Why No One Likes ‘Guitar Hero’ Anymore

Guitar Hero 5 in action

Guitar Hero 5 | Activision

For a moment there in 2015, it seemed like rock music games were on the brink of being cool again. That’s when the kings of the genre — Guitar Hero and Rock Band — were gearing up for brand new games, hoping to capitalize on five years’ worth of pent-up desire since the previous installments. That’s what seemed like was going to happen. But when Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4 came out, gamers met them with a collective shrug. No one, it seems, wants to bang on plastic instruments anymore.

They heyday of music games

This was not always the case, as anyone who played video games between 2005 and 2010 can attest. Back then, Guitar Hero and Rock Band ruled the world. You couldn’t step into a Best Buy without being confronted by a floor display of giant boxes stacked 5 feet high, each containing rock hits from all eras, along with plastic guitars, rickety drum sets, and microphones. You couldn’t go to a party without someone busting out the instruments and inviting guests to live out their rockstar fantasies in front of a glowing television screen.

All told, the Guitar Hero series sold over 25 million units, with publisher Activision claiming in 2009 it was the third largest game franchise in existence, behind only Mario and Madden NFL. For its part, the Rock Band series, which started several years after Guitar Hero, sold about 13 million units — massive numbers, especially when you consider the full band instrument bundles retailed for $200 a piece.

It couldn’t last

People playing Rock Band 4

Rock Band 4 | Harmonix

These games made billions of dollars, which is probably why the publishers cranked out new titles, new spinoffs, and band-specific entries every couple of months. The onrush of new titles sold well for a while, but sales piqued in 2008. In the following two years, interest in both series plummeted so far that the publishers of both franchises called it quits.

For five years, the world went without a major new Rock Band or Guitar Hero game that came bundled with plastic rock instruments. A few minor titles came out, like Rock Band Blitz, a downloadable game that let you play songs from your Rock Band library on a regular controller. It certainly didn’t set the world on fire, and it felt like a last-ditch effort to cash in on Rock Band‘s impressive library of songs.

The music returns

For the most part, Rock Band and Guitar Hero remained dormant until what must have been faulty market research convinced the publishers to attempt a comeback in 2015. Unfortunately for them, the day of the rock music game had passed. Both new games, Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live failed to meet sales expectations, dooming the franchises once more to the annals of history — or at least until they try bringing them back again sometime in the (hopefully distant) future.

What went wrong

A screenshot of Amplitude on PS4

Amplitude | Harmonix

Looking back on it now, the rock game genre shows all the signs of being a fad, doomed to footnote status in the history of gaming. It burned bright while it was around, but market saturation and a seemingly never-ending avalanche of new titles caused gamer fatigue on a massive scale.

It’s a shame in some ways, because those games brought music into the lives of people who might not otherwise listen to it. They helped musicians make money in the increasingly dicey world of cheap streaming services and rampant pirating. They also inspired some gamers to pick up real instruments and learn to play. On the other hand, the games are also responsible for cluttering closets (and landfills) with plastic instruments.

The music game genre lives on in titles like Amplitude and Theatrhythm Final Fantasy. But those games use regular controllers rather than plastic instruments, and they’re far from the mainstream successes of their predecessors. Could rock music games make comeback in the future? It’s possible. But it’s probably more likely they’ll go the way of the pet rock and Tickle Me Elmo.

Follow Chris on Twitter @_chrislreed
Check out Entertainment Cheat Sheet on Facebook!

More from Entertainment Cheat Sheet: