As the last of the notes disappeared from the screen, I put my fake, plastic guitar down to look at my hands. They were shaking, and my fingers were curled as if they were still wrapped around the fretboard. I felt pain twisting around my wrist and creeping into my finger joints. Still, I wore a smile so big and deep and bright it shocked me. And all because I decided to play a little Clone Hero.
Clone Hero is a fan-made PC game made to recreate the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games of the early aughts. It features Guitar Hero’s same UI—primary-colored notes scrolling along a “highway” in the shape of a guitar’s fretboard—while offering loads of customization options and the ability to import your own Guitar Hero-ified songs called “charts.” Its best feature, however, is its support for a number of Guitar Hero and Rock Band guitar controllers, allowing you to recreate your teenage dirtbag memories of strumming along to “Heart Shaped Box.”
I found Clone Hero yesterday during an all-time-low mental health day. The Derek Chauvin verdict and the news of Ma’Khia Bryant’s murder in Ohio mere hours later once again put Black Death in the spotlight. I couldn’t take it. After finding a clip of Clone Hero streamer Acai28 during an ill-advised bout of Twitter doomscrolling, I decided that the only way I would break out of my mental hell was by throwing myself into a project. Getting Clone Hero running on my PC seemed like a good candidate for operation Distract Ash So She Doesn’t Turn Into The Joker.
Getting Clone Hero working is a relatively simple task, provided you have all the necessary components. The game is free, the songs are free, and it’s easy to download and install both. Where you’ll probably run into trouble is getting a guitar controller to work. Since this game is PC only, you’ll need either a USB guitar controller or a wireless one with its proprietary receiver. Clone Hero’s Discord server has a wealth of tutorials to help players figure out if that Guitar Hero/Rock Band guitar moldering in your closet will work. I got lucky. My partner had a treasure trove of controllers for me to choose from. But, out of the Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and Guitar Hero Live controllers, only one worked.
After perusing Clone Hero’s wiki, a couple of YouTube tutorials, and the Discord server, I was ready to go. I booted up the game and was met with a song list containing just one DragonForce song and nothing else. Turns out the British power metal band famous for their notoriously difficult to master Guitar Hero songs released a brand new track, “Troopers of the Stars,“ specifically for Clone Hero, and it was the only song that came with the game.
If I wanted to play anything else, it was on me to find the charts and upload them into the game. Fortunately, the Clone Hero community is awash with creators who make them out of just about any song you could think of. After downloading the charts for the first three Guitar Hero games, I did what any self-respecting Guitar Hero-playing child of the aughts would do and snapped up every My Chemical Romance chart I could find. (As an aside, Gerard Way was in his bag yelling on them songs like he did. Respect to an emo legend.)
After a very rough couple of days, playing Clone Hero was comforting in the way a very long and strenuous workout is comforting. My back hurt, my fingers and wrists ached, and my boobs were mad at me for smashing them against the controller as I tried in vain to find the right sitting position. But I felt so good afterward. It felt foreign, in an “I do not remember the time I felt this happy,” kind of way.
I’m a very aural person. I associate my strongest memories and emotions with sound and music. Guitar Hero was one of those games formative to my musical tastes as a teenager. I found so many artists and songs through that game that I would have never encountered on my own. Playing Guitar Hero through Clone Hero all these years later reignited the incredibly powerful memories I had of happily strumming and humming along to “Spanish Castle Magic,” “Bark at the Moon,” or “Beast and the Harlot,” cheering when I got through a tricky solo section perfectly.
I was surprised at how easy it was to recall the muscle memory I’d developed playing my favorite songs from back in the day. My fingers naturally remembered exactly what to do even 16 years after the original Guitar Hero’s release. As a teenager, I could only play certain songs on Hard. But now that I have Clone Hero, I’m seriously considering dedicating myself to working up to expert level and beyond. I am feeling my age, though. It’s harder for me to play for extended periods. After only a couple of songs, my hands shake so badly that I have to take a break. It’s worth it, though. Clone Hero is a game you have to dedicate your entire body to. It’s something you start then look up to find hours have passed. In a time when I desperately need to log off, Clone Hero’s gonna save my sanity.