Bang your head to '80s-themed 'Guitar Hero'

Until recently, wannabe rock stars were limited in how to live out the dream: embarrass themselves at karaoke bars or dance in front of the mirror with a tennis racket.

Then came the wildly popular Guitar Hero video games, where players plug a guitar-shaped controller into a console and attempt to strum along to rock's greatest hits. If you play well, the crowd cheers you on, you unlock new songs and play bigger venues. Hit too many sour notes and you're booed offstage. Cutthroat? Sure, but hey, that's showbiz.

And while eager gamers await the upcoming sequel, Guitar Hero III (due out this fall), and another music game with a lot of buzz, Rock Band (which offers guitar, bass, drums and vocals), fans of pastel, spandex and hairspray will enjoy strumming through Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s.

As you'd expect from its title, this new Sony PlayStation 2 exclusive offers pop songs, "hair" metal ballads and new wave tracks from the 1980s. While it doesn't mess with the Guitar Hero formula much, it's a fun — and nostalgic — ride through that "tubular" decade.

Not unlike the other Guitar Hero games, you can choose an on-screen avatar (character), a name for your band and whether you'd like to play an individual song or the meatier Career mode, which challenges you to work your way up from a teeny bar to a huge outdoor stadium. Song selections range from head-banging rockers such as The Scorpions' "No One Like You," Twisted Sister's "I Wanna Rock" and Quiet Riot's "Metal Health" to pop hits such as Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran," The Romantics' "What I Like About You," The Vapors' "Turning Japanese" and The Go Go's "We Got the Beat." They're all cover tunes but sound very close to the original recordings.

Unfortunately, a handful of the 30 or so songs seem like filler material, such as obscure tracks from Faster Pussycat, Oingo Boingo, X and Limozeen. Plus in some cases, the game makers curiously opted for less popular cover versions of songs instead of the originals such as Krokus' "Ballroom Blitz" or White Lion's "Radar Love."

The game screen is made up of two key components: One is your band performing live in front of a virtual crowd, and the other is a giant guitar neck with colored icons that tell you which buttons to press on your guitar and when, such as the red button, followed by the green and blue buttons at the same time. You must also press down or up on the strum bar while playing the notes. As the "camera" flies down the guitar neck, you will also see notes or chords that need to be held for a certain amount of time (the colored note or chord will be followed by a solid line). It is here where you can press down on the Whammy bar toward the guitar, which changes the pitch of the note for dramatic effect.

Cooperative and competitive two player modes add to the fun, therefore a friend can plug in a second guitar controller to jam together (one takes lead; the other rhythm guitar or bass) or compete in a duel to see who can rack up the most points.

Aside from some questionable songs, another issue with the game is the $50 price tag, which is relatively high for a PS2 game, not to mention you need to pick up the guitar separately for about $60 for the wireless model.

But fans of these "Guitar Hero" games should be satisfied with this interactive tribute to the '80s. Headband is optional.

Contact Saltzman at