Just like many other kids who were alive in the 70s/80s, I remember watching the Grammys where Herbie Hancock did a live performance of ‘Rock It’ (which at that time had the most visually eclectic music video to date.) There was a lot going on in the performance – mannequins were moving around and other Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions swung in the background. But what I remember most was the DJ in the background, where for the first time ever I saw someone scratching. After that, I fell in love with the art and later with the skills of so many accomplished DJs, including Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, Jazzy Jay, Jam Master Jay, Chuck Chillout, Marley Marl, Red Alert and Premier to name just a few.
Very late into the craze, I decided to save up my money and get DJ equipment myself. With immeasurable hope, I turned the pages to the back of a Source magazine advertisement and bought two of the most inexpensive Gemini turntables and a mixer that money would buy. (They even threw in ten albums which I desperately needed, as buying two of each record wasn’t something that my 12-year-old budget was ready to handle.)
When my box and turntables arrived, within about 3 hours I realized a few things. First, I learned that you pretty much get what you pay for. But most importantly I learned that even the most expensive gear and dedication wouldn’t buy the years of practice and perfecting of the art it takes to be a true Hip-Hop DJ. Watching DJs as a kid, all I saw was the scratching and crossfading. But only when I used the turntables myself did I see just how much skill was involved. I had to try to remember the positioning of the song, so that when I went from one turntable to the other, I would be at the correct position. I had to remember to discern between what I was hearing in my headphones versus what was coming out of the speaker. All in all, I developed more respect for the art of DJing that day than I ever had watching it alone.
Over the years, the art has been mastered and taken to new levels, as evidenced by watching movies like Scratch and guys like Mix Master Mike, Cut Chemist and many others. DJing is such an iconic art that in Japan (where arcade gaming, although on the decline, is much more popular than it is here) there are more than a few games that feature turntables and simulate DJing. I always wondered if one of those games would make it stateside and, more importantly, if they would be worth playing.
A bit over a year ago, I remember hearing that Activision reserved the name “DJ Hero”, (among many other Hero-based game names they reserved). Ideas began to circulate in my mind about how a game like this might play out. Exactly how would they translate the art of DJing to a video game?
About six months ago, I had my first look at the DJ Hero controller, and I was pretty impressed. It looked like the iconic Technics 1200 model turntable that every Hip-Hop aficionado is familiar with. (And actually I’m pretty surprised that Technics hasn’t attempted to sue Activision – the resemblance is more than minor.) However, when I saw the screenshot, I thought I was seeing only part of the peripheral. Where was the other turntable? Well, Activision aired on the side of simplicity for the controller rather than authenticity. Initially I thought this was sacrilegious to only have one turntable. But after having played the game, I think – for now, at least – that they made the right decision. So, does this game bring me closer to the experience of actually simulating the art of DJing? Read on to find out.
The DJ Controller
More than any other game with a gimmick controller (fishing rod, guitar, drum, etc.) Activision had to get the controller right in order to pull this game off. And in my estimation, they got it about 80% of the way there. I picked up the standard edition, but a “Renegade Edition” exists. (More on that in a bit.) The turntable, as mentioned above, closely resembles a Technics 1200, with a few differences. It is significantly smaller than a standard turntable – think somewhere between a standard-sized turntable and a CD-sized one and you have this controller. There aren’t any needles, arms, pitch controls or other standard turntable controls here. The record is permanently glued on to the turntable and has 3 buttons (green, red and blue) starting from the outer edge of the record towards the label. The outer edge of the turntable is what contributes most to it looking like Technics signature turntable because it has almost the exact same dot arrangement. This actually serves a functional role beyond adding to the look of the turntable. When you scratch, it gives your thumb a place to grip and makes the movement a bit easier.
To the left of the turntable are some additional controls. There is a door at the top of the panel which conceals the standard 360 guide button, Start, Back, X,Y,A,B buttons and directional pad. Below that is an oversized button on the left used for “Euphoria Mode” in the game. On the right is an effects dial – probably the most useless button on the controller. But it’s the critical section below that takes away some of my enjoyment of the game – the crossfader.
Garnett Lee (formerly of 1up.com) spoke on a podcast about having an early look at the equipment and feeling that the crossfader was a bit loose and for a game of precision, needed to be tighter. Well, he was exactly right. The crossfader should have a more definite feel than it does. Putting aside the steep cost of the game with the controller ($119.99) I would have forgiven most of the other cheap aspects of the turntable if this critical slider had been given a higher grade of material. The most disappointing aspect of the crossfader is the dead zone (the center area between the left and right sides of the slider.) When moving the slider back to the center position, it’s very easy to move right past it unless you are extremely careful. There should be a much deeper groove when moving it to the center position. More often than not when you are playing the game, unless you compensate for the cheapness of the button, you will find yourself missing cues because the game senses that you are either on the right or the left side when you were trying to move the slider to the center. (NOTE: When I booted up the game, there was an update available immediately and I am pretty sure that this is at least one aspect that the game was addressing.)
Overall, the controller has a rather cheap, plasticky feel to it. But I have to say that having completed the game, I had a ton of enjoyment using the controller. It isn’t perfect, but it works very well with the game. What’s even better is that the look of the turntable makes it a welcome addition to my living room. Unlike the unsightly drum and guitar sets that Guitar Hero and Rock Band provide, surprisingly the turntable fits in just right. The only thing that gives it a cheapish look (aside from the cheap gray plastic around the turntable) are the colored buttons.
Activision is under attack right now from gamers and the gaming press for remarks made by executives at the company. After the success of Guitar Hero, they have come to the realization that they can sell what would normally be a $60 game for significantly more by adding plastic controllers. The Guitar Hero games appeared to be losing steam with gamers (who have little tolerance for adding another set of controllers to their living/family rooms, which probably resemble a recording studio by now if they’re anything like me). Activision appears to be looking to extend this money making strategy beyond guitars and drums. Not only have they produced this game and the forthcoming Tony Hawk game that comes with a skateboard peripheral, but they have expressed a desire to bypass gaming consoles altogether and sell games built into controllers that hook directly into televisions.
While the turntable should add to the price of the game, I’m not sure that $119.99 is a fair price. This assumes that the controller is worth $60. I can tell you for certain that I’m not holding a $60 peripheral in my hand.
However, that’s not the real robbery. The real robbery is happening with the special edition of the game. In the Renegade Edition (which Activision is marketing alongside Jay-Z and Eminem), they are coloring the silver parts of the turntable gold, upgrading the controller with what they describe as “premium metal controls”, adding a combination carrying case for the turntable and game that turns into a stand and some CDs of Jay-Z and Eminem’s unreleased tracks. The cost? $199. Considering the remarks made by the leadership at Activision, this price has the greedy feel of another attempt to take advantage of gamers willingness to pay for extras. Considering this, $119 for the standard edition seems somewhat reasonable – albeit barely. There’s no way that the CDs, the carrying case plus the legs to convert it into a table and metal controls that probably should have been part of the design to start with can add up to $199. To contrast, Rock Band 2 – which includes the game, a drum set, a microphone and a guitar controller – can be had for $139 right now. A Nintendo Wii or an Xbox 360 Arcade Edition can each be purchased for $199. In my opinion, Activision is taking advantage of gamers with the Renegade Edition of the game.
There’s no avoiding it – when I picked up the box at the store, I heard a voice in my head calling me a fraud. Truthfully, in Hip-Hop culture, it felt more legitimate to buy those cheap Gemini turntables than to pick up a game where you are a “fake DJ”. But I ignored the voices, took the box to the counter and brought it home. And I’m glad I did.
The turntable is wireless, and that is a key advantage because unlike the guitar, drums and other accessories in games like Guitar Hero, your enjoyment of the game will be largely dictated by how comfortable your fingers, wrists and arms will be in relation to the turntable. For me, it worked best to have the turntable on my coffee table, which is about two feet tall. I only have to “hunch” over the turntable a bit while sitting on my couch. I’ve played in stretches as long as two hours and only felt minor fatigue in my hand (partially due to a poor gaming mechanic employed by Activision I’ll discuss in a bit.)
So, after you get comfortable with the turntable positioning, it’s on to the game. The learning curve is relatively steep – even for someone who is familiar with Guitar Hero. Each game that you play in DJ Hero is a mix/mash-up of two songs. So here’s how you play: There’s a large record onscreen that spins counterclockwise. There are three parallel lines on the record. Green, red and blue dots appear on the lines. The two outside lines (green and blue) represent the two songs in the mix and the red buttons usually represent filler beats. The dots make their way towards the bottom of the screen and when they cross the line, you press the corresponding button on the controller – just like Guitar Hero (if you’ve ever played it.) Pretty simple, huh? Well, that’s the simple part of the mechanic. To start off, most mixes will just have you pressing the buttons. After the song gets warmed up, the real fun starts. What were red, green and blue dots (only needing a push of the button) turn into colored up-down arrows, warranting both a push of the button and scratching the turntable back and forth. Sometimes there are long stretches 10 arrows (and often more) where I just pressed the button and moved the turntable back and forth. Sometimes I did this in actual rhythm with the song and other times just long enough to make it until the end of the pattern. On “Medium” difficulty, this worked fine. I believe on the higher difficulty levels, there’s more of a direct relationship between the number and direction of the arrows and how you scratch – meaning you can’t just do that ‘back and forth’ stuff I was doing.
If this wasn’t enough, there’s another key component to the gameplay in addition to the button pressing and the scratching: the crossfader. This is the real key to the game’s mechanic. While the scratching/button-pressing is happening, the lines will sometimes move to the left or right of the record, requiring the player to move the cross fader from the center position to either the left or right. So effectively you will have one hand on the turntable with three fingers over each of the buttons and the other hand on the crossfader.
There are other elements that enter into gameplay like the euphoria mode button and the effects dial. Euphoria mode works just like the ‘Star Power’ mode in Guitar Hero. A particular part of the song lights up and if you hit all of the notes in that section, a section of the Euphoria bar (on the left side of the edge of the record) lights up. The bar has three sections and you can add to it each time you complete a section where the cues are lit up. The advantage of Euphoria Mode, besides increasing the points multiplier and giving the player a higher score, is that you don’t need to move the crossfader – the game will move it automatically. This can be a huge help during sections of the game where the crossfader section is pretty erratic. But the danger here is that you need to watch the Euphoria gauge. When the gauge expires, you need to resume moving the crossfader. The gauge can often expire in the middle of a complicated section, so it’s sometimes best to resume the crossfader movement while there is still a bit of the gauge left.
The effects dial is one of the few areas in the game that allows for creativity – but very little. When you begin the game you can select from a number of options, such as a DJ, a pair of headphones, a style-look of turntables and a sample set. The sample sets range from “wave” to “Flavor Flav” (believe it or not, he actually has TWO sets of samples – ugh, I can’t believe he got a check for this), but my favorite is “old school”. So where does this matter? Well, there are sections of the song in the center beat (the red one) where it will have a long oval symbol. During that section, you can use the dial to switch between five different samples. It doesn’t really do much but add points to your score. I used it mostly to try and make the song sound better, so I’d try to use the samples on beat. The effects dial is also used when there’s a symbol above one of the three cues, and it changes the sounds and gives the player more points, but I found it boring, not to mention that it detracted from my gameplay, where the player would be better served focusing on getting as many cues in a row as possible.
The game scores the player in points as well as in stars – again, a la Guitar Hero. Do particularly well and you’ll get five stars. The poorest I’ve done is two starts when I was starting out or during particularly difficult mixes. Unlocking stars allows you to unlock headphones, turntables and venues (snore) but it also allows you to unlock DJs and as you progress through the single-player contest, it unlocks the next set of songs done by a particular DJ.
Also, when you hit a certain number of cues in a row, you might get a “Rewind” prompt. Rewinds are a great part of the game. When you get one of these, you can spin the turntable backwards quickly and it will rewind the game to a section of the song – usually about 5 – 10 seconds before your current point depending on how hard you spin backwards. This is a lot of fun and very reminiscent of real actions that DJs make. You can use the Rewind as soon as you get it or you can wait and save it for a part of the song that you want to play again.
The Fake Instrument/Artist Argument
As someone who can tell you where I was as a lil grade school kid when Rapper’s Delight first came out (and that I could sing every word…well, back then I could), I can also say that it’s true – you feel like kind of a fraud when you first start playing. (What the hell am I doing with this fake-ass turntable??). It just feels wrong. You know that this doesn’t require anywhere near as much skill or is as complicated as truly putting two records on the wheels of steel and dropping down the needles. But you know what? I don’t care. Just like every other simulation game that I play (Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Wii Sports Bowling, Tiger Woods Golf for Wii) it doesn’t matter that this isn’t an actual simulation of the real life action. And to those that insist upon reminding players that they ‘aren’t playing a real guitar or drums’, I ask you, “what game actually is a ‘true simulation’??” Just because I play Grand Theft Auto, does that make me a ‘fake criminal’? And is that what we’re actually playing for – because we wish we could do the real activity? Of course not. Who cares that this isn’t real DJing? And just because I play the game doesn’t mean that I have aspirations to become a real DJ. I’m just playing a game. Does someone need to remind you when you play a racing game that this doesn’t mean that you can actually drive in a NASCAR event? We play Madden or Tiger Wood’s Golf or even Call of Duty knowing that more often than not, we’ll never participate in those real life situations. These games simply take a mechanic that seems familiar to the activity and make it into something that’s fun. And that’s what this game is. Just plain fun.
There are other gameplay modes that I didn’t try – mostly because I had only one turntable. You can play modes that are DJ vs. DJ. You also can play true mash-up modes that are with the turntable and a guitar. Sounds interesting, but I don’t have much interest in DJ mixes with guitars. There are a few mixes in the game where you play alongside the CPU as the guitar and they’re ok. But I would much rather play the DJ and guitar modes distinctly.
The Song Selection
The song selection in DJ Hero is a mixed bag. I have an incredibly eclectic musical taste. I was raised on R&B, and I was there for at the dawn of Hip-Hop, but I have just as much Alternative, Metal and Jazz on my iPod as I do either of those genres. Good music is good music. But my big problem with the game’s music selection is that these mixes often stretch the limits of taste. Just because you can mix Little Richard with a Hip-Hop song and get the timing right doesn’t mean that you should. There are 93 mixes in this game (and I’ve played just about all of them). I’m not a big fan of the mash-up scene. Occasionally there are songs from different genres that really go well together, but many times it turns out to be an awful mess. There are more than a few ‘awful messes’ in this game. The game features real life DJs that appears to have chosen their own blends for the game. As an old school (and, these days, just plain old) fan of hip-hop, I’m pretty biased about the music that I was able to appreciate here. I found myself loving the mixes done by Jazzy Jeff and Grandmaster Flash. There are some other DJs in the game that provided tight blends, but many of them are pretty disgraceful. It’s not like they didn’t have the rights to a good library. Among the songs in blends are Mobb Deep – Shook Ones Part 2, LL Cool J – Rock the Bells, Billy Squier – The Big Beat, 50 Cent – Disco Inferno and other songs featuring 2Pac, Q-Tip, Public Enemy, Master Ace, Jurassic 5, Jay-Z, Gang Starr, Beastie Boys, Eric B. & Rakim, Common and N.E.R.D. From those artists alone, there could have been a bunch of great mixes. But in the end, I feel like what we get is only a few truly tight blends and a bunch of ridiculous and forced mash-ups.
I’m not a fan of Daft Punk, but their blends in the game were among the tightest – great fun to play. But I just wonder why some of these other DJs are even in the game. Maybe I’m old and these are DJs that I should have heard about. I have to wonder as someone raised in the east coast tradition of hip-hop whether these other DJs are famous in other parts of the country (or maybe just where Activision folks reside). It’s clear that Activision is trying to please everyone here with their inclusion of such a diverse catalog of music. But I have to say as a fan of real Hip-Hop, I’m kind of offended. In the first few Guitar Hero games, you had a mild attempt to widen the appeal, but for the most part, they included hardcore guitar rock – and everyone loved it. If you release a Metal game, give me Metal. I would have appreciated this game more if it were “Hip-Hop Hero” and included Funkmaster Flex, Jam Master Jay, Premier and ?uestlove and featured their mixes instead. If Activision wants to capture the real Hip-Hop heads, this is where they should aim. The potential is certainly there for a game like this and I’m hoping for it.
But criticisms about the overall taste aside… there are some incredibly hot blends in the game. Often times you’ll see the title of a song and not realize that it contains a popular sample that’s been used to death in Hip-Hop. Other times you’ll see a blend and think “there’s no way that this can be good”. And I was happy to find that I was wrong. The mix of Vanilla Ice’s ‘Ice Ice Baby’ and M.C. Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’ is incredible. With many of the mixes, found myself humming the combination hours after playing the game.
Once you play through a few mixes, you understand why Activision didn’t include a 2nd turntable. The game is complicated enough as it is. There are four difficulty settings in the game – Easy, Medium, Hard and Expert. I only dared to play the game on Medium most of the time. With a few mixes that I really liked, I went back and played the game on “Hard” – after which I quickly paused the game and realized that I am not a glutton for punishment. There’s no sugar coating it: this game is pretty tough to get into. It’s the video game equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your tummy. It’s not impossible. But I can see many frustrated gamers waking up on Christmas morning wanting to break their overpriced plastic turntables. The statement that best sums up just how unfriendly this mechanic can be was the video where Activision developers demoed an early release of the game for Grandmaster Flash to try. They brought the game to him, told him a bit about the controls and when he played, he paused the game out of frustration and asked if he could start over. Yes – Grandmaster Flash.
The scratching feels quite good. When you are in a song that you like and hitting all of the beats, you feel like a champion. Most of the time, you are scratching with either of the outside buttons (green and blue), representing the two that are playing. Scratching with the green button is pretty natural, as the green button is close to the outside and because it is done with the index finger, it feels like a normal scratch or rubbing motion of the record. However, many times you are asked to scratch with the blue button. This is a motion that doesn’t feel natural at all. You can’t take a chance and move your index finger to the blue button because many times you are tapping out beats using all three buttons. So you awkwardly lift your index and middle finger and use your ring finger to push the button and somehow with the rest of your hand make a scratching motion with the record. It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but for long sections where the blue scratching is done, it’s really uncomfortable. It might have made more sense to just have the one green button on the edge of the controller for scratching and then make more use of the crossfader to simulate moving from song to song.
By far my major complaint of the game I already stated, but can’t stress enough – the crossfader. I haven’t played with the Renegade Edition, but the controller in this edition severely detracts from my enjoyment of the game. I only played on Medium difficulty and there were some parts where even when I hit all of the crossfades, with that cheap knob, I felt like I was a hair away from losing my streak of consecutive beats in a row.
This game is doing it’s best to appeal to a cross section of musical tastes. And the game mechanic is so fresh and so different compared with other games on the market that I don’t think people are going to have a particularly big problem with the song selection – at least not with this game. But when I take a step back and look at the cost and the marketing effort of bringing Jay-Z and Eminem together to promote the game, I see a huge missed opportunity with Hip-Hop fans. For some reason, Activision felt that just about every song had to be a mash-up. There are a few exceptions, but by and large, most mixes are combinations of songs from different genres. The Hip-Hop fan in me felt that an improvement in the game would have been to just mix one song. This is what Hip-Hop came from. Blending songs is cool and all. But the developers would have had Hip-Hop fans hook, line and sinker with mixes featuring one song. Eric B. Is President alone would have drawn Hip-Hop fans who don’t even own PlayStations, Xbox 360s or Wiis. Having observed the reactions at the demo units, I can tell that I’m not the only one who thinks this.
What’s most noticeable about the game in contrast with simulating an experience of being an actual DJ is that it lacks the creativity that is involved with DJing. To boil the game down to it’s most basic description, it’s effectively a game of ‘Simon Says.’ You do the beats and scratches the way that they tell you to. Perhaps more creative ideas are on the horizon, but this game could have had exponentially more replayability if it gave gamers the ability to create their own mixes from the songs that are available in the game. With the online features present in Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and on the Wii, I could see trading and sharing of songs that could have made this game the talk of Hip-Hop fans everywhere. But even without the ability to make mixes and share them (which admittedly, I’d only probably do once or twice), I wish the game could have allowed me to just mix the songs in a freestyle mode.
If I had my chance to develop the game, I would have redone the controller with two turntables (one tacked on to the other side of the mixer). Then I would have substituted the games three buttons and instead put only one button on each of the turntables. Exchanging the difficulty of the three buttons, making a more sturdy crossfader and instead focusing on the gameplay between the two turntables would have increased the appeal. Also, the killer feature is to just allow the player to select one song – putting it on each of the turntables and then just playing around in a freestyle mode would have been incredible. I could see me losing hours just mixing and having fun. Perhaps this is an idea that will make its way to the series next time. But if the sales aren’t there this go round, there might not be a next time.
DJ Hero is a game that has a somewhat steep learning curve for even a gamer of average skill – but if you take the time to learn the mechanic, it can be very rewarding. The song selection is way too varied and, ni the end, will end up garnering a lukewarm reaction where the potential was there for a huge cult-like reaction if they chose to go deep rather than wide in any one genre. The biggest detraction from the fun for me is the cheap feel of the crossfader on the standard edition controller, but it’s certainly not enough to get me to spend $80 more for a case and a more sturdy turntable. (Perhaps the market for 3rd party DJ Hero turntables with spawn some interesting creations??). Regardless, the price of the Renegade Edition is a problem and sadly gamers will probably pick it up – sending the wrong message to Activision about what an acceptable cost for peripherals are. Is this game a lesson in what it takes to be a DJ? Of course not. Far from it. But given a decent sound system and a bunch of friends, this game is an incredible blast. More than anything, with DJ Hero I see potential for an experience that can be expanded upon if Activision has the vision and can put aside their short-term profit-fueled efforts to milk gamers pockets for a longer term strategy where they develop relationship which lasts longer than a season of boxed retail sales. If done properly, DJ Hero (or more likely, Hip-Hop Hero) could solidify itself as a brand synonymous with Hip-Hop fans everywhere. They could have DJ Hero tournaments at the DMC DJ Tournament or Hip-Hop concerts and music conventions that will position it as the definitive Hip-Hop game for lovers of the culture. Now, let’s see whether Activision realizes what they have with this title, or if they continue down the path of a ‘Top 40 Radio Station’ bundling games with random mixes from unpopular DJs and water the series down until it appeals to no one.