent” that the PR claims.

I have it on good authority from a highly skilled expert player that he was able to full combo Beast and the Harlot from Guitar Hero: Smash Hits on his copy of this exact guitar (which he won in a fake plastic guitar contest … naturally). That proves the guitar is designed well enough not to hinder elite guitarists from their difficult full combo song runs.

I need to get some more play time under my belt with this beauty before drawing long term conclusions. But I can already tell it’s a totally workable expert class fake plastic axe, and it really does look and feel amazing when you’re strapped into it. I’d only caution people about the full size and weight, which are part and parcel of the authenticity, but can make it fatiguing — particularly for ladies or younger kids. This Logitech Wireless Guitar is a fair deal for $199, and I recommend it wholeheartedly to any Fake Plastic Rock addicts like myself (you know who you are). Heck, I like it so much, I’d consider buying a second one if it dropped to $149 or lower.

I reviewed the Xbox 360 model here, but it comes in a nifty looking all-black model for PS3 as well. See more pics and details on Amazon:

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