The lights are on
Freestyle Games' DJ Hero series had just what
the music genre needed: unique gameplay, a cool turntable peripheral, and an
infusion of fresh beats from the worlds of dance music and hip-hop.
Unfortunately, it was doomed by circumstance and a glut of guitar games.
When the original DJ Hero released in 2009, I
reviewed it for Game Informer. Here's the opening paragraph, words that still
ring true for me:
Activision has taken a lot of heat in gamer circles for its perceived
shameless exploitation of the Guitar Hero franchise. A lot of gamers have been
more sympathetic to Harmonix (the originators of both Guitar Hero and Rock
Band), a stance reinforced by the company's classy handling of its DLC catalog
and The Beatles: Rock Band, especially in contrast to Activision's botched
handling of Kurt Cobain's likeness in Guitar Hero 5. Against this backdrop, DJ
Hero is an even more impressive feat of game development. Not only does it
succeed in being much more than a cheap cash-in on the "Hero" brand, it's the
most innovative and inspired new music title since the original Rock Band.
I gave the game a 9/10, a score I stand by.
For me, someone who's been a lifelong fan of both rock and hip-hop, it was
refreshing to play a game that was able to take the basic "falling note"
gameplay of Guitar Hero and completely reconfigure it for a new controller and
different styles of music. While playing Guitar Hero, and later Rock Band, at
parties will forever be some of my favorite gaming moments, by 2009 the formula
was beginning to grow stale. There was only so much that could be done with the
guitar controller, and both Neversoft and Harmonix were beginning to butt heads
with the cold reality that, frankly, outside of signing deals with iconic bands
like the Beatles and Metallica, there wasn't much that could be added.
DJ Hero, on the other hand, could offer fans
a type of gameplay that they hadn't experienced before, in genres that Guitar
Hero and Rock Band couldn't touch. The DJ Hero controller, which featured three
buttons on a rotating turntable plus a knob for assigning various effects,
allowed the user to mix together tracks, samples, and scratches into a musical
experience that felt very similar to a real DJ set. In fact, it's not far off
from what many real DJs use today. Programs like Serato allow DJs to mix and
cut MP3s with real turntables or turntable-style controllers that are like more
complex versions of the DJ Hero turntable.
Musically, the game was more exciting than
any previous games in the genre. While Harmonix in particular always had a
great ear for picking tracks that were both engaging to listen to and fun to
play in Rock Band, in DJ Hero you were hearing custom-created mash-ups of songs
both unknown and familiar - giving you the illusion that you weren't just
recreating something, but creating it in the mix. Here's another excerpt from
my original DJ Hero review:
Familiar tracks are blended with obscure DJ cuts to often thrilling results.
In DJ Hero, the delicate '60s psych of the Zombies is melded with Chuck Brown's
go-go classic "Bustin' Loose," while jazz producer David Axelrod gets down with
Eric B. and Rakim's hip-hop epic "Eric B. is President." Finally, a music game
that's not simply regurgitating the past, but transforming it. While the mixes
sometimes rely too heavily on pop hits or well-known artists, the soundtrack
feels remarkably true to the cut-and-paste aesthetic of DJ culture.
DJ Hero released in 2009, a year which saw a
glut of new releases in the music genre. Activision released four separate
Guitar Hero titles that year: Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, the
pop-themed Band Hero, and Guitar Hero: Van Halen. Add to the mix Harmonix's
much-hyped The Beatles: Rock Band, and you had a veritable deluge of choices
for the music game consumer. An innovative game like DJ Hero - which had to be
sold for a higher price due to the new controller - had little chance of
Still, to Activision's credit, the publisher
took note of the game's strong reviews and potential and gave Freestyle the
go-ahead to make DJ Hero 2. The game was also given a bigger budget and a
bigger push towards signing high profile artists like Eminem, Jay-Z, and Dr.
Dre. They also signed popular DJs like David Guetta, Deadmau5, DJ Qbert,
Tiesto, and RZA to be playable characters. In addition to a big marketing
campaign, Activision promoted the game with a concert for industry insiders and
the press at E3, which featured performances by Jay-Z and Eminem.
Freestyle responded by delivering a game that
was even better than the first. It took what was good about DJ Hero and
expanded it with new freestyle scratching and crossfading track sections, which
upped the creativity that players could exercise during a mix. It also improved
the usage of the middle button on the turntable, which had previously been used
to deliver cheesy catchphrases or sound effects, by creating sounds unique to
each mix that could be incorporated in a more elegant fashion. Add in a bigger
and more diverse soundtrack, and you had a sequel that improved on its
predecessor in many important ways. In my review, I scored the game a 9.25/10,
As you crossfade, scratch, and manipulate the gorgeous mixes, the feeling
is akin to riding the perfect wave. In some ways, I almost feel a greater
connection to the music than I do when playing the guitar-focused games on the
market. Hopefully this game will meet the success it deserves, allowing
FreeStyle Games to keep searching for that perfect beat.
Sadly, it wasn't to be. The game released in
October of 2010 to first-month sales of only 59,000 units. Activision later
revealed that DJ Hero 2 and Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock combined for sales of
less than 1 million, off 63 percent from Activision's music game portfolio
(Guitar Hero 5, DJ Hero, and Band Hero) in the previous year. A few months
later, it was all over; in January of 2011, Activision Publishing CEO Eric
Hirshberg revealed to investors during a conference call the DJ Hero franchise
was being shutdown as part of a company restructuring that cut over 500 jobs.
It was a sad end to what should have been a
new chapter for the music game genre. Personally, I feel that DJ Hero still has
a lot to offer gamers. If you haven't played one of these games before, I
encourage you to do so.
As for what lessons we've learned, I'm not
sure there is an easy answer. The truth is that, by time DJ Hero hit the
market, the writing was already on the wall for the music genre. With two
companies, Activision and Harmonix, flooding the market with games and
expensive peripherals, selling yet another expensive music game and expensive
controller - no matter how innovative - wasn't an easy task. While many will
point the blame at Activision for its glut of product, I think the company did
its best with DJ Hero. It certainly gave Freestyle the budget and marketing
push it deserved, and approved a bigger budget for DJ Hero 2 even after the
first game failed to light the world on fire. But at the end of the day, you
can't force people to buy something. Sometimes, bad luck and poor circumstances
are obstacles that can't be overcome.
Still, Freestyle deserves credit for its
work. The developer managed to bring whole new genres of music into the world
of games, designed an excellent new controller and gameplay mechanics, and
added a lot of creativity and invention to the formula created by Harmonix. The
games themselves are still out there online and in used game stores; the
quality speaks for itself.