Going into a club and being assaulted by the insistent, bone-shaking metronome thump of modern dance music has always struck me as a thoroughly unpleasant experience, so I wasn’t especially excited by the prospect of playing DJ Hero, a rhythm game in which players use a turntable peripheral to mix dance music. I was pleasantly surprised; played at a reasonable volume, the game’s music mash-ups are interesting, made more so by the game’s complex, entertaining gameplay.
The Gameplay: A Fancy-Schmancy Peripheral
DJ Hero is daunting at first. While the similarly-named Guitar Hero is played with a guitar peripheral that requires little more than some button pushing with one hand and rhythmic strumming with the other, DJ Hero asks for far more.
The turntable peripheral itself is very nicely designed. The rotating turntable part has three colored buttons, each of which affects one track of a song. An onscreen indicator tells you when to press a button, when to wiggle the turntable to emulate scratching and when to use a slider with your other hand to change the mix. You are also at times called upon to use an equalizer knob or push a button that lights up when it is possible to go into a high scoring mode. At times you can give the turntable a full spin to rewind your song.
When I started playing through the tutorial I thought, “how the hell am I ever going to be able to do this?” Fortunately the game does a good job of easing you in, and for all its apparent complexity, the game is fairly straightforward.
The Soundtrack: Ingenious Mixes
The songs themselves are quite engaging. DJ Hero is built on “mash-ups,” the term for two songs mixed into one (a well-known example is A Stroke of Genie-us). Your button presses are designed to coincide with the entry and exit of certain tracks from one song or another, resulting in a fascinating sonic collage.
The game has some very clever combinations; the Gorillaz are mixed with Blondie, Marvin Gaye with David Bowie, Little Richard with Schlomo. Many songs are mixed multiple times; Shout, by Tears for Fears, shows up in three separate mash-ups. I never fully appreciated the artistry of this quirky subgenre before, but playing the game makes one intimately aware of the complexity of track mixing.
The Question: Will You Feel Like a DJ?
While games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band make you feel like you’re really playing an instrument, DJ Hero feels a lot more like you’re playing a video game. It reminds me must of Harmonix’s Amplitude, the fun 2003 PS2 game in which you remix songs.
This is not a criticism – I like playing video games – but it may be one of the reasons DJ Hero has not sold as well as expected (Ars Technica has an excellent analysis of the game’s underperformance). DJ Hero is a lot of fun, but it doesn’t necessarily have the transformative power necessary to convince people to pay for a pricey peripheral. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather be a rock star standing on stage in front of two thousand screaming fans than the guy in the DJ booth.
For the most part, DJ Hero is a single player experience, but there are a few places where one player can man the turntable while a second plays some Guitar-Hero-style guitar. Unfortunately, I just didn’t find these songs that interesting in terms of guitar; the turntable was invariably more fun.
The Verdict: A Game That Could Inspire Players to Become DJs
DJ Hero is a lot of fun, but I kept feeling that it would be more fun to make my own mash-ups. The thing the game needs is the ability to just take two songs and mix them up any way you like. Of course, it would be hard to build a game around making up your own stuff – how would you score it? – but a bonus mode for mixing your own songs would have made this a far more interesting game.
That, perhaps, is the great irony of DJ Hero. Before I played the game, I dreaded its pulsating dance songs. After playing for a while, I thought it would be more fun to make my own.