Nintendo enthusiasts hit the musical jackpot this week with two new games to release their inner rock stars.
"Guitar Hero: On Tour" ($49.99, Activision) for the Nintendo DS marks the popular series' first venture onto a portable platform, while "Rock Band" ($169.99, MTV Games) finally reaches the Wii so drummers and vocalists can join the band.
Taking a game built around a full-sized guitar peripheral and adapting it for a handheld is no easy task, but "Guitar Hero: On Tour" aces this solo.
Substituting for the ax is a glove-like guitar grip that plugs into the DS's seldom used GamePak slot.
It features four colored buttons instead of the standard "Guitar Hero" five (I never liked that fifth button anyhow) and includes a nifty guitar-pick stylus so players can strum the touch screen while notes scroll down the secondary screen.
The game's 25 tracks include a mix of newer hits ("This Love" by Maroon 5, "All The Small Things" by Blink-182) and older titles ("Pride and Joy" by Stevie Ray Vaughan, "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" by Pat Benatar).
Earphones are a must, as the DS's internal speakers don't provide enough volume to truly rock out.
Single-player career mode can kill plenty of hours, but the game really shines in multiplayer mode, though both players must have their own cartridge and grip.
The game offers co-op and face-off modes, but duels provide the most fun with creative new battle attacks that take advantage of the DS touch screen.
Hit your opponents with pyrotechnics to force them to blow into the internal mic and put out the flames. Annoying fans pop in demanding players give an autograph before getting back to the show.
And instead of just repeatedly hitting a button to fix a broken string as in the console titles, players must use the stylus to attach the end of the string and drag it up the neck to get that note back up and running. Very clever.
"Guitar Hero: On Tour" has got to be one of the best titles to hit the DS this year.
Four out of four stars.
Wii owners have been clamoring for their version of "Rock Band" ever since the title debuted on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in November.
Sure, the Wii edition lacks some of the online features found on those other consoles, but developer Harmonix made sure it got the gameplay right with this port.
The "Rock Band" package includes a drum kit and microphone, which plug into an included USB hub, and a wireless Fender Stratocaster guitar controller that transmits to a USB dongle. Add in an additional guitar controller as a bass ($59.99) and you've got a four-piece band.
Players can choose to rock out on a collection of 63 songs such as "Gimme Shelter" by The Rolling Stones, "Enter Sandman" by Metallica and "Say It Ain't So" by Weezer.
For gamers who have played their share of "Guitar Hero" titles, the big draw here is the drum set.
You get to use a real pair of sticks to pound on four colored touch pads while interspersing some pedal stomps on the kick drum. Very cathartic — especially when you get to break into a freestyle drum solo.
The drums are clearly the most challenging of the instruments as notes can come at you fast, but it gets easier once you get a feel of the rhythm.
Singing works just like a "Karaoke Revolution" game, with lyrics horizontally scrolling on a staff at the top of the screen. Keep the flying triangle on each scrolling tube by singing on key and you'll be rewarded with points.
A long solo can provide an awkward pause for singers, so the game uses percussion breaks to help keep the vocalist occupied. Just tap the mic like you're playing a tambourine or cowbell.
Playing lead or bass guitar is just like in "Guitar Hero." React to the scrolling notes by pressing the correct colored buttons while hitting the strum bar.
The "Rock Band" guitar controllers sport an additional set of fret buttons up on the neck to make it easier to tackle quick solo sequences.
"Rock Band" really shows its stuff with two or more players, as no other game comes close to letting gamers experience the camaraderie of playing in a band.
Players in cooperative mode are scored as a group, although an individual poor performance can result in that player getting booted for the rest of the song. When that happens, another player can break into overdrive to bring the lost soul back into the mix.
On the positive side, unison phrases invite band members to earn bonus points if everyone in the group can play the phrases perfectly.
Unlike the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions, there's no option to create and customize characters, although that's a feature I don't find that important.
Slightly more disappointing is the Wii version's lack of online play and downloadable songs.
The company expects to offer an expansion pack with 20 additional songs next month for $29.99.
Three-and-a-half out of four stars.