Review: Frets on Fire


Author: Nathan Willis

You suck on electric guitar. If you are not aware of that now, you will be after playing Frets on Fire — a cross-platform, GPLed music game from Unreal Voodoo, where your PC’s keyboard is the instrument and you play lead.

Game play is similar to the commercial GuitarFreaks and Guitar Hero series. With the backing track to a song playing, notes scroll towards you in real time on a simplified guitar fretboard. When they reach the front, you fret the notes in question by holding down the corresponding keys with your fret hand, and you “pick” the notes by hitting the Enter key.

The default setup uses F1 through F5 as the five fret keys, so if you hold your computer keyboard like a guitar (and I know you do), it is set up for right-handed play. Southpaws need not worry, though — the keys are configurable. You do need to actually have elbow room and ample cable to play. It is both slower and unnatural to play with the keyboard on your desk, and if your keyboard’s cord is tethered to your mouse or other device cables for aesthetic appeal, you’ll be in trouble. If you’ve been looking for an excuse to purchase a wireless keyboard, run out and buy one.

Once you have your hardware set up, download the latest Frets of Fire release for Linux. The latest release is version 1.1.324, which supports Linux, FreeBSD, Windows, and Intel Macs (not PowerPCs, for now). Frets of Fire requires Python, SDL, an OpenGL graphics card, and a working sound card. All right; the sound card isn’t technically required, but without it, what would be the point?

The Linux package comes as a Gzipped tarball and requires no installation procedure; once you uncompress it, simply change into the game’s directory on the command line and launch the game by typing ./FretsOnFire. If you want to get started right away, you can select Play Game, but I recommend that you begin with the Tutorial section instead, if for no other reason than to listen to the repeated derision of your playing abilities by the tutorial’s rock snob narrator Jurgen Guntherswarchzhaffenstrassen.

The Easy level limits your challenge to playing single notes. The Medium level adds chords, and the Amazing level is described in the documentation as “anything goes.” Start slow — despite the simplified instrument, the oddity of playing on a keyboard takes some getting used to. But then clear your afternoon, because this game is addictive.

Like the best of games, the more you play, the better you get — with no upper limit. If you are so inclined, you can upload your scores to the Frets on Fire World Chart, see how much better the rest of the world is, and get right back to practicing.

Make your own kind of music

Frets on Fire comes with three tunes preloaded, but you can add your own in a number of ways. You can exchange tracks with other users (via, KeyboardsOnFire, or FOFSpain), import tracks from a Playstation Guitar Hero DVD, or use the built-in song editor, with which you can turn any Ogg Vorbis track into a game level.

Since it is open source, you can easily customize other game components, too. The fan forum has instructions on how to modify the visual look of almost every game element, from the background screen to the 3-D cassette tapes you flip through when selecting a track to play.

Game development is active. Recent versions of Frets on Fire have added support for USB “guitar controllers” like those used by the commercial games — though no word yet about the Linux Guitar Project.

Right now, picking and holding notes are the only supported actions. Advanced features like pull-offs and hammer-ons are in the works, but still a ways away. But if you want a whammy bar, you will have to do like I do; buy one of those flexible Goldtouch adjustable keyboards and pretend.

The songs bundled with Frets on Fire are copyrighted by members of the programming team — which is impressive, but presents a licensing problem for Linux distributions that could otherwise package the game for inclusion. Red Hat’s John Palmieri recently blogged about that very issue, suggesting that some of the talented musicians in the open source community license some of their own recordings for use with the game in a GPL-compatible bundle. If that happens, you may see Frets on Fire make it to your Linux of choice soon.

Let’s hope it does. Frets on Fire is one of the best free software games in recent years. The learning curve is small, but the playability and the fun factor are huge. Add to that real professionalism in all the details, and you have yourself a winner.


  • Games