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System: PlayStation2
Developer: Harmonix
Publisher: Activision
Price: Rape

We need to stop pissing around and set a couple unspoken rules in stone. One candidate would be that no video game expansion should ever be more than thirty bucks. Once I’ve bought the original, you could package sex with Sophia Loren (I’m thinking the 1968 model here) as an expansion feature and I wouldn’t put down more than three Hamiltons.

Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks The ’80s has (a) a terrible title and (b) the balls to ask us to pay full price for an ‘encore’. I don’t know where to put the blame on this one — I have almost unbounded faith in Harmonix, so the tendency is to assume that it’s Activision that cheaped out. In the end I don’t care whose fault it is. This is a half-price package wearing a full price tag. Now I know how Pearl Jam felt fighting Ticketmaster. Activision owes big for making me feel like Pearl Jam.

The short version: this disc packs thirty songs, which is less than half the tracklist of Guitar Hero II. No new characters, and while the returning cast from GHII each has a new outfit, there’s only one for each. No new guitar skins, either. The venues all return from the last game, though each features a few minor changes. Even the load screen slogans are mostly the same. Nothing like hearing the same between-song banter at different shows to make the gig feel canned.

The long version: goddamn, some of these songs are fun to play. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the tracklist from people who were obviously born after 1985. If you were around at the time and into rock, the only song here you wouldn’t have heard somewhere is the one by Limozeen, since that’s the jokey Homestar Runner band and the one concession to the now-classic Guitar Hero bonus track lineup.

Whether you’d want to hear many of them again is a different story, but what the hell is wrong with you when Ratt’s ‘Round and Round’ doesn’t pull a chuckle? As a kid once marginalized for my metal fandom it’s amazing to me to see ‘Caught In A Mosh’ and ‘Electric Eye’ in the game’s setlist alongside more mainstream-vetted tracks like ‘Turning Japanese’ and that Flock of Seagulls song that has inexplicably become an ironic hipster anthem.

Ih that sense, this tracklist is an anthropological case study in the ebb and flow of popularity. Where else are you going to find a Dead Kennedys and Winger song side-by-side?

Fortunately, it’s a lot more fun to play than it is to study. The aforementioned tracks all have their appeal, as do more unlikely hits like ‘Wrathchild’ and ‘Hold On Loosely’. (The latter has always been a satisfying classic-rock staple, but it’s also a treat to play.)

I hadn’t realized that I missed the eccentric, wildly careening ’80s guitar solo until now, and while I’m not praying for a radio comeback, these lead lines are fucking blistering onscreen. I mean that literally; I’ve been trying to tackle the Expert level of Nuno Bettencourt’s playing and I can barely type in his wake. Extreme was a shitty band and ‘Play With Me’ is purely insipid, but goddamn, it’s engrossingly difficult to master.

It’s the unexpected tracks, as always, that make this disc a worthy, if grossly overpriced comp. X’s ‘Los Angeles’; Oingo Boingo’s ‘Only A Lad’; even ‘What I Like About You’ by The Romantics. While there are tracks that hammer away in 1/8 and 1/16th notes at one fret button for an entire verse, many of the songs in the setlist force rapid, endless chord changes and zinging single-note accents that are very easy to miss. Mastering this set, short as it is, presents just as much of a challenge as Guitar Hero II did, and I’d dare say it’s more fun.

There are a few speed bumps, still. In the fourth and fifth song tiers there are songs that earn their spot only by providing a difficult solo; ‘Ain’t Nothing But A Good Time’ isn’t tough at all until the lead, when you’ll hit twenty finger-straining seconds of play.

On Expert, you’ll get through the first nine songs and then hit a wall at the pseudo-Buckethead solo in Limozeen’s track. In fact, the solos from that point on get progressively insane, to the point where even experienced players will find themselves flailing through. And since this was the ’80s, when attitude trumped chops, there’s not always a musical pattern to figure out. But that’s when you crack a smile, realizing that you’re not flailing any more than the original players were.

Multiplayer remains just as much fun as ever, particularly in co-op. Here’s where you’ll find the sixteenth note bonanza, but there’s also the joy of throwing down the ‘Wrathchild’ and ‘Caught In A Mosh’ basslines, and you can impress your friends by learning the ‘Radar Love’ line quickly, then playing the track without even facing the screen.

But forget everything I just said. Give Activision the finger and wait until this is priced commensurate with the volume of content included. Or split the cost with a friend, or just steal it. After all, that’s what Activision is trying to do with this price point. Just because they’ve learned the ’80s lesson of self-serving greed doesn’t mean we should let them get away with it.

7 out of 10
(At the $50 price point.)