Something fresh.

When DJ Hero released back in 2009, it wasn’t the most opportune time for the Guitar Hero spin-off to be hitting the market. The Great Recession and the somewhat ubiquitous rhythm games were considerations that consumers had to take into account before spending money on a game that required a peripheral turntable-and-mixer controller setup, further inflating costs.

Cowen and Company analyst Doug Creutz noted that demand for the game prior to launch was “well below” expectations, leading to anticipated sales figures being slashed, as reported by Colin Sebastian, then-analyst at Lazard Capital Markets raised similar concerns, pointing out that the game’s price tag could be an issue for publisher Activision at a time when “consumers are still showing price sensitivity,” as reported by Gamasutra.

DJ Hero turntable-mixer picture
The controller comprises a mixer and turntable to be connected. (Picture credit: Activision.)

After a relatively slow start, DJ Hero sales apparently passed the seven-figure mark nine months after its release, as reported by Ars Technica, when Dan Amrich of Activision claimed 1.2 million copies of the game had been sold.

The game kick-started a new (short-lived) spin-off series, but what did it succeed and fail at? A decade after its release, how does DJ Hero hold up today? Let’s take a retrospective look at it.

DJ Shadow appears as a playable character. (Picture credit: Activision.)

DJ Hero introduces gamers to the world of turntablism – the art of using turntables and mixers in unconventional ways to create unique and complex sounds as well as manipulating and creating music in real time. The game is not as convoluted as that description sounds. Just as the Guitar Hero instalments are, in essence, guitar simulation music games, DJ Hero is very much their turntablism counterpart and the core game mechanics are essentially the same.

As with any game of this genre, the objective is rhythmic accuracy. The user interface should be familiar to players of the Guitar Hero games, except the notes that players are tasked with hitting are placed on three ‘channels’ – left, middle, and right positions on a spinning record. Channel selection requires moving the crossfader on the mixer between left, middle, and right, accordingly. Meanwhile, there are three action buttons on the turntable platter. These will have to be pressed in time to what’s shown on screen and held down while rubbing the platter back and forth during scratch sections of the music. ‘Rewinds’ can be performed to redo a limited amount of the song to earn more points.

Don’t make a mistake or the score multiplier will reset. (Picture credit: Activision.)

By stringing together accurate hits and achieving a high streak, the score multiplier will increase. Correctly performing all actions within ‘perfect sections’ of a track (these portions are denoted by its glow) will earn ‘Euphoria’ which when triggered at the player’s discretion will further multiply their score.

At the heart of DJ Hero is an eclectic soundtrack that’s endowed with the spirit of the halcyon days of hip-hop. With 93 tracks on the disc (plus more as downloadable content although these have been removed from online stores), the player is treated to a plethora of blends from different genres (popularly known as mash-ups). A remarkable example of this is the almost anthemic blend of “Monkey Wrench” by The Foo Fighters and “Sabotage” by Beastie Boys (embedded below). This particular mix is one of a handful that makes use of DJ Hero’s support for guitar controllers in multiplayer. Microphones are also supported for select songs.

Between the in-house DJs and producers at now defunct developer FreeStyleGames and external artists including DJ Yoda, Scratch Perverts, DJ AM, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, DJ Z-Trip, and J.Period, a huge joint effort has been made to produce a soundtrack that both celebrates music and provides a way to enjoy it from a new angle. The game can be as difficult and complex as the player wants it to be; enjoying the music is what counts here. However, that’s not to say DJ Hero isn’t interested in being challenging. Try playing “Beats and Pieces” by DMC champions Scratch Perverts on the highest difficulty setting and you’ll know they mean business.

There’s plenty of standout mixes: “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani and “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz, “All Eyez on Me” by 2Pac and “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Aranbee Pop Orchestra, and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye and “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie to name a few.

So-called purists may scoff at remixes and arrangements of tracks that they hold dear, so there’s likely no pleasing them with DJ Hero’s tracklisting. However, players willing to enjoy and interact with music in a new way will get a kick out of the mixes and blends. One wouldn’t necessarily need to be a fan of hip-hop to enjoy DJ Hero’s soundtrack; there’s also rock, dance, and pop music, it’s just presented in a way that draws from hip-hop culture. Hearing the new twists that have been applied to these songs evokes a giddy satisfaction.

The game features an online mode and as of writing, the servers are still in operation (this does not include PlayStation 2 nor Wii) but finding players to battle against may be few and far between, though there’s always local multiplayer to fall back on if additional controllers are available. Online functionality is basic but serviceable as players can compile playlists and compete against each other for the higher score.

Who can get the higher score in ‘versus mode’? (Picture credit: Activision.)

The turntable-mixer controller isn’t perfect. I understand that in order to keep manufacturing costs down, a fair amount of plastic had to be used but to be fair, there’s a bit of weight to it. It’s a shame the crossfader and buttons feel cheap and tacky. I take issue with the action buttons on the platter; alternating between buttons mid-scratch can cause unwanted shifts in momentum which can lead to input errors. On higher difficulty settings where rubs have to be performed in specific directions, this can be frustrating. I would have preferred rubberised pads on the mixer (similar to that of a sampler) to perform the tap-heavy sections of the mixes.

As for the ability to customise the controller setup, players can have the mixer on the left hand side and the turntable on the right, or vice-versa. This is a great option to have and further ensures that players who are left- or right-handed can find a comfortable way to control the crossfader and record.

Can Jazzy Jeff pull off this scratch section flawlessly? (Picture credit: Activision.)

In today’s market, DJ Hero is a last-generation game up against contemporary competition such as Spin Rhythm XD which supports MIDI controllers. Technology comes and goes but music holds more longevity. DJ Hero’s party-ready soundtrack is what makes it memorable, much more so than its funky controller. Typically, video games contain original compositions or licensed tracks but DJ Hero took a chance with the remixed music and it works because they are well-produced, thoughtfully implemented into gameplay, and the unique soundtrack gives the game a cool and fresh identity.

It’s a relatively niche game but DJ Hero does an excellent job of representing a piece of the turntablism element of hip-hop to the video game crowd. Yes, it’s a spin-off but it’s strong enough to stand on its own and step on stage as the main event. DJ Hero embodies the coming together of different styles: conceptually with its homage to turntablism, tangibly with its support for turntable, guitar, and microphone controllers, and musically with its ambitious and wide-ranging soundtrack.

Game title: DJ Hero
Developer: FreeStyleGames (NKA Ubisoft Leamington)
Publisher: Activision
Genre(s): Rhythm
Release date: 30th October, 2009
Available for: PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox 360
Platform reviewed: PlayStation 3