Reviewed: February 26, 2004
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Unless you live in an area where you can’t pick up the Fox network chances are you have at least heard of American Idol, the hottest new reality show on TV – yes, it’s even more popular than Survivor. Born in the UK where it is known as Pop Idol, this show has been subjecting TV viewers to thousands of would-be singers in their televised quest for a yearly superstar.
American Idol, the game, is the obligatory video game spin-off that attempts to cash in on the success of the series by recreating the talent show experience on your PS2. Rhythm games are nothing new to the PS2 and until lately they have been fairly scarce, but there has been a recent resurgence of the genre with games like Frequency, Britney’s Dance Beat, DDRMAX2 and even some experimental titles that expand on the genre like Karaoke Revolution.
American Idol is first and foremost about singing. You don’t have to be traditionally good-looking or have killer dance moves to win. The game fails to capture the essence of the show by abandoning the obvious potential of the USB microphone and reducing the talent to mashing the four face buttons. The game certainly doesn’t innovate on the genre or do justice to the show that inspired it.
American Idol nails the presentation with the authentic opening song and actual video clips from season two between the various rounds. Even though the game is hosted by a pair of fictitious hosts, Ryan Seacrest does make a few appearances in the FMV. The game also deserves credit for maintaining the structure of the show. You can start off practicing in your bedroom or other smaller venues then when you are ready it’s off to the auditions.
Those of you that watch the show will know that they start with about 40-70 thousand potential singers and the judges squeeze it down to 32. From here you move on to the heat matches where the bottom two singers are eliminated by votes from the viewers. Once you make it through the heats you are in the final ten and you’ll continue to compete with one person being voted off the “show” each week.
Whether you are being scored by Paula, Randy, and Simon, or the algorithms representing millions of American viewers it all boils down to an internal scoring system that is based on how accurately you pressed the buttons during the song. Also factoring into your score is your appearance and any flair icons you managed to hit during the song.
Between each performance you get to go to wardrobe and pick from dozens of outfits. You can mix and match tops and bottoms, pick new shoes, and even color and style your hair. America is fickle and while I thought I looked pretty snappy in my black tux the MTV-generation seems to prefer cutoffs and t-shirts. As you win each round you will unlock new costumes and new singing venues.
Singing is handled by a lengthy series of button icons that stream in from the four side of the screen. The side of the screen happens to match the symbol on the cross pattern of face buttons on the Dual Shock, so if a symbol is coming from the top you know to get ready to hit the triangle. This makes the game highly instinctive, something that is crucial in the higher difficulty settings.
So as each song plays out colored symbols move from the outer perimeter to the center circle where you must press the corresponding button just as the symbol enter the circle. The better your timing the higher your ranking – same principle as DDR or any other rhythm game for that matter. What does bother me is that these symbols seldom have anything to do with the tempo or rhythm of the music. Normally you expect to push buttons on the beat, but this is rarely the case. So you basically have a rhythm game that doesn’t require any rhythm.
Things get more challenging in later rounds as the symbols flow faster and they start throwing combos and holds at you. Some symbols are connected with a colored line and you have to hold that button for the duration. Other symbols are joined by a diagonal line, and you have to push both buttons exactly together as they meet in the center circle. From time to time a starburst symbol enters the screen and you have to press the corresponding button based on its origin to give your performance some added flair.
Obviously, fans of the show will purchase this game to subject themselves to the critical abuse of Simon, the judge who tells it like it is and seldom minces words. Unfortunately, in this game Simon is often the kindest of the three. There were times when Randy and even Paula (who always has a kind word) were lashing me for missing a few notes and Simon was like, “Good job…see you next round”. Huh? I had to purposely screw up really bad before Simon ever tore into me and even then it wasn’t as bad as he does on TV. It’s almost like Simon is trying to change his image through this game.
There is an excellent selection of songs performed by some talented singers. Rather than having the singers perform poorly and record that the game uses cheap tricks like speeding up or slowing down the recording when you miss a note. This warps the music and gives a sloppy illusion of singing off key, but in reality it’s more like a poor quality tape recording. Imagine holding your finger on a 12” record (anyone remember those) and speeding up or slowing down the rotation. There is often a substantial delay from when you miss the symbol to when you hear the “mistake” which makes things a bit confusing.
American Idol has a few additional game modes and support for up to four players. You can enter the main competition or play in quick talent matches. There is also a karaoke mode where the music plays and the lyrics are displayed and you can sing along. Of course you don’t use a mic and the game doesn’t know if you suck or not so there is no score. This basically just turns your PS2 into a karaoke machine with a good selection of pop music.
You will learn to hate the American Idol logo and theme music before the first competition is over. This sequence haunts you between every match and every loading screen whether you are going from wardrobe or post-song scoring page. The gameplay is interspersed with FMV clips from the actual show. For the most part these are highly compressed and not nice to look at, but they are short and you can skip them with a button press.
Character art is all cel-shaded textures painted on 3D models. You have a few male and female choices to pick from before heading off to wardrobe. Paula, Randy, and Simon are in dire need of a wardrobe as they wear the same outfits every time they appear in the game. And what’s up with that Pimp Daddy hat Randy?
The venues range from minimal sets like your bedroom or a theater stage to the flashier disco and the ultimate soundstage at the Kodak Theater complete with flat-panel displays, stairs, catwalks, and colorful lighting.
Amercian Idol finally shines in the music department; at least once you learn to skip that annoying theme music. There are 40 songs ranging from huge hits by Britney, Christina, and In Synch to some lesser known show tunes. There wasn’t a single song I didn’t like and some were surprisingly good like my favorite, “Let Me Entertain You”. Not all songs are available for each round and when you sing a song it is removed from the song list.
Speech is limited to a few positive and negative remarks from the judges that become repetitive all too quickly. Even more repetitive and downright annoying is the two or three canned remarks from your character who squirms on stage during his review and says things like, “You won’t regret this”, “Thanks for your comments”, or my most hated, “Oh my gosh!”
American Idol is a $20 game with a $30 price tag. A typical match from audition to final round will take you about 45-60 minutes. On easy and normal difficulty levels the game is really easy and on the hard level it does present a decent challenge. Again, the button mashing seldom relates to the music so it becomes more of an exercise in hand-eye coordination than musical ability.
Even when this game hits the $20 bargain bins I’m still inclined to recommend this only as a rental and only if you are a fan of the show. There’s not a whole lot to unlock and the video extras that include final performances by Ruben and Clay are available from the very beginning. I would have like to unlocked performances from the other top ten singers from season two.
As it is, there is probably 5-7 hours of gaming here. I played through the entire game three times, once on each skill level and was able to experience most of the song library. What I missed I played in quick matches. If you are a huge karaoke fan then I suppose this game might have more value.
A couple of years ago this title might have flown but there are just too many music games currently available for the PS2, and American Idol just seems like a quick and dirty knockoff to cash in on the fever of the show.
Fans of the show and girls 8-12 who like playing “dress-up” might find something to like here, but anyone looking for a quality rhythm game should probably look somewhere else. Check your rhythm at the door. A fast thumb is the only requirement to becoming America’s next superstar.