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"I won't get an amazing score my first time, so this is kind of like a rough draft," says Chris Chike as he straps on a plastic guitar. He's tall and lithe, with a track runner's body and a complexion reminiscent of Tiger Woods. Sitting in the basement of his family's McMansion, surrounded by pictures of his older brothers and sisters with Santa, the greatest Guitar Hero III player who ever lived is about to attempt the game's hardest song.
"Through the Fire and Flames" is a seven-minute finger workout by Dragon Force, an English power metal band that saw its sales more than double after its song was included in Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. The rapid-fire notes stream down the screen in a blur that resembles Tron's light cycles, but Chike's fingers are more than up to the task, tippity-tapping across the five fret buttons like a typist's doing 300 words per minute. Fifty-note streak! One-hundred-note streak! The tendons of Chike's left forearm vibrate as he deftly navigates the plastic guitar neck. As a fully rendered frontman flounces around on the digital stage, Chike gears up for the big finish: Tappity-tappity-tap-tap!
"That's not my best," Chike says as he pulls off the guitar. "Not even close."
Chike's best is the stuff of legend. He recently set the Guinness world record for the highest score with 840,647 points, hitting 97 percent of the notes. Not only did the feat earn him props from the game's publisher, but it also landed at No. 8 on ESPN's Plays of the Day. Not bad for a 16-year-old kid.
"There's only a limited amount of people who are going to be world-class musicians," says Doug Parsons, the U.S. marketing manager for Guinness. "But the plastic guitar controllers put everyone on an equal playing field. And you have the ability for a 16-year-old kid from Rochester or Iowa or Alaska to be famous among their friends."
Chike's earliest memories are of Super Nintendo. Back in Poughkeepsie, New York, he was the best on his block. "We'd get together and play games and I'd always beat everyone else," Chike remembers. In 2000, when Chike was nine, his mom took a job with IBM and moved the family to Rochester, about 85 miles south of Minneapolis, and a long drive from the nearest arcade. "It was different transitioning from there to here," Chike says of the move, "and I just kind of played video games by myself."
One game in particular became an obsession: Dance Dance Revolution. The first rhythm game to successfully cross over from Japan into the U.S. mainstream, DDR invited players to hop around like a schoolgirl playing double Dutch on a sturdy platform as arrows scrolled down the video screen. By the age of 14, Chike had established himself—under the gamer tag of IamChris4Life—as one of the premier DDR players in the nation.
The first time Chike saw Guitar Hero was on display at Best Buy; not long after, one of his friends bought it. "I'd already played DDR, so I was already kinda into beats, so I got the rhythm thing down right away," Chike says. "I started on Hard and beat it in three days. In a week or two I was starting to master Expert."
When Guitar Hero debuted in November 2005, it was not expected to do well. The custom plastic guitar controller necessitated a $79.99 price point, nearly twice as much as other games, and the bulky box wouldn't fit into conventional retail displays. "One almost-investor in the company said, 'That's a great video game. Too bad these guys are going to go out of business trying to sell it,'" recalls Charles Huang, the co-founder of RedOctane, the series's publisher.
But thanks to rave reviews and the fact that the game was undeniably fun, Guitar Hero became an unexpected hit, selling 1.5 million copies. The sequel, featuring improved game play and a new set list, arrived a year later and cemented Guitar Hero's grip on pop culture. Suddenly Guitar Hero was everywhere—in chic New York parties, on the road with the Family Values Tour, even the subject of its very own South Park episode, "Guitar Queer-o." To date, the series has sold over 14 million copies and earned more than $1 billion. "Guitar Hero was the fastest video game to $1 billion in sales—we just beat out Pokemon," says Huang.
As Guitar Hero grew in popularity, the websiteScorehero.com became the virtual bulletin board where top players posted their highest marks. When Chike began showing off his astronomical scores, the reaction among site regulars was unanimous: OMG. Requests poured in for video, and Chike obliged, posting footage on YouTube. His personal channel attracted 1,709 subscribers and includes one clip viewed more than 122,220 times.
At about the same time as Chike was making his name in the Guitar Hero underground, the Guinness Book of World Records was making plans to release a new "Gamers' Edition." "We wanted to do a launch event with a marquee record breaking, and Guitar Hero is one of those games that's incredibly popular and mainstream at this point," says Parsons. "So we went on a quest online to find a gamer who could set a new benchmark, and Chris's name kept coming up."