Shrinking “Guitar Hero” onto the handheld DS system is an impressive achievement but doesn’t make for a particularly compelling game. “Guitar Hero: On Tour” replicates the console experience fairly well, complete with fret buttons and a pick, but it inevitably has fewer songs, lower-quality audio and graphics, less challenge and no opportunity for the player to feel like Guns N’ Roses’ Slash. Given the popularity of “Guitar Hero,” it’s no surprise that initial sales are strong, but Activision may be harming the franchise by cashing in rather than limiting it to experiences that truly rock.
If “Guitar Hero” was just about pushing buttons in tune with the screen, original developer Harmonix could have easily made it work with a standard videogame controller. But it’s that replica guitar, which lets players jam, strum and slam like their favorite rock star, especially with friends in the room, that really turned it into a hit. That’s why transferring “Guitar Hero” to the DS, which can never feel like a guitar and is typically played in public places where rocking out is frowned upon, is such a bizarre exercise. That’s doubly true given that superior rhythm games that work naturally on the DS, like “Elite Beat Agents,” have been out for years.
Developer Vicarious Visions came up with a clever way to copy “Guitar Hero’s” gameplay for the DS by designing an add-on with four fret buttons that, as in previous editions, are pushed with the falling colored notes on screen. Combine that with a pick used to “strum” the touch screen and “Guitar Hero: On Tour” at least vaguely resembles its older siblings, though this one is much more likely to cause finger cramps.
Audio is key in a game that’s all about the music, but the DS is a pretty low-fi device, and songs sound fuzzier than headphone wearers are used to from an iPod. Onscreen characters are pixilated replicas of past “Guitar Hero” game characters and don’t play their instruments along with the tunes. Fitting 25 songs onto a DS cartridge, a motley collection of everything from Blink-182 to the Doobie Brothers to Ozzy Osbourne, was probably a technical challenge but is still disappointing since beating the career mode takes barely two hours. Four difficulty levels do add replay value, but even expert isn’t too challenging in a game clearly aimed at inexperienced players.
The guitar duels from “Guitar Hero III” are also included and actually work a bit better here since firing weapons at an opponent — either a friend via wireless or the computer — is easier with a touchscreen. But it’s telling that the feature that works best in “Guitar Hero: On Tour” is the one that’s least about the music.