Guitar Hero was the first major success from Harmonix Music Systems, who had developed several other, less successful, rhythm based games before hitting their stride. The game involves using a guitar controller to play along with popular songs. The first Guitar Hero game was a huge success, and the series has spawned numerous sequels, expansion packs, and a spiritual successor, Rock Band.
The gameplay of Guitar Hero is based around a rhythm mechanic. The player uses a guitar shaped controller with five buttons to hit color-coded notes, and a "strum bar" to simulate the picking of strings in time with the music. A "Rock Meter" on the side of the screen indicates the crowd's satisfaction with the performance. Hitting notes raises the meter, missing notes lowers it. Some notes have long tails behind them, indicating that the fret button must be held for the duration of the note. A "Whammy Bar" can be used to gain additional points from these points, as well as producing a tremolo effect. Certain phrases notes are colored white-blue, and hitting these notes gains "Star Power". Star Power is represented by a meter on the side of the screen. When this meter is half-full or more, star power can be deployed by tilting the guitar controller. Doing this doubles the note multiplier, and increases the amount the rock meter is raised with each note hit. This implies that star power can be used for two purposes; surviving difficult song sections, and gaining points on easier ones. It should be noted that most of the songs featured throughout the game are covers by Wavegroup.
The idea for Guitar Hero came from the GuitarFreaks arcade game from Konami. The founders of RedOctane, a company that had been making music game peripherals for some time, wished to bring the same sort of experience to North America. They were successful in raising $1.75 million for the project but were turned down several times. Eventually Harmonix was asked to help with the project and the company agreed to assist in developing the game.
Once development started, the team wasn't sure about the tracklist that was going to be in the game. They mainly wanted to focus on hard rock songs but there were limitations in licenses that they could require for the tracks. The note patterns for songs were created by a Harmonix team and they usually spent a day on each track. Software algorithms that assessed the difficulty of the songs and the quality of the note patterns created by the team were used as well.
In an interview in January 2010, Mad Katz CEO revealed to Kotaku that an Xbox version of the first Guitar Hero was planned, and that they were in charge of it. However Konami threatened to sue and Mad Katz broke off the deal.