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Saturday Gaming Retrospective - Gitaroo Man

Gitaroo Man - PlayStation 2
By Brian Rowe

Before Guitar Hero, there was Gitaroo Man

I’m looking around at the plastic instruments piled in the corners of my room. They are in serious need of dusting. It seems strange to think that music games were once rarities to be cherished, not party toys to be cast off on a bi-monthly basis.

Gitaroo Man was an immediate obsession. I played it nearly every day for two months, and eight years later, it is still the most prized game in my collection.

What were its cultural impacts and/or importance?

Although the tunes and controllers have changed, modern music games haven’t progressed much since the opening days of Parappa’s rhythmic button-matching. The freestyling pup set the standard, and everyone followed suit.

Gitaroo Man was an evolution. It bore the familiar rhythm-matching, but players also had to use the analog stick to guide a cursor through a winding path to unleash the hero’s wicked guitar solos. It was the first time I felt as though I was creating the music and not simply responding to it.

You wouldn’t guess it from the outrageous characters by Mitsuru Nakamura (aka 326), including fur-suited bandmates and an Elvis-impersonator in a bee costume, but Gitaroo Man’s childish exterior masked a dramatic and touching story about a boy rising to become the world’s savior. Unfortunately, gamers can be a superficial bunch. While critics praised the advances in gameplay and the ten powerful tracks, ranging from metal to techno and dub, Gitaroo Man languished in stores.

What areas of gaming did it advance?

With the near-simultaneous release of Rez and Parappa the Rapper 2, the beginning of 2002 was an exciting time to be a music gamer. Few could have predicted that the eccentricities and charms of the genre were about to be wiped away in favor of simulation.

Dance Dance Revolution had been infiltrating arcades and bowling alleys across the country. In April, the arrival of Konamix on PlayStation sounded the death knell. Endearing characters, storytelling, and unique music gave way to massive soundtracks of licensed music and button-matching in the purest sense. Although Gitaroo Man did little to influence the future of gaming, it was the launch-pad for Keiichi Yano, who went on to create the sensational Elite Beat Agents… and Lips.

Does it stand the test of time?

Absolutely. The 10-song soundtrack is barely meager by today’s standards, but each song is a masterfully crafted composition of addictive hooks that seeps into your subconscious. I had bouts when I played on a daily basis before work, though not to top my previous scores. It was my equivalent to popping in a CD to set the mood for the day.

Gitaroo Man takes the notion of a guitar-battle literally and, to the best of my knowledge, uses an adaptive style of gameplay that is still unique in the genre. Stages are split into Charge, Attack, and Defend phases. Should you survive a defensive phase, but fail to launch an effective counterattack, the music shifts imperceptibly into another verse.

Many of the earliest music games, including Parappa the Rapper, feel antiquated and outclassed by today’s standards of difficulty. This is not the case for Gitaroo Man’s Master Play difficulty, which still inspires loyal fans to record and share their sessions online. And, unlike some modern music games, you can’t fumble through the difficult sections and recover in the easy ones. Each song is an intense battle for survival that demands skillful precision down to the last note.

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