imageI’m a pretty health-conscious guy. I move around a lot of the office to keep my back from hunching over like a Dickensian accountant’s. I work out. I run miles per week, I walk to work. I lift stuff. I play organized sports regularly. I’m that guy at the office who actively tries to convince people that corporate softball is a good idea (well, it is!). I’m by no means an Olympic bodybuilder, and I only bring it up to emphasize that my shoulder shouldn’t feel like someone jammed an ice pick into it and my wrist shouldn’t hurt as badly as it does.

This is what four and a half hours of Guitar Hero II can do to me. I’m 800 milligrams of ibuprofen away from a sling and an ice pack, and I don’t see myself recovering in time for the continuation of my concert tour. No, much like the back injury I aggravate every baseball season, I see myself playing through the pain tonight, because GH2 lives up to the hype.

It’s the Empire to A New Hope. Like all good sequels that outshine the original, GH2 refines the good and repairs the bad, polishing the original Guitar Hero‘s diamond into one that carries with it the terrible curse of repetitive stress injury to all who lay their hands upon it.

And it’s really f—ing hard.

Call it hubris, because that’s exactly what it was when I popped the game into my PS2 and immediately went to Expert difficulty. I didn’t even slow down to correctly spell out my band’s name – Joe’s Wang, hastily shortened to Joe’s Wan – before loading up Johnny Napalm and diving into “Mother,” by Danzig. What laid before me, on the first tier of songs, could easily have made it to the third tier on the original game. There were three-button chords – GH2‘s most visible upgrade to the gameplay – inside the first minute, and the solo at the end walked up and down the fret board like a Hendrix song. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at; if this was what Red Octane was calling easy this time around, I’d be done before my fifth song.

Then, the end mercifully came. Four stars.

The rest of my night played out that way. I’d eke my way through the second, third and fourth tiers, never repeating a song, wondering why my shoulder was hurting, getting cocky at the fact I’d yet to need to replay a song. Crowds were calling me out for encores. I was hitting solos, making chord transitions and singing along to the songs I knew – abusing only my dog with my bad Cheap Trick impersonation.

imageThen, The Sword came and gave me carpal tunnel and possibly destroyed my rotator cuff.

Their song “Freya,” a crappy metal diddy about a Norse goddess (is there really a good metal diddy about a Norse goddess? I’m pretty sure Norse mythology is a Metal Warning Sign, if I’ve ever seen one), finally broke me. The opening riff was confusing, the staccato riff was as fast as “Bark at the Moon,” and the chord changes made me realize exactly how much mileage there is between my brain and my left fingers.

I mentioned I played GH2 for four and a half hours. It took me two hours to reach “Freya,” my blonde-haired, fair-skinned nemesis. It took me two and a half more to finally vanquish her.

My original strategy was to conserve star power, which was markedly unavailable throughout the song, and save it for one of the particularly hard bridges. (If you were to hit every star power opportunity, you might have a full bar. Over the entire four-minute song.) It worked pretty well, but I eventually gave up: If I were going to get through this bastard of a song, I’d just have to play it correctly.

I made use of the practice feature to exercise new fingering positions on the song’s trickier areas, only to crash and burn multiple times. My joyous singing and head-bobbing gave way to guttural screams of rage every time I’d crap out 68 percent of the way through the song, scaring the dog I was previously serenading into quiet complacence on the couch, probably trying to figure out what his stupid, hairless monkey of an owner was trying to do in front of the flat-screen demon box that sometimes makes barking sounds.

Finally, after a long, thoughtful soliloquy on how much I’d not miss my fingers if they refused to do what I told them anyway, something clicked, and I finished the song, keeping the crowd in it the whole time. Not only did I play it, but I played it well. And now, I never have to play it again.

I jumped up to the next set list and selected the song I’d been waiting to play since the soundtrack got leaked a couple months ago: “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart,” by Stone Temple Pilots. I’m a product of the ’90s, and no one did ’90s better than Scott Weiland. After “Freya,” I was imagining a horror of a go, but I four-starred “Trippin'” on my first try, singing along and doing that weird dance Weiland did back when he was in the throes of heroin addiction.

imageI’d forgotten all about The Sword and their horrible little Norse nymph and was back to, well, rocking out. And that’s where the Guitar Hero franchise (trust me, there will be many, many more iterations) really shines. It can throw you a nasty curveball that reverts you into a dinosaur-like eat-kill-reproduce state, and after you struggle your way through, you’re onto something new and better and fun again. It’s an old platformer with a tactile rock ‘n’ roll twist.

And rock ‘n’ roll won’t save the world, but it might save gaming. Guitar Hero is an adult-themed franchise that’s non-violent and not reliant on Goodfellas-level profanity to sell. It’s proof that under the veneer of zombie bashing and hooker killing, gamers are human beings motivated by things other than the taboo. A cheap plastic guitar is mainstream proof of a maturity level that entire genres are only beginning to scrape.

Guitar Hero couldn’t have come at a better time. Every time a game like this sells, it’s another blow to the notion that the only way to make money in this business is to clone GTA, or worse, find new ways to commit depraved acts in a virtual sandbox. Every time a game like this makes headlines, people are going to wonder what else games can teach besides violence.

And it’s killer on the joints.

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