Frets on Fire is an open source clone of the ever-popular PlayStation 2 music/rhythm game Guitar Hero. It’s a free download and is available for Windows, Linux and the Mac, though the Mac version is experimental.
Just like Guitar Hero, Frets on Fire features a handful of songs and allows you to play the guitar sections with just a few keys. Instead of using a separate controller to mimic the guitar, Frets on Fire lets you pick up the keyboard and jam right in front of your desk. Best of all, a built-in editor lets you tab any song, spawning a growing community of music-modders on the web.
After choosing a song from a stack of cassettes, a wire image of a guitar bridge shows on screen running from the foreground and vanishing into the distance. Five colored blocks line the bottom, each one representing a different key. Hold your keyboard like a guitar with the fret keys by your left hand and the pick (Enter) by your right (reverse for us lefties). When the song begins, notes scroll down the screen and you must press the fret keys at the right time while tapping Enter to play the sound. Time it right and the song plays just as if you were listening to the real thing. Make a mistake and you’ll hear distorted guitar noise followed by a deafening (and defeated) silence.
The Frets on Fire download comes with a few well-made songs to get you started, each one with several difficulty levels to hone your skills. The online forum features many more tunes from other players, though they won’t share a space on the global high score board and usually feature just one or two levels of difficulty.
Rhythm games add an entirely new dimension of fun to gaming: aural rewards. Frets on Fire takes that to a new level by allowing you re-create familiar tunes with nothing more than your keyboard. The reward isn’t getting a high score, it’s listening to the song playing on your speakers and knowing you were responsible for that. The feeling you get when you effortlessly land an impossible combination is amazing.
The in-game interface couldn’t be simpler, but selecting songs can be cumbersome if you have a large playlist. The song editor is also a bit awkward and will take some practice before you can create anything decent. And while holding your keyboard like a guitar is the best way to go, Frets of Fire is just as playable on a flat desktop. Also worth mentioning is the extremely entertaining tutorial. Your host, Jurgen Guntherswarchzhaffenstrassen, walks you through the game and proves that he is, indeed, much cooler than you are.
As a warning to anyone with children: Frets on Fire is kid-safe, but like any game that encourages user-created content, not everything you download will be suitable. The tunes that come with Frets of Fire are alright, but some of the songs tagged by users may contain objectionable language.
The game doesn’t really need anything flashier than the cartoon-isque animation it already has.
This is the best part. It’s you who gets to decide how the game sounds, mistah! Mine sucked big time, though.