The Guitar Hero games have been, to put it mildly, a huge success. It's rarely a surprise to see a successful franchise make the leap to handheld consoles, whether it's to attempt a new facet of gameplay or simply to broaden the potential audience. It has been done many times before to varying degrees of success. But the difference between those games and Guitar Hero is significant: the reliance on peripherals. Guitar Hero uses miniature instrument peripherals in order to convey the experience of playing in a band. Obviously, this is an impossible feat to reproduce on the Nintendo DS, or indeed any handheld console. This all changed, at least to an extent, with the introduction of a new peripheral designed specifically for the Nintendo DS that would make a portable Guitar Hero experience possible.
Officially known as the Guitar Grip, it plugs into the Game Boy Advance slot in the DS, wrapping around the base of the console with four coloured fret buttons. It comes with a stylus designed in the form of a guitar pick. To use it is a somewhat awkward prospect, involving bending one's wrist at angles not previously known by the medical world to be possible. It is functional in design but in execution it's uncomfortable, impractical, and ultimately just doesn't feel like an instrument, unless you're playing Accordion Hero. Which you're not.
Decades, like On Tour, is cleverly presented. The DS is turned on its side, with the top screen towards the player's left. The Guitar Grip extends over the right side of the DS. The player slips their left hand through a strap to rest on the underside of the DS, so that the fingers are approximate to the Guitar Grip buttons. Think of it as holding a small book in your left hand. On the left screen is the classic Guitar Hero note highway, transposed over some reasonably rendered band members. On the touchscreen are the various score counters and an illustration of your chosen guitar.
In order to strum, you move the stylus across the guitar strings. You can use the guitar's whammy bar by touching the bar in the illustration. Just like its console equivalent, your aim is to press the correct fret button and strum at the moment each note passes through the bar at the bottom of the screen. The DS microphone is employed to trigger Star Power, a short-lived score multiplier. The game encourages you to shout some kind of rock clichÃ© to set it off, but you may prefer to retain your dignity and just whistle or something instead. Then again, when you're rapidly stroking a touchscreen with a half-plectrum/half-stylus with your hand strapped into the Accordion Grip, all the while rocking out to Linkin Park, it may be that your dignity is already long gone.
The track list features thirty-one songs in total, many of which have either appeared previously in Guitar Hero games or are from an artist who has previously featured in the series. Additionally, most are master recordings. Naturally the appeal of the track list will differ according to taste, but overall it would have to be described as a fairly safe and quite uninspiring bunch of songs, catering mostly to the young teen demographic. Bands like Blink-182 and Maroon 5 (what's with the numbers?) are countered by your parents' favourite bands, Twisted Sister and Kiss.
Decades suffers from several niggling problems that, while not deal breakers, will affect your enjoyment of the game. Aside from being uncomfortable to use, the Guitar Grip doesn't affix to the GBA slot particularly well. It constantly wiggles its way out and needs to be pushed back in. There's also the strum detection - at times it feels sloppy and unreliable, which frustratingly results in missed notes. Thirdly, and possibly the most minor, is the sound quality. The DS isn't reknowned for its crystal clear audio output, and in a regular game it's not much of a concern. But this a game in which your main focus will be listening to the songs, and so it does become a detractor.
Decades offers up the typical array of Guitar Hero game modes, including Quick Play, Career and Training. The Career mode sees you knocking over one track at a time as you gain sponsors and get more cash. The game's title refers to the fact that songs are grouped into the decade of their origin instead of a difficulty plateau (either that or it refers to the length of time it will take your wrist to recover). This means you'll be playing Fall Out Boy and Paramore long before you get to anything that arguably resembles music. Career lets you choose from three paths, each with four difficulty levels. There is a path for guitar, a path for bass and rhythm guitar, and a third path called Guitar Duel. This idea was fairly unpopular in Guitar Hero III: Legends Of Rock (then called Battle Mode), but it works surprisingly well here due to some innovative use of the DS. You play the entire song in an attempt to outscore the AI, and to assist you in that aim are power-ups that can disrupt your opponent. Nailing certain note sequences will award you with these power-ups in the same way they would yield Star Power in regular play.
Unfortunately you can't witness the devastation you unleash upon your opponent other than to see the arrow shift to your side of the meter. You will however get to experience what is unleashed upon you. Several of the attacks are quite inventive, like having to quickly sign a pair of platform shoes for a fan, your guitar being set alight and having to blow out the flames with the DS microphone, or drawing a line across the guitar fretboard to repair a broken string. It's nothing revolutionary but it introduces some welcome variety into the game, making Guitar Duel a more interesting version of Career mode than the guitar or bass paths.
There are quite a few things to unlock via Career mode, but if those aren't of interest to you the game falters significantly in terms of lifespan. With only thirty-odd songs to play things can get old fairly quickly. There is a nifty option to share songs between On Tour and Decades via Wi-Fi, so that if you play against somebody else with the other version of the game, you can select what track you will play from either track list. As you might expect though, the multiplayer of Guitar Hero on DS doesn't hold a light to the multiplayer experience on a console.
The inherent flaw of bringing Guitar Hero to the DS is that it doesn't at all feel like you're playing a guitar, which disables much of the appeal of the game's core appeal. At best this is a solid representation of Guitar Hero's gameplay, at worst a way to injure your wrist. On Tour had the benefit of novelty value, Decades simply repeats the trick, though Guitar Duel is a worthy addition. If playing a real guitar is one step forward from Guitar Hero, then playing Guitar Hero on DS is one step back.