UPDATED! See below for additional comments after hours and hours of more playing time.
Addicts of Activision's Guitar Hero console game will no longer be confined to fretting their faux guitar in the living room, game room, or basement. Soon they'll be able to play from their mobile phone.
Thanks to Hands-On Mobile, a mobile games company from San Diego, I got to test my rhythm-matching mettle with Guitar Hero Mobile on a slick LG VX9400.
The first thing you'll notice about Guitar Hero Mobile is how familiar it feels; just like the console game's little cousin ought. Being able to seamlessly hop into the popular rock-star universe is no coincidence. Hands-On Mobile worked closely with Activision to import songs, graphics, characters, and gameplay from Guitar Hero editions II and III. Players of the mobile version choose from two characters, Axel Steel or Judy Nails, and at first have a nonchoice of a Les Paul guitar. Stellar guitar skills unlock three Gibsons, vetted by Gibson itself.
Like the console game, Guitar Hero Mobile offers stepped skill levels and career or quick-play mode, depending on how long you want to track your scores. On a high-end phone like the LG VX9400, the game produces rich, 3D graphics. On some handsets, the publisher warns, graphics will be demoted to 2D.
Also note that your handset's keypad could influence your score, at least initially. As with texting and dialing calls, flat buttons degrade the tactile sensation of punching a key. You may fare better on a phone with rounded buttons until you acclimate to the game.
The distance of the star (*) key on your handset from your playing buttons will also affect the ease of activating the star power feature, which can help rack up extra points. As an aside, I found the power-saving setting that dims the phone's screen after a few seconds immediately distracting; I changed the setting to improve play quality, but over time this takes a toll on battery life.
The game begins with 15 songs, including "Black Magic Woman," "Bad Reputation," and "Miss Murder." Subscribers get three new songs each month, so your library has a chance to build. The number keys stand in for frets, and players can use any row or press all at once throughout a song. Pressing 1, 4, or 7 plays green; 2, 5, and 8 play red, and 3, 6, and 9 play yellow. Hands-On Mobile makes up for the loss of two fret keys from the console game's guitar by denoting difficulty in the mobile version with simultaneous key presses that must be held for varying durations. Don't let the reduction of keys fool you; you'll still have to let those fingers fly to master top levels.
As you do, you'll have the chance to complete 16 different achievements and unlock those Gibsons. By creating a user account from the Leaderboard option on the game's menu, you can compare scores online with other mobile heroes. That will track each of the core songs, the original 15, in each level over the course of your "career."
UPDATE: After hours and hours of additional play time, it became clear that Judy Nails has been robbed--she looks so diminutive on the small screen, at least in my rendering. Despite the rich graphics, Hands-On Mobile has underrealized an opportunity to capitalize on one of the console game's most popular characters by making Judy such a petite background figure. While they're correcting that, I hope they also take the time to rethink the typography. Short and squat, white and outlined, and with minimal leading, the screen text appears more and more cramped as gameplay progresses. Plump it up, guys!
Notwithstanding these cosmetic fallbacks, Guitar Hero Mobile engages and entertains.
Guitar Hero Mobile is currently only available through Verizon, but will expand to include major carriers and J2ME handsets in upcoming months. Verizon users can get it under itchy fingertips within 48 hours (I'm told) by texting ROCK to 46966. Everyone else can still text the code to be notified when the build is ready for their phone. I'll, of course, keep you all posted, as well.
For a glimpse of Guitar Hero Mobile in action, check out the First Look video review.