Axe of Heroism

Games Features Guitar Hero II
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Platform: Xbox 360

Let’s turn the clock back to 1992, shall we? Setting: Orlando, Fla. It was a halcyon period in my early adolescence when anything—as long as it was extremely cheap or better yet free and ended before 9:30 p.m. and was within bicycling distance and didn’t involve a scowling doorman or cashier asking to see ID—was possible.

Playing on the middle-school soccer team and eyes-open frenching my girlfriend Dana after seventh-period math just weren’t giving life the kind of meaning I craved anymore. Little did I know: Things were about to turn around in a big, BIG way. first, a kid in my band class asked me if I wanted to buy a black Yamaha electric guitar for $20. The headstock had been shattered and glued sloppily back together, like the skull of some dude who’d sustained a mosh-pit injury at a Pantera show and decided the ER was for sniveling pansies. This guitar was my golden ticket. (Playing the tuba certainly wasn’t attracting any ladies.) So I talked my mom into writing a check.

Weeks later I fortuitously sat beside a kid named Jeff on my school bus. He owned a guitar with a snake-skin paint job and shared my love for hair metal. After school he taught me the chords to Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” and it wasn’t long before we started our own band… Alice Gone Bad! The notebook sketches of our T-shirt designs involved Alice grinning maniacally, holding a smoking .45 and standing over the corpse of a blood-geysering Mad Hatter.

How my dreams of heavy-metal super-stardom unraveled is not the important thing. What is important is the promise of escape that rock ’n’ roll offered during my tedious seventh-grade existence. Even though my prepubescent voice was still high-pitched, my guitar could speak for me—or rather, growl for me.

The makers of Guitar Hero II understand the power of the rock ’n’ roll fantasy, more specifically the guitar-god fantasy. In what alternate universe does the camera lens ignore a band’s lead singer because it’s so busy trying to follow the guitarist’s fret-melting ecstasy? Only this one, I assure you.

Back in early February I entered a Guitar Hero competition called Battle of the Hands at Lenny’s, an awesome dive bar near my house. Since I knew that, in addition to my raw score in the game, I was going to be judged on stage-presence and crowd response, I cut the sleeves off a yellow T-shirt, wrote “LOOSE CHICKS” in big block letters and drew a really crappy-looking hand giving a thumbs-up. Oh, and the clincher: I wore a Jack Sparrow pirate hat/wig combo.

That night I went head to head with 16 other aspiring Guitar Heroes. Organizers projected the game on a ratty white bedsheet. We played wireless guitars. I banged my head and flailed my bead-ornamented pirate locks. I fell to my knees. I played the strum bar with my teeth. I even licked the projected image (Gene Simmons, eat your heart out—no, seriously, cannibal-style).

I left my dignity on that stage. It was enough to lock up third place. Then I stood in the crowd, exhausted and sweaty, screeching like a chimpanzee getting run over by a riding lawn mower while the final two players attacked the solo section of the game-closing “Freebird.” One of the event organizers poured a 24-oz. can of PBR over their banging heads. Beer and sweat flew in all directions. Crowd response: pandemonium.

My seventh-grade band Alice Gone Bad never played an actual gig. But it was all preparation. I would one day rock Atlanta senseless with a plastic guitar and five colored buttons, then get bawled out by my wife the next day for climbing into bed smelling like I’d spent the evening touring a Marlboro waste facility. Honestly, that’s about as rebellious as I get these days: giving cleanliness the finger when I arrive home late from a video-game tournament.

But that snotty little 12-year-old—the one whose mom dropped him off at Fantastic Sam’s with a $10 bill so she could run some errands while he got a haircut, and who then talked the stylist into shaving half his head gleaming white—still squirms and kicks inside my brain every time I strap on the Guitar Hero controller. The Mad Hatter’s been dead for a long time, but it takes more than a flurry of bullets to off a dream.