Activision’s DJ Hero celebrates the origins of turntable-based music in appropriate fashion: It pushes the rhythm-game craze forward by swinging back around to its roots. Before developer Harmonix dropped the first Guitar Hero, the company created games in which little robot DJs flipped between rails of light, activating and essentially remixing songs by acts familiar and obscure. DJ Hero, by Freestyle Games, modifies that concept with a unique turntable controller. The experience of playing captures the DJ’s allure and gives players a glimpse of hip-hop’s origins.
The controller features a turntable platter and mixer inputs. Onscreen, three colored lines represent music; corresponding colored buttons on the platter activate beats. Hold a button and “scratch” the platter to create familiar wiki-warped sounds. More important is the crossfader, the three-position slider next to the turntable. Real crossfaders let DJs rapidly emphasize and/or mix the sounds of multiple records. Here, the fader is the crucial element that elevates the game above wack simulation.
Players don’t actually create or mix songs, but unlike in Guitar Hero, the 94 tracks are unique mixes created for the game. Dross stains the playlist, but many mixes are truly good (DJ Shadow and Dizzee Rascal), while others are chunky and fun (Daft Punk and Queen). Songs recur as raw material; “Hollaback Girl” shows up three times, but then “Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City” gets two nods, so things almost balance. The hook is always the crossfader, through which players mimic the hand of the real mix artist bouncing between tracks.
DJ Hero only nods to multiplayer. A guitar peripheral can be used to riff around with some songs, while the head-to-head mode doesn’t even hint at the competitive one-upsmanship seen in classic DJ battles. This is a paint-by-numbers imitation of real creation, but an intriguingly truthful one. The big beats are meant to foster a loss of control—they’re the dance version of Ozzy screaming at metalheads “Go fucking crazy!”—but mastery requires pure, specific precision. While there are none of the wild moments of genesis—your accidental fader slip is just a mistake, and doesn’t produce an unexpectedly perfect beat—there’s also little sting of failure. You can’t fail; miss every beat cue, on any difficulty level, and the record spins on.