Over the last few years or so, the "guitar game" genre has had one of the craziest journeys in video game history. From the huge early success of Harmonix' Guitar Hero to the company's split into Rock Band and the final proclamation that Guitar Hero was finished, the epic story of plastic instruments and the games that came with them has gone from prelude to climax to quiet hum, all in the space of a few years.

And there have already been a few "post-modern" guitar games, most notably Power Gig: Rise of the Six-String and Rocksmith, which both involve real guitars rather than their plastic counterparts, and which suggest that strumming along with real songs and strings might actually teach real musical skill (a promise that neither was able to land with great success).

And so it's interesting that Realta Entertainment Group has chosen this moment to step out with its premiere product, called BandFuse: Rock Legends. It's a music game that uses a real, live electric guitar, plugged into a video game console, as its controller. We've ... we've been down this road before, right? Realta CEO Steve Gomes says that yes, the genre's been well-traveled over the past few years. "I think if we came out with another controller based game, you'd be absolutely spot on," he admits. "That market's been saturated." But Gomes believes that despite the reaction to Power Gig and Rocksmith, there's still a demand out there for a musical experience that doesn't involve fake controllers or pushing buttons. "People didn't buy Guitar Hero because they wanted to be known for hitting the right button at the right time. They bought them because they wanted to be immersed in that musical experience. What we're doing is now enabling that whole group of people to do the real thing."

Unfortunately, while Realta has been working on BandFuse: Rock Legends for "two and half to three years" already, all they had to show off to a group of assembled journalists was little more than a prototype. Yes, the game was interactive, allowing you to follow along on a guitar while color-coded numbers flowed on a tablature layout across the screen. There were two scores running, one based on getting the pitch right, with the other giving points for hitting notes at the right times, but the scoring system was fuzzy -- sometimes hitting even the wrong notes would trigger points, and if there are failure conditions in the game, they didn't appear, despite long stretches of just standing there with the guitar not touching the strings.


That's all being worked on, according to Gomes -- the beginner modes won't fail, but later modes will be more strenuous. The UI is mostly just placeholder, he says. The song list is not finalized, though there were hits by Maroon 5, Coldplay, and Tom Petty included in the on-site demo. And even the non-interactive training videos which used the project's lead as a star, will be interactive and lead by none other than Slash, formerly of both Guns and Roses and Activision's Guitar Hero series.

Gomes promises even more, but says he's being made to hold back ... for now. "We're providing a lot of stuff that we aren't even able to show you today," he confides, "about great ways that you can collaborate and compete." The scoring system and the algorithm that "listens" to the incoming guitar sound can track pitch very carefully, and Realta is working on "cool ways of animating and showing all of those features." But they're not in there yet, and Gomes can't talk about exactly how they work. "A lot of things are done, and the marketing/PR people are saying you can't talk about this right now. It's hard for me right now to hold back."

One thing Realta doesn't hold back on is the celebrities: The company invited two players from the metal band Five Finger Death Punch to play a few quick songs and talk about how great the game was at the press event, and Slash himself made an appearance, to show off the tabs running on his song "Back from Cali." But when he steps up to play the song through the game (a song, keep in mind, that the rock virtuoso wrote and performs himself), even Slash stumbles to keep up with the tab numbers rolling past, and it takes him a few minutes to get his playing to line up with the song and the non-interactive music video rolling by in the background.

So, given how saturated this market is, and how rough Realta's pitch is so far, what does BandFuse actually have going for it? The tech, for one: While a lot of the feedback on Rocksmith and Power Gig mentioned terrible lag from the real guitars, BandFuse doesn't suffer any of those problems. The guitar's sound through the little USB unit, into the Xbox 360s being used, and out through the console's audio systems sounded clear and responsive. And BandFuse, in its current prototypical form, is quite generous with letting you just play -- anytime during the menus, the instructional videos, or the loading screens, you can just wail away on the guitar as you like. If you just want to turn your console into an amp, it might be a worthy option.

And Gomes is also quick to say that Realta has plenty of partnerships on deck, which may push the limits of what we expect to see from games like this. Obviously, given the songs in the game already and the big deal with Slash, the songlist is likely lined up and ready to go. But Gomes says Realta, which has already inked deals for the property with not only Fender but also the feature film company Relativity Media, wants to take BandFuse further than that.

"With the market where we're at, we're so unique, we're not really in the same market as a Guitar Hero or a Rock Band," he suggests. "This is something that we envision as more of a lifestyle product than a pure console controller player. The partnerships we have have given us a breadth of vision in terms of how we can use this media and different types of media in the gameplay, things that go way beyond the scope of what we're talking about today."


In fact, given Relativity's big influence in film, TV, and other media, Gomes goes on to suggest some very interesting things about what "BandFuse" might actually be, outside of just another guitar music game. Relativity and Realta, he says, "both come from the same school of reality-based entertainment is king. And when you can tie something in that's truly something you can use in your life, and it's tremendously entertaining and rewarding and enriching, all the better."

Does that mean we'll see the game included in product placement on TV and in film? Will we see a BandFuse movie, or a reality TV show about guitar players that uses the game for competition? Gomes, obviously, can't yet say. "There'll be a lot of fun stuff related to that that's going to be coming up in about 30-60 days," he teases, "that will tie into those actual things happening and being released."

That's Realta's challenge, then. We've seen guitar games come, blow up in popularity, and then go right back out again, so much so that even players with two and three sets of plastic instruments at home might not be all that excited to see yet another one. If Realta can prove that we need another one of these games, maybe they'll also be able to make one that's finally worth playing.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.