You always wanted to be a rock star? The kind of superhero bursting with energy, who can take the stage and hypnotize the masses? In the early 2000s, it seemed like every video gamer wanted to be part of the fantasy: to be part of a band touring the world, to sell out and be wowed by the fans.
Maybe they would also know every note and memorize all the lyrics. For mainstream audiences in the United States, this was the driving force behind the long-running blockbuster series. Guitar Hero and Rock band. But this week marks the 20th anniversary of a supercharged and insanely wacky cult classic that came before it all. This game was from 2001 Gitaro man, developed by the Japanese game studio Koei.
Gitaro man contained much of the stylistic and over-the-top sensibility of other rhythm games from the late 1990s and early 2000s, including the quirky PlayStation classic Parappa the rapper, the arcade sensation of Konami Dance Dance Revolution, and even Space channel 5, a Sega Dreamcast exclusive about fighting aliens by distracting them with dancing. Gitaro man opted for another instrument: the guitar. And it wasn’t just about shredding. Guitar Heromade you feel like a musician, but Gitaro man captured the ego and the energy of being the Guitar Hero.
The game is pure Japanese gaming bliss. Gitaro man was released in Japan on June 21, 2001 and the following February in the United States for the Sony PlayStation 2 console. It has received critical acclaim from hardcore game publications like Edge and The next generation, who praised his unique energy, soundtrack and artistic direction. It became cult almost immediately, in part thanks to its raucous cover. But in a year filled with triple-A heavyweights like Metal Gear Solid 2, Final Fantasy X, and Silent Hill 2, Gitaro man passed under the radar. Two decades later, however, he is establishing himself as an icon of the whimsical, frenetic and rhythmic games of the time.
At the heart of Gitaro man is a young boy named U-1, a complete loser archetype who is bullied by his classmates. Both a coming-of-age story and a revenge story, when Gitaro man starts U-1 doesn’t have a lot of prospects. Soon, however, a talking dog named Puma offers to teach him to play the guitar. It doesn’t take long for Puma to reveal his true agenda: he is the “last legendary hero of planet Gitaroo”, possessing the last Gitaroo, a legendary mighty ax infused with magic.
If that wasn’t enough, a wave of enemies immediately attack Puma and U-1, who use the Gitaroo to retaliate. After the battle, Puma convinces U-1 to join him to fight the Gravillian Empire, which has taken control of the planet Gitaroo. The game takes you from a withdrawn young boy to a budding interplanetary hero in training – with the acquisition of a legendary guitar – in record time. While attempting to save the planet Gitaroo, U-1 learns to play his instrument to “win” everyone, proving that he is not only cool but also a legendary hero of galactic proportions.
The game of Gitaro man is similar to other rhythm games of the time: vibrant graphics with a thread of prompts rolling across the screen. You attack and defend by timing each button press and a swarm of combinations for that onscreen scroll. A different J-pop guitar-infused track serves as the narrative for each level, as U-1 work their way through the forces of the Gravillian Empire. A typical battle has three phases – charge, attack, and guard – mimicking a traditional boss fight. The frame of each level evolves and reacts to both song and performance, creating a feeling of palpable energy, a cascading wave of hype, to the level’s unwinding. Did we mention this game is crazy?
The game never really had a chance. It sold poorly in the United States but fared a bit better in its native Japan, unfortunately not enough in any market to warrant a sequel. Sony re-released the game on its first handheld console, the PlayStation Portable, also with miserable sales.
And yet, true to its status as a cult classic, the game has become a touchstone for hardcore gamers and a rarity in retro game collector circles. While it’s not impossible to find today, it’s also not easy unless you know where to look.
These days, rhythm games are on the decline. Occasional curiosity like Fuser unit keeps the genre on life support. Still, the simulation aspect of music-related games may have finally taken its course. Still, there is something to be said for games that continue their modest lives without ever catching the attention of the general public. Every now and then a Gitaro man A discussion thread on a games forum will appear to extol its uniqueness, or a YouTube video that enthusiastically dissects the music and history of the game. On Spotify, you can find playlists containing Gitaro man battle tracks created by like-minded fans. This is proof that 20 years later, the game remains unforgettable, and still holds water.
Perhaps this is due to the conveyor evasion that characterizes good games. What if you didn’t really play the notes on the guitar or if you didn’t play with a band? In Gitaro man, you are the rock star, a hero who literally saves the world.
Correction 6/25/21: A previous version of this article stated that Gitaroo Man had a sequel in Japan that had never been released in the US. As much as we wish that was true, it didn’t – the game never had a sequel of any kind, and the article has been updated to reflect that. We regret the error.
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