I never wanted to be a guitar hero. When I was 8, I wanted to play drums like my best friend John Priestley, but a few klutzy paradiddles set me straight about that. When I was 11, I took six months of trumpet lessons-not exactly fodder for rock-star fantasies. In short, I never did the air-guitar-in-front-of-the-mirror thing. So maybe I'm not the best person to offer an informed assessment of Virtual Guitar, its accompanying CD-ROM game Welcome to West Feedback, and the separately sold next level, Quest for Fame: Featuring Aerosmith (Ahead, CD-ROM for PC, $79.95). Then again, the apparent target audience for these puppies appears to be 14-year-old males with no ax experience whatsoever, so that puts me two out of three.
There are no frets; the strings don't even go up the neck. The strings, in fact, are one string wound around several pegs. This guitar doesn't plug into an amp, either it feeds into a multimedia PC. The object of Welcome to West Feedback is to play the Virtual Guitar well enough to progress from soloing in a bedroom to jamming with a garage band to toplining at one of West Feedback's finer dives. The follow-up game, Quest for Fame, takes you from bar-band glory to grandstanding with Aerosmith at the local Humongodome. Melodic sense isn't needed so much as hand-eye coordination-you match your strums to the increasingly complex pattern of spikes on a Rhythm EKG monitor; eventually, even that visual safety net is taken away and you have to rely on memory.
As glorified arcade games, Feedback and Fame are unquestionably pips. The available songs are mostly brain-dead lite-metal fodder (Motley Crüe's Kickstart My Heart, for instance), but the characterizations of band mates, agents, and rivals are amusingly hammy (Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry appear throughout Fame), the production is slick, and it really does take some skilled timing to nail the beat.
But how does the Virtual Guitar fare as a guitar? Pretty lousy, it seems. For one thing, you just hit the strings and the computer picks the chord. But could it actually teach your average 14-year-old poor musicianship? There's only one person in the Entertainment Weekly office who would know, and that's Carlos.
Carlos works in the imaging lab, where he does weird things to photographs. He only wears black, sports frizzy hair down to his butt, and has played electric guitar ever since he heard Kansas' ''On the Other Side'' when he was 18. Before he came to New York, he toured in a heavy-metal band called Iron Skull, playing Iron Maiden, Ozzy, and Megadeth covers. Carlos is the stuff.
I call him into my office and hand him the guitar and the supplied neon yellow pick. He, of course, carries his own pick at all times. As I start up the game, he glares with lupine scorn at the fretless neck. ''What's going on here?'' he growls during Feedback's first scene. ''I don't know which guitar part to follow.'' He fires off some rapid grace notes, but since they're not where the game wants notes, he loses points. Then comes the dawn: ''It's just like a point-and-shoot game.'' Once Carlos starts seriously trying, he pops every spike with ease.
But he's still ticked off. ''This teaches only one hand,'' he says after playing through a few scenes. ''You don't learn alternate picking. You don't learn sweet picking. The only thing you're learning to do is strum. That's one one-hundredth of what you need to know about guitar.'' Since a player does have to become adept at matching rhythms, though, Carlos thinks Virtual Guitar could teach a kid to become a good...drummer.
So you've got a multimedia reviewer who thinks this is a fairly impressive game, and a semi-pro guitar player who thinks it's a pretty crappy guitar. Neither of us is this toy's primary audience. Instead, the Virtual Guitar was explicitly designed to tap into millions of teenage boys' rock & roll fantasies. Unfortunately, it could ensure that they stay fantasies. C+