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At least in terms of public play, Guitar Hero seems already like yesterday's news. Rock Band's ability to accommodate four players easily trumps the two of Guitar Hero, and with Rock Band, karaoke is rolled into the package as well. (Rock Band and its sequels may eventually spell doom for stand-alone karaoke nights.)
Anthony Wegmann, one of Lucky's owners, says that his club has seen an upswing in business on Rock Band night. "The last couple of weeks we have started getting phone calls from people wanting to know what time we start playing," he says.
"It's almost like getting a live band in here. A lot of times people will leave right after whatever game they were watching ends, but now people will hang back and watch the Rock Band players, and then some of them will start playing, too. It's not quite as good as a live band, but it is at least some form of entertainment, whereas we would just be having reruns of SportsCenter on ESPN otherwise."
What's not to love about a game that has the power to knock yet another episode of SportsCenter off the box?
Plenty, say some Houston musicians and music teachers. But even most of them reluctantly agree that the games are fun.
Former Chango Jackson and current Yoko Mono guitarist/singer Moises Alaniz found Guitar Hero to be a humbling experience. At a party over the holidays, he delivered a trainwreck of a performance, but he has an excuse.
"I'm colorblind, so I had to memorize the position where the colors were supposed to be," he says. "I didn't like it, in the sense that there's no realism to it. If there were strings or something...Basically, it's just like tapping on a computer keyboard. As far as entertainment, yeah, I could see where it would be fun, but I think it takes too much away from it, the digital area going in a completely wrong direction into art."
Rock Band offered Alaniz redemption. "I sang on Rock Band, and the microphone checks your pitch, and I did really well. That felt really good."
Allen Hill, the antic front man for the Allen Oldies Band who also teaches guitar and plays guitar and bass in several other cover bands, is also in the anti-camp. He believes that any time spent playing the game could be better spent learning to play the guitar for real.
"Video games didn't create the need to play guitar or make a band," he says. "All this stuff can be done; you've just got to apply yourself and really want to do it. It's like running a marathon. Most people say they can't do it, but if you train for it, you probably can. The mental challenges of learning guitar are far greater than the physical ones."
Local guitarist/singer Jaime Marroquin, who as "Jaime Hellcat" leads the "vato-billy" band Flamin' Hellcats, has played the game and says that he is "terrible" at it. Even so, he enjoys the game and says it is not without its benefits.
"I think it does give nonmusicians a sense of what it feels like to be onstage in a band, especially a terrible band," he says.
In the game, when you hit too many duff notes in a row, the song ends abruptly, the crowd boos unmercifully and silence, interrupted only by the crackling hum of an amp, descends, as your character hangs his head in shame.
"I have been in some terrible bands in my time, and it feels a lot like that," Marroquin says. "Now people know what it feels like to suck in a band."
And he also feels the converse is true. "Or when you are kicking ass, that high you get. There's nothing like it."
That may be so, Hill believes, but he thinks that Guitar Hero devotees are cheating themselves out of some of the best parts of life as a musician. "A big part of playing music is that you are in an ensemble and you are playing with humans," he says. "Nothing against technology, but in some ways I feel these games cheapen the experience a little bit."
No matter what you think about the game's ability to re-create life as a musician, few people will argue that Rock Band and the Guitar Hero series are masterpieces as pure video games. Both of them demolish all the rules of gaming.
For starters, these games are social rather than solitary. People actually enjoy watching people play these games.
Chad Edwards, one of the Rock Band-loving patrons at Lucky's, says that Rock Band is one game that gets you out of the house. "I don't know this guy or that guy" — he points to two of his virtual bandmates — "but we've all played Guitar Hero and we've all played Rock Band, and this is just another way for us to get together and do something that we would otherwise do at home. The fact that I can do it here and maybe meet some good people is pretty cool."
Think "hard-core gamer" and chances are you picture a geeky male, ranging in age from 12 to 35, and there is a lot of truth to that pigeonholing. Other than Tetris and the Sims series, most women have never cared much for video games. Music games explode that stereotype. Many women who are bored by sports games and the über-violent likes of the Halo series find Guitar Hero and Rock Band utterly engrossing.
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