During the late 2000s and early 2010s, houses were screaming with the sounds of rock and roll and clicky plastic buttons. Legendary guitar solos were belted out like you were performing in front of a roaring crowd and getting the coveted five stars on Expert was a grand achievement within your circle of friends. New music was discovered, parties were never the same and legends were born. Yes, Guitar Hero, as well as Rock Band, were staples of our gaming lives and it brought amazing music to the masses through its simple five-button interface and relative accessibility. Anyone, no matter their skill level or musical aptitude, could become a virtual rock star. It was a dream.
However, that dream turned into a nightmare when the companies behind these games started becoming greedy. The games released on a shockingly frequent basis to the point where it became ludicrous with Activision milking the Guitar Hero franchise to the bone. This was most definitely not the only reason why the rhythm gaming genre died down, however, as you can quite clearly tell that people were getting fatigued with the plastic-buttoned novelty simulated rockstardom. The genre ran its course and due to its rigid design elements and inability to evolve out of its established mechanics, it was only a matter of time.
Through the fire and the flames
During the golden years of the genre, there were spectacular displays of skill with regard to the most difficult songs you can find on the setlist. The most notable song that still remains notorious today is Through the Fire and Flames by the speed metal band, Dragonforce, on the legendary Guitar Hero 3. On Expert, this song was close to impossible for the average Guitar Hero player because of its flagrant shredding and requiring the mastery of some pretty difficult techniques. When word got out that there were people out there who could get an FC – which stands for Full Combo, essentially never missing a note – for the song, everyone who had experience with the song would seek out those incredible individuals who could achieve such an intense feat.
Many early Guitar Hero legends had meteoric rises on the internet. People such as GuitarHeroPhenom, a kid with the name of Danny Johnson got millions of views on YouTube off the back of his ability to FC the incredibly difficult Through the Fire and Flames as well as any other difficult song throughout Guitar Hero‘s lifespan. He even made a small career doing it and was flown out to talk shows, live performances and so on in order to display his skill to the gawking public. Other prominent players started popping up on YouTube and later on, it was an entire scene. When different instruments got introduced, more legends got made with drummers, singers and even entire virtual bands making a name for themselves.
And this is where the two stories above coalesce. When the rhythm genre died down, these legends lost more and more prominence. Many dedicated players gave up their craft and moved on with their lives. Some just completely vanished off the face of the planet while others tried making real music to varying degrees of success. The people wielding plastic instruments that we revered throughout the years when the genre was exploding were now just distant memories and fragments of a once thriving community. There was a dedicated following, but they were mostly insular and almost underground. But fairly recently the genre made a resurgence in the most unlikely way.
Legends never die
To be clear, I’m not talking about the recent revival of the genre with Guitar Hero Live which introduced a new paradigm and new way to play, and Rock Band 4 which was an attempt at refining the genre in a new generation. Those were both ambitious, but they failed to capture the public’s attention quite like the original titles managed. They were almost throwbacks to the old days when you were in high school and had buddies over who wanted to play Avenged Sevenfold together and as an evolution of the genre, there wasn’t really much to be found. Guitar Hero Live tried with its mainstream appeal and new systems that were a far cry from the previous iteration, but it ultimately fell short.
The resurgence I’m talking about comes from the legends I’ve mentioned earlier not giving up on the genre and have instead sought out newer and fruitful pastures while still doing what they have been doing for close to or over a decade. They suddenly appeared on Twitch and since the live streaming platform works perfectly with the almost painful grind you have to go through to FC a song, it was a match made in heaven. Simply sitting and playing Guitar Hero wasn’t enough, most of these streamers made a name for themselves through their personalities, which is equally as important as skill in order to gain success.
The early days of this community were spent on a modded Guitar Hero 3 and with custom songs that were already plentiful at the time. Many of the early streamers such as UKOGmonkey, real name George Boothby who was also a popular player in the past, spent a lot of time trying to master the already well-known tracks and even adding some tweaks to them. The most prominent thing to do at the time was to take those crazy tracks from the old games and crank up the speed. Through the Fire and Flames, The Devil Went Down to Georgia and many iconic songs were now playing at 110%, 150% and even 200% speed in order to get more challenge out of them.
On top of the increased self-imposed challenge, Guitar Hero streamers started to foster their own communities. People would just hang out on stream in order to see these feats of human skill or just to chill and watch some favourite songs of theirs played on Guitar Hero. Like many Twitch communities, this evolved into a place of inside jokes, stream antics and a wide variety of memes. It was not only a showcase of skill, it was now also perpetual entertainment. A lot of early rhythm gaming legends or masters found a rebirth in the halls of Twitch and have adapted to this new style of content creation. People such as Jason Paradise, Acai, LeafGreenHD and Randyladysman found a new home for themselves with their own unique community interested to see the FCs and the memes.
Things started to get cranked into overdrive when the community got more involved and in doing so, crafted an entirely new experience from the remnants of games past.
Rebirth of Rock
Homebrew analogues to Guitar Hero existed for about as long as the franchise itself. You may remember the popular Frets on Fire which was a free PC download that allowed you to play an experience comparable to Guitar Hero using your keyboard or guitar controller that also included custom songs. It was alright, but it was clearly the inferior experience that was born out of necessity if you couldn’t afford the expensive controllers or just liked to play your own tunes. There were other popular programs such as Phase Shift which endeavoured to create a more custom experience as well as have support for the various other instruments you can play.
However, the most prominent program that just recently gained traction is Clone Hero. Clone Hero is very much what it says on the tin. It’s a clone of Guitar Hero that allows players a wide variety of customisability. Everything from the skin that has been faithfully recreated, to the speed at which songs play in, it’s all there. You can add thousands of songs into it with more being released daily which feature anything from Scandinavian Black Metal to Woah memes. It was the exact thing that the now burgeoning streaming community needed and it soon became widely adopted by everyone who dared to call themselves a Guitar Hero.
However, with so many songs available and ways to play, the legends needed a challenge again. An Everest, if you will. In the past, it was Through the Fire and Flames because it was basically the perfect test. There were parts of it that needed quick finger dexterity, accurate rhythm strumming and some careful concentration because of its length in order to FC. However, Through the Fire and Flames was now child’s play. Guys like Randy FC’d it blindfolded, while others like Acai were getting super high scores on 150% speed. No, the rhythm gaming elite needed a new Everest. They ultimately found it. And it didn’t even include a guitar.
Soulless is a “song franchise” created by ExileLord, one of the most prominent creators in the community. It features electronic beats and almost Black Midi-like composition of songs with Guitar Hero charts that are equally as challenging. The songs are called Soulless because they’re not intended to be melodic, have any real feeling associated with them and are simply there for the challenge. The Everest that I’ve been referencing, at least for the time being, is Soulless 4. Discard any notions you had of Through the Fire and Flames being a difficult song to play, this is on a whole other level.
The song is a cornucopia of every Guitar Hero technique known out there, from extremely fast strumming, ludicrously fast tapping, intricate patterns and all sorts of crazy almost inhuman feats. This doesn’t have a guitar in it, but it’s the definitive Guitar Hero song. Many tracks available out there are significantly more difficult, but they’re intended to be impossible. If no human can possibly FC a song, it doesn’t count. Soulless 4 can be FC’d, but it would take immense skill. The community has struggled with this song for an extremely long time and it’s been out there since 2015. You can watch Acai get his personal best score in it below:
Acai isn’t the world record holder though, that title belongs to DarklyGH, another Guitar Hero legend in the community, who only managed to miss two notes out of the entire song. I would have shown that run to demonstrate the skill at work, but Acai’s version is the best one to see how all of this is done on the plastic guitar itself. It’s a mind-bending mix of finger torturing sections that would make anyone who only played Slow Ride on Easy smash the guitar out of sheer bewilderment. As of writing, the song still hasn’t been FC’d, but that day could come soon if it hasn’t already.
Guitar Hero and Rock Band are dead. The franchises have overstayed their welcome and they’re now retired to the hall of fame of games and we will most likely not see a resurgence soon. Those company-run franchises are dead, but the community has gone and found their own way. The plastic elite decided that they haven’t had enough and the limits haven’t been pushed far enough just yet. Lovers of the genre are making their own unique communities on a streaming platform and the die-hards aren’t going anywhere. It’s a strange situation, that much can be said. From the ashes of a zeitgeist rose something beautiful, terrifying and often hilarious. I wrote this feature to highlight what has been going on in this world because much of it is confined to its own little niche.
It is growing at a steady rate as once fans of the genre get pulled into seeing the maestros perform and stick around for the friendships and the memes. Where is this all going? I have no idea. The community might not stick around for much longer or the streamers might just decide to take their career paths in different directions. Or it can flourish and become its own unique grassroots kind of revolution. Clone Hero is still a work in progress and hasn’t even gotten a real name for itself. Everyone might just try and FC Through the Fire and Flames on Rocksmith 2014 for all I know. Only the future can tell.