'Guitar Hero III' cranks up the hype

The hard-rockin' video game comes out Sunday for all home consoles, with midnight sales as the opening act.

Get ready to rock -- again.

"Guitar Hero" returns Sunday in its third official incarnation, "Legends of Rock." Some stores will start selling the video game just after midnight tonight for would-be ax shredders who want to spend the wee hours with Black Sabbath on the sabbath.

Why all the fuss?

"Guitar Hero" is hugely popular. Previous releases have sold a collective 6 million copies in the United States, according to NPD Group. Downloads for "Guitar Hero II" by Xbox 360 owners have totaled about 2 million add-on songs, according to the game's maker, Activision. A recent Game Crazy survey rated "Guitar Hero III" as the top video game on kids' holiday wish lists.

But "Guitar Hero" is more than just a big game; it's also a pop-culture phenomenon. Bars and clubs have replaced Karaoke Night with "Guitar Hero" Night. Real-life rock guitarists have offered their unbridled -- and unpaid -- endorsements and have customized "Guitar Hero" controllers to be auctioned for charity.

The Detroit Tigers even admitted embarrassingly last year that pitcher Joel Zumaya missed several games of the American League Championship Series due to an injury not from playing baseball, but from playing too much "Guitar Hero." He obviously was more concerned with beating ZZ Top than the Oakland A's.

In the "Guitar Hero" games, players wield a guitar-shaped controller and -- following on-screen prompts -- press and "strum" buttons in time to well-known songs. The better the player rocks, the higher the score.

"Guitar Hero III" is poised to be the biggest installment yet, because it is the first to be available for all major home consoles -- Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 2. New features include a wireless controller, online multiplayer modes and, of course, loads of killer tunes by some of music's biggest artists, such as KISS, the Rolling Stones and Pearl Jam. (A bundle with the game and controller retails for $80 to $90, depending on system.)

Also new, though, is some heavy competition from "Rock Band," due Nov. 20 from MTV Games and Harmonix, the innovator behind another video-game sensation, "Karaoke Revolution." Besides guitar, that title will allow gamers to beat the drums and sing along with songs. The buzz for "Rock Band" has been tempered only by its higher price, $160 to $170, which is a result of the included peripherals needed to play it.

"I don't expect that 'Rock Band' will be able to keep up with 'Guitar Hero III' with regards to sales," said Nick Williams, an analyst with IGN GamerMetrics. "'Guitar Hero III' has a significant edge across three crucial categories: pricing, brand recognition and being first to market."

The main concern now for "Guitar Hero III" seems to be what it will do for an encore.

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542.

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