[17 March 2009]
Konami’s long running and prolific Bemani line of music games hardly needs third party branding to contribute to its success. Although much more of a force in Japanese arcades than at home, it has certainly had its victories in both locales. For home consoles in particular, the Karaoke Revolution games have been appearing in the United States since 2003 with numerous releases in the line. On the surface, the pairing of the American Idol label with that of Karaoke Revolution seems like a no-brainer, and indeed the first Karaoke Revolution title bearing that name was released in 2007, shortly before the show’s sixth season.
It can be argued, however, that the very structure of American Idol distances it from Karaoke Revolution in very significant ways, particularly with whether or not it can be understood as a party game. The reality is that both American Idol and karaoke are conceptually voyeuristic endeavors for the audience. But for the participants, the competitiveness of a contest like American Idol doesn’t necessarily translate. Without discussing its merits from a critical standpoint, American Idol is essentially a cross between a popularity contest, a talent show, and a form of musical chairs that ensures that there will be one less participant each week. Although the medium by which it determines success through is singing (a fact that has been explored by countless other elimination contest shows that focus on other talents), the very nature of this competitiveness does seem at odds with other music and rhythm party games, which have more recently focused on collaboration. Of course, this is not karaoke per say, and the traditional, goal-oriented nature of video games does help alleviate this concern, particularly since American Idol has a built in scoring system by way of the judges.
That being said, it seems that what’s most important about a game bearing the American Idol brand and what separates it from any other karaoke game (Revolution or otherwise) is the quality of the presentation. Ideally, it should feel as though you are standing alone on the standard American Idol stage, working your way to the top. The songs you sing are supposed to be top 40 hits from the past several decades. You’re supposed to be deified by Paula at the same time as you are being eviscerated by Simon. The game’s success at presenting this illusion is mixed. From the onset, the limited character customization options make it difficult to feel as though you’re really in the game. Although this is the first title in the series to feature Paula Abdul’s voice and likeness, Ryan Seacrest has gone missing since the last title. Strange as it may seem to say so, Seacrest actually is a large part of the overall feel of American Idol, and his absence is noticed.
Although Encore 2 boasts among its improvements from its predecessor four all new venues, the reality of this concept seems fairly ridiculous. Once the contestants on American Idol start performing for live studio audiences, the lights and stage basically look the same no matter what venue they’re technically in. As such, time might have been better spent refining the look and feel of the American Idol stage setup than in attempting to create markedly different stages.
As is the case with many sports franchises, namely those that see frequent iterations with modest but predictable updates, rhythm/music games are starting to seem like they would benefit from more robust downloadable content than actual new titles. What’s unfortunate here is that the Wii version does not allow for any downloadable content, while the PS3 and 360 versions do. It’s likely that this is more a limitation of the Wii Shop than anything, but it robs the franchise of some of the longevity it enjoys on the other systems. Simply put, if a consumer were to own either of the other consoles, purchasing this series for the Wii seems like a poor choice. Quite possibly, it won’t take players long to tire of the 40 included tracks, particularly if there were a number that they didn’t care for to begin with.
It’s likely that most players to whom this game appeals will be able to look past these flaws, but since this is not the first title to marry the brands of Karaoke Revolution and American Idol, it is also possible that they might be burned out on the concept. This may be particularly true since the original Encore title appeared a scant nine months prior to this one. Since Idol itself is still something of a ratings juggernaut and since the basic game framework has been laid down, it seems that it would be quite simple for new iterations in this series to be regularly released. Hopefully as that happens, there will be more polish added in order to better take advantage of the American Idol license.