“Band Hero” is Activision’s attempt to bring the experience (and profitability!) of full-band plastic instrument games to the Nintendo DS.
“Band Hero” is also a bad idea for a game to its very core.
Upon first inserting your “Band Hero” cart, you are prompted to create a truly heroic band and character. The default state for your new rock hero is standing around in his or her underpants, instead of something generic like, say, a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. After choosing from face types like “anime” and “elven” (nothing says RAWK like elves), you are prompted to choose the skin color. Activision are very progressive, so among the reality-based colors like “brown” and “lighter brown” are colors like “cyan,” “magenta” and “jet black.” The path of least resistance involves being green skinned and flaunting it in those hilarious heart undies, so that’s what I did.
After creating my rocker, “Formerly Bruce Banner,” I instruct him to play every instrument in my band simultaneously and head off to pick a song. The interface is geared for creating playlists, so you basically check off songs you want to play and then push a check mark. It’s easy to not realize what’s going on here and select and deselect a bunch of songs while just trying to get to the game, but it’s an understandable design choice. After all, when you’re playing a portable game, you’re going to play it for long periods of time, and not quickly while waiting in line somewhere.
Sarcasm aside, it’s a terrible interface and terrible default choice, especially when you consider that “Band Hero’s” target audience is supposed to be the tech-challenged mass market. Even if this was a game for power users, a group that puts up with bad interfaces, it’s impossible to sort the song list by difficulty or artist — it’s just alphabetic by song, with no artist alongside it. Additionally, the entire song selection interface only displays about four songs at a time, and it has a huge amount of wasted space that could be used for artist, difficulty, the entire song title instead of “Crazy Little Thing….”
But if the gameplay is good you can put up with all these problems, right? Well, it’s bad. I have never played a DS “Guitar Hero” title, so this is my introduction to the guitar grip peripheral. It is the most difficult thing to hold ever, for no good reason. It doesn’t make you feel like you are playing a guitar, and it makes the game a literal pain to play. Strumming the touch screen does not feel like using the strum bar on a proper guitar controller, and the frets are just hard to press while holding the system steady in your hands.
Drums are okay. They are controlled with a rubber drum condom that fits over the system and pressed the face buttons for you. There is no strumming here, though. Just hit the drum when the gem crosses the hit zone, like “Dance Dance Revolution.” Unfortunately, the silly drum skin is arranged with the drums in two vertical stacks, which is counterintuitive when the game arranges them in the traditional horizontal row on-screen. It’s technically possible to play without it using just the face buttons, but the game’s UI doesn’t change to show button names to make up for the lack of colored pads. Once you get used to it, it’s better than guitar, but that’s not saying much.
The instrument play is broken up by silly minigames that have you doing touch screen crowd surfing, stage diving, and T-shirt tossing while the song still plays without you. These really make me feel like I’m playing an instrument and not a video game that felt its core gameplay wasn’t adequate enough to stand alone! Thankfully, these can be ignored entirely, if you never accidentally press that part of the touch screen while strumming.
Here is the core problem, though: Even if you like the guitar and drum play in Band Hero, do you really want to lug around a bunch of instrument peripherals for your portable system? This was a bad idea with “Guitar Hero: On Tour,” and the addition of the drum face just exacerbates the problem. Here is another problem: These peripherals are for the DS Lite only. That guitar peripheral you see above will only work with a GBA slot, and the rubber drum condom fits the Lite perfectly, though it might also function on the DSi. “Band Hero” was a chance to rethink the guitar game and start over now that the DSi is out, but that apparently would’ve been too much effort, as the box brags: “Exclusively for the Nintendo DS Lite!”
Singing, a peripheral-free activity, is the most functional part of the game. It works pretty similarly to singing in “Rock Band” or “Guitar Hero,” but it’s definitely not as difficult — I was able to pass a Queen song on my first try. I imagine they had to lower the sensitivity of the singing because of the DS’ lower quality microphone. It’s great that the DS now has a singing game worth playing, and I look forward to seeing it played in the public places where people enjoy playing portable games, because that is certainly a thing that will happen, and making a singing game for a portable system is not an inherently flawed concept conceptually.
Overall, Band Hero is a really bad game. It’s a shitty implementation of an even worse idea. I guess if you were able to tolerate past DS “Guitar Hero” games, then it might be worth checking out, but I can’t recommend it at all. Look to “Elite Beat Agents,” “Rock Band” for iPhone or “Rock Band Unplugged” for a rhythm gaming experience that remembers it’s on a portable platform, and is designed accordingly.
This review, originally posted at Nintendorks, is based on a copy provided by the publisher, and played for three to four hours on a DS Lite. Multiplayer is not covered, as I received one (1) copy of the game.