The Thrill Is Gone for Guitar Hero and Rock Band

I almost bought Guitar Hero 5 the other day. Key word: almost.

It's been a while since I've indulged. Music games did something bad to me; they made me into a person I didn't like. The initial Playskool musician's high dragged me in and wouldn't let me go, and when that euphoria stopped kicking in, when it took more hits, harder and faster, to get me off, the lows just got lower and lower.

It was an ugly time. All it took to set me off was an un-synced guitar, a missed riff, a poorly-rendered tattoo. After a particularly brutal session, I retired Dr. Wang, my Rock Band persona, and fired the Wangtones, my backup band. (I don't think they noticed—as far as they could tell, we just started playing other games.)

The real world has no Rehab Hero. If you want to quit, you have accept the ugliness of it and quit clean. Put it on a pyre and walk off to the light of it. Go about your business, citizen—nothing to see here but a man with twitchy fingers and the clicks of a fake fretboard echoing in his ears.

But that initial rush still lingers. Other games come and go, but building virtual rock gods out of polygons and rhythm exercises? On a very basic level, that's a trip that gets me, man. It understands. I've lived in a house free of its influence for more than a year, but every now and then, I get the urge to pick up an ugly piece of molded plastic and play "Sabotage" on repeat until my girlfriend threatens to report my actions as domestic abuse.

So every time I see a sale, my mind fills itself with feverish, unbidden calculations. How cheaply can I find a used guitar? Are my old downloaded songs still attached to by Xbox, or do I need to pick up some Microsoft Funbux to finance a trip down memory lane? Will the Wangtones ever be able to pull off "Won't Get Fooled Again"? (Truth be told, the Wangtones kinda sucked.)

I'm a lucky man. My bad habits, such as they are, are self-defeating. Publishers Electronic Arts and Activision have throttled the golden geese, turning the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises into a twisted visage of the very thing they emulate. Like the rock star whose sudden rise precipitates an equally meteoric fall, these franchises have ridden waves of hype and self-aggrandizement to fame and fortune—and, inevitably, the chilling backlash of overexposure.

The honeymoon may be over for music game purists, but the bandwagon phase remains in full swing. More than a dozen retail releases bore one of the twin titans' names in 2009. That's more Madden than Madden itself. The little franchises that could are now a hype train more oversaturated, more fundamentally wrong, than a Thomas Kinkade blood orgy.

Maybe I'm just a purist, an addict who likes his liquor straight and his cocaine sniffed from the small of a stripper's back, but something feels out of place when Taylor Swift is hawking Band Hero, Lego figures have their own Rock Band, and the digitized specter of Kurt Cobain is forever doomed to purgatory as an unlockable character in Guitar Hero 5. The series I loved enough to learn to hate have lost something. I left Guitar Hero and Rock Band behind; the games I see now look more like Now! That's What I Call Crappy Music 17.

Why all the whoring? Because the real moneymaker—the downloadable tracks that have generated 120 million songs' worth of revenue for the two franchises—can't shake itself. The sharks circling Mom and Pop's wallets don't think the old-timers have it in them to understand that a plastic card with a number on it that makes the video game iTunes on Junior's Wiitendo work constitutes a "real" gift. One phone call later, Van Halen (minus Van Hagar) have themselves a Guitar Hero spin-off. Anything to keep the name in print, right?

At least I'm in good (or copious) company. Despite considerable DLC numbers, franchise sales have been slipping for the past two years, dropping by nearly $500 million between 2008 and 2009. Mom and Pop might have caught on to the idea that one game will play most of a franchise's DLC. Junior might not need a guitar with 20 extra buttons and more touchpads than Best Buy's notebook department. The sharks might have fallen victim to an end run. People might not be idiots after all. I can stop holding my breath.

Mom and Pop can have it, though. The publishers may smell the change in the air soon enough to avoid killing it off altogether, but the genre may never regain the improbable veneer that made it attractive in the first place. It never was particularly indie, or even particularly legitimate, but they've gone too far and dug in too deep for me to keep the fantasy going. If I want to pretend to be different, I'll have to take up Wii Music ironically.

I just can't stand it anymore. Thank God.