DJ Hero

The over­looked beat-jug­gling mu­sic work­out that scratched a unique itch


Freestyle Games has never seemed par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the easy life. For its first game, the 2006 re­lease B-Boy, the UK stu­dio had to work out how to tool a break­danc­ing game around PSP’s D-pad and but­tons. For its most re­cent re­lease, Gui­tar

Hero Live, it re­designed the se­ries’ clas­sic five-but­ton con­troller, then used ro­bot cam­eras and hun­dreds of actors to film a live-ac­tion game where your crowd and band­mates re­sponded to your per­for­mance. Game devel­op­ment is, ul­ti­mately, a mat­ter of solv­ing prob­lems, but few stu­dios have gone so far out of their way to cre­ate so many headaches for them­selves as Freestyle.

DJ Hero was the most prob­lem­atic of them all, and it feels like lit­tle co­in­ci­dence that it’s also Freestyle’s finest work to date. While B-Boy’s con­trol sys­tem was dif­fi­cult to design, at least the project be­gan with some­thing to work from in Sony’s PSP. And while Gui­tar Hero Live in­volved mak­ing a new gui­tar con­troller, Freestyle at least had a decade’s worth of plas­tic-gui­tar games to work from when de­sign­ing both the pe­riph­eral and the way that songs would be played on it. But with DJ Hero, it had noth­ing. First, it would have to de­fine how two turnta­bles and a mixer could be mean­ing­fully, plau­si­bly con­densed to a sin­gle pe­riph­eral of rea­son­able size. Then it would have to work out how the game would be played; how the mu­sic would be mapped onto the con­troller’s var­i­ous in­puts, then how the genre-stan­dard de­scend­ing note chart could be adapted to con­vey this new in­for­ma­tion. It would have to feel right, both to the ex­pe­ri­enced beat­matcher and to the novice whose only prior in­ter­ac­tion with a DJ booth had been a drunk­enly barked re­quest for their party banger of choice.

It would have to go fur­ther than that, too, but let’s start with the ba­sics. DJ Hero’s con­troller is a sin­gle turntable – a spinnable plat­ter with three but­tons on the left-hand side, coloured green, red and blue. To the side sits a cross­fader, an ef­fects dial, a but­ton to trig­ger Eupho­ria mode, and a panel that flips up to re­veal a D-pad and set of face but­tons, used for nav­i­gat­ing menus. As the note chart de­scends, you’ll tap the plat­ter but­tons to trig­ger sam­ples, flick­ing the cross­fader to the left, right or neu­tral po­si­tion in time with abrupt doglegs in the chart, parts of the mix cut­ting out and back in ac­cord­ingly. Suc­cess­ful in­puts raise a mul­ti­plier, which can be dou­bled by trig­ger­ing Eupho­ria (ac­quired, as in other mu­sic games, by per­fect­ing spe­cific song sec­tions) or with a rewind, a back­wards spin of the plat­ter let­ting you re­play the past few bars. Ju­di­cious use of both is es­sen­tial in reach­ing a high score and five-star rat­ing; Eupho­ria au­to­mates the cross­fader, mak­ing it vi­tal for pass­ing tricky sec­tions, while rewinds are best used to re­play busy song sec­tions to max­imise the score bonus.

Well, we call it a ‘song’, but it’s the wrong word. These are called ‘mixes’, and are mashups of fa­mous and not-so-fa­mous tunes from across the decades. Ev­ery mu­sic game is a re­flec­tion of its creator’s mu­si­cal taste: Rez show­cases Tet­suya Mizuguchi’s love of repet­i­tive beats, while the orig­i­nal

Gui­tar Hero is a re­flec­tion of Har­monix staffers’ af­fec­tion for buzzing, crunch­ing, wail­ing gui­tars. DJ Hero shows that hip-hop runs deep in Freestyle Games’ veins, but it goes fur­ther than that. It shows that the stu­dio un­der­stands what makes a mashup – blend­ing two recog­nis­able tunes in smart, sur­pris­ing, of­ten funny ways – and what makes good turntab­lism, where DJ-ing stops be­ing just about a party and starts to re­sem­ble a sport. So hip-hop gets mashed up with pop, funk, soul, rock, techno – any­thing that shares, or can be sped up or slowed down to share, a hip-hop tempo – and is played back in a way that re­quires an es­ca­lat­ing amount of flick­ing switches and press­ing but­tons in time to the beat.

It meant adding an ad­di­tional layer of com­plex­ity to what was al­ready a very dif­fi­cult project. Not only did Freestyle have to design a con­troller from scratch, and work out how mu­sic could be played on it; it had to design the mu­sic it­self, too, tak­ing sets of two well-known tunes and mak­ing some­thing new out of them – some­thing that would be fun to play, sure, but also de­signed to get a dance­floor mov­ing. Freestyle Games was the hard­ware de­signer, the soft­ware de­signer and now, on top of that, the DJ and pro­ducer as well.

The so­lu­tion in­volved out­sourc­ing to some of the big­gest names in the game –

both fig­u­ra­tively and, later, through the ad­di­tion of in-game avatars, lit­er­ally. Eminem and Jay-Z were con­sul­tants; the likes of DJ Shadow, Jazzy Jeff and Cut Chemist con­trib­uted mixes to the game, as did Grand­mas­ter Flash, the turntab­lism pi­o­neer who also voices the in­tro­duc­tory tu­to­rial. Work be­gan with a straight mashup, typ­i­cally com­puter pro­grammed but which could plau­si­bly be played on two decks and a mixer. Then the ‘game­play’ ver­sion would be cre­ated, the real-world stars or Freestyle’s designers adding rapid cross­fader cuts, im­plau­si­ble scratches and vol­leys of over­laid ef­fects. When mak­ing a

Gui­tar Hero game, a de­signer can only ever ap­prox­i­mate the real thing, con­dens­ing six strings and 22 frets onto a six-but­ton con­trol scheme. By the time a DJ Hero mix was com­plete, it let the player per­form some­thing no turntab­list on the planet could ever do with their bare hands in a live set­ting. Fa­mous gui­tarists ev­ery­where used to line up to crit­i­cise Gui­tar Hero for its sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of the in­stru­ment; DJ Hero, by con­trast, was like an Ac­tion Re­play cartridge for beat-jug­glers.

The re­sults can be as­ton­ish­ing, thor­oughly dance­able and of­ten truly sur­pris­ing. Load up the mix of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine, for in­stance, and you’ll be faced with a 130bpm UK-garage bass work­out. No good DJ fears the odd bit of low-hang­ing fruit, mind you, and the blend of Ice, Ice Baby and U Can’t Touch This works ex­actly as you’d ex­pect, and is all the bet­ter for it. Else­where, you’ll find play­ful lyri­cal com­bi­na­tions – Queen and Daft Punk hook up for a re­frain of ‘We will, we will ro­bot rock’, while a re­pur­posed For­eigner cho­rus now speaks of a DJ hero, in­stead of a juke­box one – and all man­ner of cross-genre sound­clashes: Dizzee Ras­cal over Jus­tice, Young MC atop Daft Punk, The Beastie Boys on Blondie. The re­sult isn’t just a fine sound­track for a mu­sic game, but a rump-shak­ing party playlist to boot.

And one, mer­ci­fully it turns out, with no fail state. Miss­ing notes sim­ply means part of the mix is ab­sent for a few beats, and im­pacts your score and star rat­ing. No one ever calls for a rewind when the DJ’s just dropped a clanger, af­ter all. But you’ll want to get bet­ter, not least be­cause to hear the ‘true’ ver­sion of a mix you’ll need to play on the high­est dif­fi­culty, Ex­pert. When play­ing

Gui­tar Hero, you’ll be strum­ming along to the same song re­gard­less of the dif­fi­culty level; the num­ber of notes you have to hit sim­ply scales down as you lower the dif­fi­culty. Yet in DJ Hero, re­mov­ing a note, cut or scratch also means re­mov­ing the ef­fect it pro­duces from the mix it­self; this is a game whose sound­track im­proves along with your skill level, pro­vid­ing not just a new chal­lenge, but also a new re­sult.

That as­sumes, of course, that you can get to Ex­pert with­out your hand drop­ping off. In the fi­nal third of the game Freestyle

DJ Jazzy Jeff and Daft Punk are among the acts to fea­ture as playable char­ac­ters, as well as con­tribut­ing mixes to the game

As well as li­censed stars, DJHero fea­tures a se­lec­tion of stan­dard avatars, and are­nas to play in – from jump­ing block par­ties to neon-lit fes­ti­vals

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