I clearly remember my first time playing Guitar Hero. I had only been at Game Informer for a couple of years in 2005, and I’d made it clear to my co-workers that I had an intense enthusiasm for all those quirky Japanese music games. I also adored the work from a little developer called Harmonix, who had crafted my favorite music game to date: Amplitude. I embraced the trance-like state I’d fall into as I played the game, desperately tapping buttons in time with the beats and switching back and forth between tracks.

Guitar Hero would eventually become a phenomenon with cultural awareness that reached far beyond the gamer community, but when we first heard the name here in the Game Informer office, it was a hard sell. A toy guitar? The niche music game genre? The game didn’t exactly scream success. 

Nonetheless, the guys from Red Octane and Harmonix had come to Minneapolis in the summer of 2005 to try and start pre-selling units to some of the big box stores. After they managed to make a few thousand sales (big news for them at the time, if I recall), it seemed to them like a good idea to start doing some press coverage. Game Informer happened to be nearby. On short notice, and largely because we’d heard Harmonix was attached to the project, we accepted the meeting. 

Later that day, Guitar Hero was in our office, and the guitar was in my hands. That first guitar controller from Red Octane felt small and chintzy, and the bright, colorful buttons seemed childish and more than a little silly. Nonetheless, the instrument did its job, and I was eager to see how it all worked. 

My love affair began as the first notes began scrolling vertically along the screen, and I flipped that little switch to “strum” the note. The song was “More Than A Feeling” by Boston. As those first delicate notes of the intro sounded, playing on Medium I was convinced I was absurdly awesome, an analysis that subsequent months would prove ridiculous as I escalated in difficulty. Each note passed the strum bar, and as it sounded out onscreen, I felt more than ever that I was a part of the music. By the time I reached the big solo, I was absolutely sold. 

That’s the magic of Guitar Hero and the offshoot that would follow in Harmonix’s step over to Rock Band. Video games sell us on a fantasy of inhabiting another life, time, place, or experience beyond our day-to-day. As I hit that wailing, melodramatic solo in “More Than A Feeling,” I remember noticing the way I was shaking the neck of the guitar, and trying to apply vibrato on the “string,” as if it was a real guitar. When my star power built up, I leaned into the guitar as I tilted it up, and was thrilled at the way the screen lit up electric blue as the crowd cheered me on. Those screaming fans roared as I nailed a long passage without mistakes, and shouted angrily as I made mistakes. For better or worse, I was on the stage, making or breaking the performance.

The music game genre may have faded, but I’ll never forgot that first moment, playing a game I’d never heard of with a silly little multicolored plastic guitar. Nor will I forgot the countless hours I would spend in front of Guitar Hero and its descendants in the years to follow. For me, the game does exactly what I love my hobby for: Transport me someplace new, and make me forget, even for a few moments, that I’ve left my real life behind.