Like most people, I discovered Acai when one of his videos popped into my YouTube recommended feed. It made me double-take: here was some 21-year old with a smear of black hair sitting in his messy bedroom with a Guitar Hero axe on his knee. I don't think I've played, much less watched someone play, Activision's cremated rhythm game franchise since I was in high school. So I was initially struck by the audacity of the algorithm telling me that I should journey back to my teenage years to watch this guy shred.
But the suspicion wore off almost immediately as I witnessed Acai tear his way through an utterly astonishing note chart. A note chart that seemed to sunder the physical limits of human dexterity. A note chart that dwarfed everything I ever accomplished in my peak Guitar Hero days.
The song is called "Soulless 4." It's over 10 minutes long, and has never been released commercially in any capacity. Instead, it was created by a diehard member of the Guitar Hero community and plays out like a ROM hack designed specifically to break the hearts (or fingers) of anyone who comes near it. And somehow, Acai nailed 100 percent of the notes.
There are plenty of colossal videogame feats documented on YouTube, but this was a new threshold for me. Acai's craft might not require the monk-like asceticism necessary to conquer a nation's worth of bosses in Dark Souls without ever being hit, but it is also truer, and less exploitable. There is no poison-arrow cheese in Guitar Hero. You have to conquer "Soulless 4" the hard way. I looked down to see that the clip I was watching had been viewed over 500,000 times. Clearly, I wasn't the only one amazed.
Acai tells me he fell in love with Guitar Hero like everyone else did during the music game's golden age in the mid-aughties. Acai was eight years old, and came home from school every day to perfect his art. "It took me a good six or seven months til I was on expert and blowing my brother's friends' minds," he explains.
Music game mania hit its fever pitch in 2007, with the dual release of Guitar Hero 3 and Rock Band. Everyone started hoarding plastic instruments, every game store started up local and regional tournaments, a 16-year old named Blake from North Carolina dropped out of school to play the game full-time. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and it felt like the momentum was never going to give out.
Of course, we now know just how unsustainable those franchises ended up being. America fell out of love with Guitar Hero about as quickly as it was initially seduced, and Activision put the name out to pasture after the soft sales of Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, and the entirely unnecessary triptych of band-specific spinoffs for Van Halen, Aerosmith, and Metallica (remember those?). Music games, as a mainstream concern, were no more, and a nation's worth of Rock Band drums and DJ Hero turntables were moved to basements, attics, and junkyards.
Acai, unlike most of us, never stopped loving Guitar Hero, and he was determined to find a way to keep playing, and keep challenging himself, any way he could. So, around 2011, he turned to the underground, where he first met the mad scientists who were cooking up truly demonic note charts that were only playable on a cracked PC copy of Guitar Hero 3. Suddenly the ceiling of what was possible in this game got a lot higher. This was his personal Guitar Hero golden age; sitting in his bedroom, downloading bootleg files, playing through them with Slash.
twitter exclusive bullshit clone hero clip pic.twitter.com/qmLgIf9MeXJuly 24, 2018
"There were people making their own songs specifically to be the hardest, and fastest thing possible, to really push players to their limits," explains Acai. "That's how people got extremely good at the game."
Acai tells me that some of the tracks he found in this scene transcend the basic functions of musicality. When you play vanilla Guitar Hero, the appeal is those few moments of self-delusion where you convince yourself that you truly are nailing the "Possum Kingdom" riff in a stadium in Rio De Janeiro. That's not the fantasy Acai was after anymore.
"The songs we would play would sound like an absolute mess," he laughs. "People would roll their hands across a piano, and someone would make notes to that … It makes 'Through The Fire And The Flames' look like 'Barracuda.'"
Today, the vast majority of this community thrives on Clone Hero, a fan-made, Unity-developed freeware module that's far friendlier to custom tracks than that hacked Guitar Hero 3 client. "It makes the process a million times easier," says Acai. "You just grab the tracks and put them in a folder."
In 2015 he started streaming Guitar Hero on Twitch, and has since accumulated a sizable 64,000 followers. He goes viral constantly—there's an endless share of flabbergasted tweets and Facebook videos highlighting his craziest clears—and those Clone Hero architects have proven to be capable shitposters. Here, for instance, is Acai conquering a chart tuned for Kanye's infamous "Poopity Scoop" moment. He won't be running out of content any time soon.
The conventional wisdom has always said that a streamer needs to jump in on a burgeoning Twitch scene early, right when it's getting traffic, to build an audience. That mindset is what transformed Ninja from a random Halo pro to a Fortnite god with Drake on speed dial. There's a lot of merit to that philosophy, but there's also something kinda awesome about how Acai, armed with a forgotten game and a boatload of wicked custom tracks, has managed to carve out a real career. People love to watch transcendent talent, no matter what form it takes, so it's nice to see that hard work rewarded.
"I think we're spawning a new era of people who want to relive their middle school and high school years," he says, when I ask him why he thinks he's been successful, in a game that no longer has any publisher support. It's an ironic twist of fate, considering that earlier this year, Activision announced that the company would be terminating services for 2015's failed resuscitation Guitar Hero Live in December. At this point, it's difficult to imagine the plastic instrument boom ever swinging back around, but Guitar Hero will never die as long as hackers are writing their own ever-more-challenging songs. And as long as Acai's fingers are still working.