I spent close to five hours this past Saturday watching complete strangers play video games. And it was fun. The event was bar/venue the Red Room's first Guitar Hero tournament, and it brought out a slew of eager video-shredders and their respective posses of drunkenly encouraging friends.
Guitar Hero is an increasingly popular video game that operates sort of like a rock 'n' roll Dance Dance Revolution (complete with screaming fans and pyrotechnics). It features a smallish, plastic guitar "controller" that has colored buttons along its neck and a "strumming" toggle. Players hit the toggle and colored buttons simultaneously as corresponding colored lights appear along an onscreen fretboard; the frequency of lights and difficulty of their placement increases across four levels, and players can use the whammy bar or hit consecutive "star notes" to earn "star power"—a point-racking phase activated by tilting the guitar vertically.
Red Room owner Jeremy Judy says the tourney is "not a very original idea." When he and his wife/co-owner, Tina, contacted RedOctane Inc.—the publisher of Guitar Hero II (released Nov. 7) and the night's official sponsor—about setting up a tourney, they discovered an entire subculture devoted to such events: G.H.O.U.L., the "Guitar Hero Organized Underground League" (forum.guitarherogame.com).
The Judys ended up with 30 or so contestants and at least as many folks filling up the bar (they ran out of both draft PBR and jalapeño poppers). During the first round of 2-out-of-3 matches (in which many, many contestants chose to play Pantera's "Cowboys from Hell"), it seemed competitors and bar-goers alike favored Tommy Kiser—a Silent Bob-lookin' guy who brought his own ax in a Guitar Hero gig bag—to win. I decided to root, however, for 29-year-old, muscle-tee-wearin' Russ Wallis—who claims his 10 years of actual guitar playing has little, if any, effect on his Guitar Hero skills.
Another top contender, 26-year-old Brandon Erickson—a Yale alum and graduate student at Lewis & Clark College—proved his chops in a surprising, second round upset against Kiser; the song was Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein," which Erickson mentioned he's only passingly familiar with thanks to an episode of The Simpsons where Homer flashes back to the '70s.
And it seems gaming skills have far more to do with playing Guitar Hero than actual guitar prowess or even music knowledge. Erickson, who triumphantly won the tourney in a head-to-head final playing Helmet's "Unsung" and "Fat Lip" by Sum 41 (on the game's expert level), previously appeared in WW ("Return of the Jedi," WW, March 23, 2005) when he attempted to set the world-record high score on classic arcade game Star Wars. And though he's been playing Guitar Hero for only two weeks (the shortest period of any competitor I spoke with), Erickson assured me that, like a true competitive gamer, he's been playing it "a lot."
Erickson won his choice of either Guitar Hero II or $50 (he took the game). Red Room (2530 NE 82nd Ave., 256-3399) patrons can play Guitar Hero II for free every day from 4 pm to 2:30 am. The Judys plan to host a tournament every six months; see myspace.com/redroomportland for upcoming events.