For the first time, the Guitar Hero phenomenon has gone portable on the DS. Using a mini attachable fret board, Guitar Hero: On Tour is about as close to the console experience as you are going to get.
The major selling point of playing Guitar Hero is using the guitar controller to make the player feel like they are playing an actual guitar. To bring this type of experience to a portable device, the developers have created a four-fingered fret board which plugs into the GBA slot of the DS (slot 2). The unit is plug’n playable right out of the box with the DS Lite, but it also comes with an adapter for the original model DS.
This fret board is a pretty unique piece of hardware. Instead of holding the DS in its normal horizontal position, players slide their hand through the wrist strap of the fret board and hold the unit back-hand style. The vertical orientation allows for the player to use the pick stylus on the touch screen on the right while the notes are read from the left screen. Lefties will be pleased to know this game also suits left-handed play.
Instead of flicking a strum bar like in the console versions, all notes are played with the included pick stylus on the touch screen. But this is where the game starts to see its flaws. The touch screen strumming at times can be inconsistent, causing unnecessary errors when performing concerts. For whatever reason, the touch controls sometimes do not register both in play, and even when trying to input your initials during the high score screen. To make sure my DS was functioning properly, I even tested the touch screen accuracy with a few other games and had no problems whatsoever. Inaccurate touch controls is a very frustrating part of this game.
Besides having wonky stylus control, another major problem with the foundation of the game becomes very apparent when playing the game on the Hard or Expert difficulty. Because the notes fly across the screen so fast on these higher difficulties, it can be very difficult to physically flick the touch screen as fast as the notes fly. Unlike the console versions where you are feeling the click of the strum bar, there is no indication that the player has actually hit a note on this DS version. This makes playing on the harder difficulties even more difficult than the console version despite having one less fret button. Also, the DS version has a lot more three-finger notes than the console versions to make up for the loss of that last button.
Physically playing this game is taxing on the fingers and especially the wrist. The game even states in both the instruction booklet and during the initial loading screen to take breaks often and find a position that is comfortable for you. Play for more than 15 minutes at one time and expect to have some serious hand cramps. This means that players really can only play about three songs before a rest is essentially mandatory.
On all the console guitars, there has always been a whammy bar to making holding long notes a little more rewarding. To whammy here in this DS version, the player simply continues to press the touch screen after the note has been played and rubs the screen back and forth to give the note that “wah-wah” effect. However, it is absolutely critical to release the stylus from the touch screen the moment the note expires. Holding the note for any additional time once the note is over and the game will penalize you by hitting empty notes. This problem was not in the console versions, letting players ride out the whammy even after the note was over to ensure maximum score. Plus, stopping at the desired time can be tricky with the inconsistent touch control.
Out of the 26 songs on this DS cartridge, I say at least half the songs have been on some other Guitar Hero game. As if the rehashing wasn’t bad enough, some of the DS exclusive songs are questionable at best. I am still trying to figure out why Maroon 5 and the Los Lonely Boys are in this game. The game’s entire sound track is not available at the start either. Once you complete five songs, another five become unlocked. Luckily, playing the Guitar Duels are now completely optional unlike in Guitar Hero III. Dueling is just as unbalanced and cumbersome as it was in the console versions, but now there are different ways to attack your opponent. Making use of the DS hardware, players might have to blow out flames using the system’s microphone or might have to sign an autograph with the stylus before continuing to play notes. Just like Guitar Hero III, dueling has a “take it or leave it” attitude.
Although the soundtrack is lacking, it is highly encouraged to play this game with headphones. The game even suggests this factoid during the intro screens because for a cartridge based medium, the music is surprisingly clear. Considering this is a handheld portable game, it strikes me as odd as to why there is a complete lack of a “listen mode.” DS users might want to use this game’s soundtrack as an Mp3 player. The only way to hear this game’s songs is to play them for yourself, something that could make you look a bit odd if playing in a public place.
Wirelessly, the game supports both co-op and vs multi-card link modes. It is also possible to stream songs from Guitar Hero: On Tour to users of Guitar Hero: On Tour Decades, the sequel to this DS original. Unfortunately, there is complete lack of WiFi play. While it is understandable that setting up WiFi play takes time and money to create, there really is no excuse to not support an online leaderboard function. This makes practicing to get that higher score less stimulating. Once all the songs are unlocked, is there really a reason to go back and play them again if you cannot compare yourself to any other player? In 2008, this shouldn’t be happening, especially with a game that has such a high caliber.
Graphically, the game looks on par with the console versions. Although everything on the screen is readable, I still feel that the game is too dark. Using a brighter color pallet could have been beneficial since players are bound to hold this game at strange angles. The classic Guitar Hero characters are playable in this DS version, including a couple new ones. It is just unfortunate that the player only has access to buy new outfits and guitars in the options menu. Buying new songs is one feature that this DS version does not have.
Although a minor detail, I really think the packaging of this game really deserves a lot of credit. Because the fret board will not fit in a typical DS game case, the entire package comes in a sturdy cardboard box. This box not only displays typical Guitar Hero box art, but the buyer can also see the fret board thanks to a clear packaging near the top. The box is even hinged at the top, making opening the packaging a lot easier to get to. The guitar pick fits snuggly into the fret board, and the fret board fits securely in the box along with the game and instruction manual. Due to the well though out design of how the game is bundled, gamers can quickly and neatly repackage their game and fret board with ease.
From a playability stand point, this DS Guitar Hero is about as good as it you can get on the handheld system. The fret board is a cool and unique piece of hardware, but hand cramping will set in rather quickly. It is just too bad the overall soundtrack is very lackluster and the absence of online leaderboards and purchasable songs have been completely removed from this game. Selling for $50, about $20 more than the average DS game, some gamers might want to just buy a console version for a little bit more money. But the whole point is bringing the guitar playing ideal to a portable system. This has definitely been accomplished with the fret board and guitar pick stylus, but the absence of crucial game options really bring the overall package of this game down.
*Note: Guitar Hero: On Tour and Guitar Hero: On Tour Decades will be incompatible with the upcoming DSi, the next generation of DS hardware, due to lack of a GBA slot.