Ah, the holidays. It’s a magical time. A special time. A perfect time for family, friends, and one-on-one multiplayer Guitar Hero Live matches.

The holiday season is a boon for the video game industry. It’s the one reliable month when nearly every gamer is at the store, opening their wallets and hearts, and purchasing electronic gifts for their loved ones. When we were kids (if we were lucky), an expensive, big ticket item might have been under the tree. Maybe it was a Super Nintendo, which usually sold out at the local Toys "R" Us. On the news, there were always rumors of brawls at Funcoland, when two parents spotted the last Sega Genesis at the same time. But for those lucky souls who beat the odds, there was sweet, sweet redemption.

For most of the year that wasn’t December, especially before the days of online multiplayer, you had to find a Player 2 to complement your Player 1. And this was easier said than done. Many of us had a sibling, but therein lay the dilemma. If you had a younger sibling, you had to take it easy on him or her. If you had an older sibling, he or she would have to take it easy on you. So most of us scheduled weekend playdates with our friends, or week-long binges during our summer vacations.

 

The holiday season, however, brought in a sudden, exciting influx of opponents. Your cousin Richie was over at the crib. And so was cousin Bea. And so was cousin Steve. Finally, some new people to rock out with! And since you only saw them once a year, the anticipation of your next duel grew and grew as the date got closer.

It was time to put away the RPGs and other single player experiences. Even two player experiences which alternated between Player 1 and Player 2 weren’t preferable, because one person would always be bored. The best games for the holiday season were co-op or versus, which had both players on the screen at the same time, throwing down. The guitar controller and the bass controller. Someone had to play the lead, and someone else could work on keeping the rhythm.

Today, the rhythm game genre is making a comeback in a big way, and is being re-innovated most recently by Guitar Hero Live. But in the early to mid-’90s, family reunions were dominated by fighting games. Lots of kung-fu, fists, and boots to asses. If we wanted to work together, our best bet was a beat ‘em up game. Kick some ass, walk to the right. Kick some ass, walk to the right. Lather, rinse, repeat. There were many games that fulfilled this purpose—games like Streets of Rage 2, with its manic, techno soundtrack, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, which was probably the closest video game adaptation of a cartoon that we ever got. 

But if you weren’t in the mood for taking down wave after wave of enemies, or if you straight up didn’t like your cousin, your best bet was to pop in a one-on-one fighting game—it was the closest you would ever get to fighting him for real. Street Fighter II was the obvious choice. Were you going to play as the Yoga mystic? Or the jungle beast? Or the karate guru? What we loved about games like Street Fighter was their diversity. Everyone could pick his or her favorite, and if Chun Li’s kung-fu didn’t work, E. Honda’s sumo style might.

Fighting games have always been, and continue to remain, ideal holiday games. But as technology improved, team sports titles became another de facto choice. It started with NBA Jam and Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, and just got more and more sophisticated, year after year. There were more features to add on, and more options to encompass the complexity of their respective sports. And so today, we have sports games that are more accurately referred to as sports simulators, and can continue the competition online, long after your cousins have flown back home.

The technology of the mid to late-’90s gave rise to car games, which were always popular at the local arcade, but finally had the 3-D processing to look great on a console. Mario Kart 64 was the perfect game for the holidays, allowing up to four players to take on Rainbow Road simultaneously. And if your younger brother fell way behind, he still had a chance—maybe the next Question Mark would contain a Blue Shell, and he could change the outcome of the entire race. An older audience might have gone with Twisted Metal 2 on the Playstation. There was no better feeling than taking Hammerhead and running over your older cousin’s Sweet Tooth. At least for one single, sweet moment, you were bigger than him.

Fighting games. Sports games. Car games. These three genres were, and continue to be, the  most popular holiday choices. But starting in the mid-’00s, party games—games designed to be played and watched by large audiences—skyrocketed to popularity. We had Mario Party, with its assorted mini-games. We had Super Smash Bros: Melee, a fighting game whose chaotic nature was as fun to watch as it was to play. We had Wii Sports, whose motion controls vaulted the Wii to the top selling console of its generation. Gaming was becoming a lifestyle choice that crossed generations. And during the holidays, even a casual gamer could pick up Wii Sports and try his hand at swinging a tennis racket. It was exciting to see older gamers who had come full circle, and were rediscovering a passion that they had left behind with their old Ataris.

Image via Vincent Diamante on Flickr

And then, in the mid to late-’00s, a brand new genre dominated the holiday get-togethers for years to come—the rhythm-music genre. Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero 2 were the innovators, but Guitar Hero 3 was the title that hit all expectations out of the park. It was the top selling game the year it came out, and it allowed you to play as the greatest rock star legends to ever pick up an axe (Tom Morello and Slash, to name a few). 

After our holiday feast, we’d all try, one last time, to take down “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” and “Through The Fire And Flames.” Guitar Hero World Tour elaborated upon the prior three titles by adding a full band. Now, you could play the drums, or the bass, or the guitar, or the vocals. There was something for all family members to do and have fun with, even if they had never picked up a controller in their lifetimes.

And now, after a brief hiatus, the Guitar Hero franchise has made its triumphant return with Guitar Hero Live. It’s ideal for this year’s holiday setting. It comes with Online Versus, Offline Co-op, and Split Screen. And the new guitar peripheral has a 6-fret structure—your sibling can play with three buttons, on one “string,” but a more experienced cousin will have to shift his fingers, and simultaneously play two “strings,” to create a chord. Easier to pick up. More difficult for a veteran to master. Old axe vets, expecting more of the same, will be in for a surprise. Everything old feels new again.

For the first time in the franchise, Guitar Hero Live has live crowd reactions, rather than cartoon avatars. And depending on how well you perform the song, your bandmates and fans react accordingly. If you’re doing well, you’ll get raised eyebrows and smiles of encouragement. 

 

Lastly, Guitar Hero Live comes with GHTV, which gives players access to streaming music video channels with hundreds of guitar tracks. Truly, there’s something there for everyone, and it’s not a bunch of no-name tracks; the GH developers got the rights to some truly classic songs. Are you a heavy metal buff? You can perform Disturbed’s “Down With The Sickness.” You like to mix in a little rap action with that heavy metal? You can perform Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing In The Name Of.” And more songs, both classic and modern, are regularly added to this 24-hour jukebox, ensuring that you’ll never run out of music to jam to.

So this holiday season, whether people are coming over to your place, or you’re going over to someone else’s, be prepared. Buy the food, wrap the gifts, and start talking with your cousins about what games you want to play. Because this only happens once a year, and after eggnog, egos are going to be on the line.