On the surface, SingStar seems like it would be the karaoke-lover’s dream game: a microphone, a song list, and familiar follow-the-highlighted-words set up, all there on your home console. When PopMatters offered me the chance to review the latest iteration, I jumped at it. My wife and I being self-confessed devotees of that oft-maligned but internationally treasured Asian export, I couldn’t pass up the chance to port those late bar nights to the convenience of my living room and engage in a little competitive caterwauling.
It took all of about 15 minutes to realize that SingStar is not karaoke on a console. In fact, for people who—despite harboring no grand illusions of American Idol stardom—are generally considered good karaoke singers, SingStar can be maddeningly frustrating.
For starters, SingStar is structured as a game, and game play requires precision. While the game eschews all of the button manipulation that is the baseline standard of console games—even the superficially similar Guitar Hero/Rock Band cousins—to measure and evaluate the voice electronically SingStar by necessity can only test your pitch and frequency and match it to an exacting pre-ordained arrangement. In practice, this means that the game tells you exactly how the song goes, and if you don’t measure up, you fail. Contrast this to live karaoke, where the heart and soul of the experience is personal interpretation of a familiar song. While faithful duplication is somewhat encouraged, the really good singers understand that karaoke is an expression of a song as you would sing it.
To put it bluntly, not only will SingStar punish the karaoke singer for every deviation from the original (i.e. style), but it will make you question that sense of competence and the confidence in your abilities so hard-won by performing live in front of friends and strangers.
So why did it take me so long to put SingStar down and commit my thoughts on the game to words, choosing instead to stay up far later than intended as I tried to figure out just what the game wants in its measure of rap ability?
Well, because it’s fun, duh. Though, to qualify, it’s a limited type of fun by gamer conventions. SingStar is possibly the ultimate iteration of “party game”. While a lot of recent talk has been devoted to notions of “casual gaming”, SingStar operates on the extreme end of the spectrum. Never once in the month I have been on-and-off playing it have I been tempted to pick up the mic and practice on my own. It’s a game that demands a partner, and ideally a group, to fully enjoy—yes, one that is willing to suffer bad singing, and yes, preferably one that drinks alcohol—because it’s a game almost entirely devoid of goals.
This is SingStar‘s failure as a game, but also its strength as an activity. From a gaming sense, it’s almost a dead-end in terms of conventional lures. There are no levels. There are no mini-games. And despite the pattern established by the aforementioned Guitar Hero, there are no unlockables. Your song choices are fixed, they are always available, and the only aim is score higher and higher points while figuring out the nuances of each song. Even less engaging is the fact that the quality of the singing doesn’t have to improve to score better, thus negating skills development as a goal—all that matters is accuracy. It doesn’t take too long to figure out the “cheat” and realize that you can “sing” a song in a flat monotone, without regard to key, and do better than the person singing dynamically next to you, because, again, this technology can’t measure style or purity. You can wordlessly hum the tune accurately and score big points, so long as you spend enough time memorizing the patterns. It may not be much different than the golden key pattern of Pac Man so touted in the ‘80s, but it does take away some of the challenge to improve as a singer. You’re not going to SingStar your way into diva-hood.
On the other hand, it makes SingStar a great console game for just messing around with a friend, or for turning on as a group activity at parties (and even if you know the “cheat” method, it still gets harder the drunker you get, upping the hilarity factor regardless). Even with challenges and multiplayer functions, the grading and scoring are the only real competition, meaning it’s both easily re-playable, and because quality singing eludes the game’s tech, you don’t have to be an amazing vocalist to enjoy it and get a good score. All that’s required is a sense of humor. I even tested it on family (though in full disclosure, karaoke-loving family), and wound up having to fight off the kids in attendance to get a turn in—kids who can’t even manipulate a PS2 controller yet. Mic hogs.
Of course, if you’ve played any of the other SingStar games, this is all old news, and I apologize now for retreading worn ground. If you’ve played one in the past, you’ve played this one, and the only reason you’re even reading the review right now is to figure out what’s been added to your playlist. Because the one thing that SingStar most definitely does share with karaoke is that singing the same songs over and over again gets old fast. And the best way to overcome that boredom is… with another injection of songs.
Obviously, SingStar ‘90s culls its songs from that decade, and like the other games in the series, it perhaps wisely focuses on the pop chart music of the era. Like the Party and Rocks! and ‘80s editions before it, Sing Star ‘90s is basically a booster pack to your collection. And again, Sony pulls from its vast vault of masters (not forgetting publishing and duplication rights) the songs that it has on hand that managed to chart well in the 1990s and the music videos that accompanied them. There’s a mixture of choices, many from artists you’ve had the chance to sing with before (having previously hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come as You Are”, now you’ve got Nirvana’s “Lithium”), and a fair number from one-hit wonders (Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby”, Len’s “Steal My Sunshine”, and even Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping”—though only on the American version, where that song was the first and last time that group’s name was uttered). It’s a fair sampling of pop, rock, R&B, and a little hip-hop, too, keeping in the spirit of past editions (Despite the karaoke-ubiquity of “Baby Got Back”, Sir Mix-a-Lot’s track proves deceptively hard here).
SingStar ‘90s, then, is Sony giving a little something for everyone—or rather, a little something more for everyone. They’ve got the massive label licensing to dole out 35-or-so more songs at a time and keep this franchise moving, and they know it. They’ve managed to keep the regional releases from having any song choice overlap, and where songs have appeared on foreign releases, they occasionally appear on later US versions, and vice vera (“What do you mean ‘Love Shack’ is only on the international edition? They’re from Athens, Georgia, not Athens, Greece!—Oh, it’s on Rocks!, okay…”)—though given my personal taste, the international edition edges out the American edition just slightly, but that’s subjective. The series has already been a big hit worldwide, and Sony’s inclusion of EyeTool technology has tailor-made this a game for the YouTube era. Pop Vol. 2 and Country have already been slated for later in the year. I wouldn’t even be surprised in the least if a SingStar Indie didn’t hit the shelves in the next year or so, no matter how paradoxical the concept.
And the thing is, ultra-casual party game or not, it will be tempting to purchase it. I’m already getting sick of these same micro-medleys, and nothing is making me any better at “I Wanna Sex You Up”. But I don’t have SingStar Rocks! yet….
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