Band Hero DS Review «

If there’s one thing that I find especially poetic about Guitar Hero’s rise to mainstream acceptance, it’s that it occasionally affords me the opportunity to watch sorority chicks snarl their way through Motörhead songs. But as entertaining as that can be, I’ll happily acknowledge that a more pop-oriented take on the rhythm genre is long overdue.
Enter Band Hero, Activision’s first attempt (Modern Hits notwithstanding) at a top-40-hits spin-off of Guitar Hero. It’s also their first full-band rhythm game on the DS, allowing you to take up either guitar, bass, drums, or microphone. The shift in focus toward pop music, coupled with the numerous new gameplay additions, make this the most ambitious portable Hero yet — and as a result, it’s extremely uneven.

Click the image above to check out all Band Hero DS screens.
Take, for example, the game’s setlist: contemporary radio mainstays like Pink and Black Eyed Peas mingle with severely dated tracks like “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors. Maybe I’m out of touch with the intended demographic, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Avril Lavigne-loving crowd doesn’t have a lot of crossover with people old enough to remember Ugly Kid Joe’s “Everything About You.” Musical taste is subjective, of course, but quite a few of these choices seem like they’re in direct opposition of Band Hero’s modus operandi.

Then there’s the hardware that’s bundled with Band Hero. Using the same “guitar grip” add-on as the Guitar Hero: On Tour series, players hold down the peripheral’s fret buttons while strumming along on the DS’ touchscreen. As with previous Guitar Hero games on the handheld, I couldn’t handle playing more than a couple of songs in a row on guitar without enduring some serious hand cramps; players with less cartoonishly oversized hands than mine will likely fare better, but expect at least a little discomfort during extended jam sessions.

On the plus side, the strum detection on the touchscreen seems improved over the previous versions of Guitar Hero on the DS. And when I wasn’t too preoccupied with finding a more comfortable position for my aching wrist, I actually had a pretty good time with some of the guitar parts in Band Hero. Sure, it still feels like something’s lost in translation from the console versions, but it’s enough of a facsimile to keep faux-guitar virtuosos like me interested for a while.

Unfortunately, the guitar and bass are only half of the Band Hero package. The pitch detection for vocalists is spotty at best (but if you ask me, no rhythm game has truly perfected that). What’s more troubling is the other packed-in piece of hardware: Called the “drum skin,” it’s a rubber sleeve with four tiny drum pads that stretches over your DS Lite (the original DS and DSi are not compatible with the peripheral) in an effort to simulate a miniaturized drum kit — an endeavor that fails on a number of levels. For starters, the “drum skin” covers the DS’ stylus slot (all menu navigation is done on the touchscreen), and its thick, rubbery buttons make it impossible to close the system. Worse yet, the drum pads are unevenly perched atop the handheld’s face buttons, causing them to feel imprecise and difficult to press. And most irritating of all is the vertical orientation of the two pairs of drums, which makes interpreting the game’s horizontal note charts absolutely bewildering.

I didn’t start to enjoy the drums in Band Hero until I threw my “drum skin” in the trash. See, the way Band Hero maps its drum charts to the left, down, B, and A buttons on the DS actually makes a lot more sense than struggling with that waste of rubber. The horizontal layout of the DS’ stock buttons is far more intuitive than the alternative, and once I ditched the skin, I ended up clearing songs on expert that I had failed just moments earlier. Could I have eventually learned to use the peripheral as the developers intended? Sure. But why would I bother “practicing” for several hours when the game is instantly fun without it?

When it comes to bringing the full complement of instruments to the DS, Band Hero represents a very rocky start. If it weren’t for the game’s shortsighted and unintuitive peripherals, there might actually be something worthwhile here — assuming you dig the soundtrack, anyhow. But as is, wannabe rockers on the DS will probably want to hold off until the next generation of portable band sims arrives.


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