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Overview

Guitar Hero was a series of rhythm games based around playing along to music using a guitar-shaped peripheral.  Since the release of the first game in 2005, there have been 14 games made under the Guitar Hero name. 

Gameplay

A Guitar Hero guitar controller.
The core gameplay of Guitar Hero is simple.  Players must hold down colored fret buttons on the top of the guitar controller which correspond to five different colors of note gems that can appear on screen.  When these gems cross through a bar at the bottom of the screen, the player "strums" the guitar's plastic bar, in lieu of plucking strings, to register the note as played and earn points.  As the player plays more and more notes correctly, they earn a multiplier for their score, which can reach as high as 4x.  This multiplier resets with each miss.
 
As the player increases in difficulty, there are a number of different variations on the basic strummed note that they could encounter.  Notes with long tails must be held to earn maximum points; notes with white centers can be tapped quickly after playing the prior note without strumming again; pair or trios of notes must be played simultaneously, resulting in sometimes awkward hand positioning.
 
Players are given a "Rock Meter," colored red to yellow to green, to judge their performance.  A player completes a song by not allowing their Rock Meter to get to the bottom.
 
Star-shaped notes will also appear during the course of the song which, if all of them in a group are hit without a miss or an accidental strum between them, will give the player "Star Power."  Should the player earn enough Star Power, they can activate it by either tilting the top of their guitar controller upwards or by pressing Select.  This doubles the player's multiplier, and allows for each note played to have a much higher positive effect on their Rock Meter, making it a potential lifesaver should they get into trouble.
 
Players can play the songs in either a free play setting or in career mode.  While the specifics of career mode have changed from game to game, the basic premise involves playing the game's songs in increasing difficulty, ending with what is usually the most challenging song in the game.  A stronger performance means more money is rewarded; this money can be used to buy new in-game guitars, new outfits, new characters, or unlock new songs.

Timeline

The idea was conceived by RedOctane, who saw the success of GuitarFreaks in Japan and wanted to create a similar game for the western market.  RedOctane approached Harmonix Music Systems, who were known for music games such as Amplitude and Frequency, and the two companies collaborated to create the original Guitar Hero.  The game proved to be a surprise hit, and a sequel, Guitar Hero II, came out a year later, with an expansion, Rocks the 80s, coming out shortly after that.
 
Soon after the game's release, Harmonix was purchased by MTV Games, while RedOctane were purchased by Activision.  Retaining the rights to the game franchise, Red Octane would work with Neversoft, known primarily for the Tony Hawk series, to create future Guitar Hero titles.
 
The first title produced after the split of RedOctane and Harmonix was Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, a game that took the series in a few new directions.  A two-player battle mode was introduced, which was in turn applied to the career in the form of boss battles against real-life rock stars, namely Slash and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello.  Additionally, difficulty in the series was ratcheted up to an all-time high, with some of the series' most difficult songs making an appearance.
 
Guitar Hero: Aerosmith allowed players to play as legendary rock group Aerosmith.
2008's Guitar Hero: Aerosmith represented another new concept for the brand: a Guitar Hero game focused solely on one band.  The game featured a majority of songs written and performed by Aerosmith, as well as the the band themselves as playable characters.  The remainder of the track list was filled out by artists whose songs inspired or were inspired by Aerosmith.
 
The series also broke new ground in another way in 2008, by leaving the world of the home console for portable gaming.  Guitar Hero: On Tour was a game for the Nintendo DS, marking the first Guitar Hero title not for a console.  The game cartridge was fashioned into a small set of four fret buttons, similar to the plastic guitars used in the home versions.  Players used a stylus on the DS' touch screen to strum in time with the song.  On Tour has itself spawned two sequels, Guitar Hero On Tour: Decades and Guitar Hero On Tour: Modern Hits.

The biggest jump forward for the series came with the 2008 release of Guitar Hero World Tour.  World Tour reinvented the Guitar Hero formula, adding drums and vocals to the mix along with guitars.  Instead of playing just the guitar track of a song, players could form full bands to play, much as in the Rock Band series of games.  GHWT was also the first Guitar Hero game to feature entirely master tracks of the songs in the games, not an amalgam of master tracks and recorded covers.  
 
World Tour also featured GHStudio, a recording studio that could be used in the game to record tracks.  These tracks would then also be playable in-game alongside the recorded releases from major artists.
 
From here, Activision started releasing Guitar Hero titles at breakneck pace.  A second band-specific offering, Guitar Hero: Metallica, was released, featuring the iconic 1980s and 90s metal legends.  Guitar Hero: Smash Hits was a rerelease of sorts, taking different songs from the prior releases of games, updating them for the new four-instrument format and rereleasing them in a new package.  Finally, Guitar Hero: Van Halen marked the third band-centric title in the series, but despite featuring one of the more popular rock acts of all time, the game was widely panned and considered one of the weakest Guitar Hero games.
 
Guitar Hero 5 was the direct sequel to World Tour, and is the most recent of the "main" Guitar Hero games thus far.  GH5 refined the gameplay engine from World Tour and put more of a focus on party play, allowing players to freely drop in and out of games and, most unusually, allowing for bands that consisted of something other than the traditional guitar, bass, drums and vocals.  GH5 also introduced a challenge system into career mode, where players could earn unlockables for doing something beyond achieving a high score.
 
Band Hero, released in 2009, is a game largely similar to Guitar Hero 5, except for its tracklist.  While Guitar Hero 5 is more of an alternative rock-focused setlist, Band Hero features more mainstream pop and rock tracks to create a more "family-friendly" game. 
 
The latest game in the franchise, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, was released in September 2010.  Warriors of Rock featured a story mode where characters could transform into various creatures and obtain character-specific bonuses.
 
On February 2011, Activision stated they have cancelled all future games in the Guitar Hero franchise.  It was originally stated that all Downloadable Content for the franchise would end after February.  However, due to fan support, Activision has decided to continue providing DLC.

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