What’s that awful noise? A horrendous, mangled shrieking. A wailing and groaning punctuated by explosions of mocking laughter. Is some horrible torture taking place? No, unfortunately that’s the sound of me playing the Pop Idol game very, very badly and being soundly ridiculed by a roomful of teenagers. Damn.
But I’m not complaining. You see that’s part of the fun of the game and why it manages to capture the spirit of the hit TV show so well. If you’ve ever watched Pop Idol with your fingers jammed in your ears going “Jesus, I could do better than that”, well now is your chance, though in this case it’s your fingers that do the singing. The Pop Idol game is at its heart a relatively simple, “rhythm action” game. Taking as its inspiration such classics as “Parappa the Rapper” and “Um Jammer Lammy” on the PSOne, it requires you create a character to compete in the Pop Idol competition then when onstage singing away, to press the buttons on the joypad when prompted to on-screen. The more accurate you are, the better you do. Simple as that. You begin by singing small snatches of easy songs in the Auditions and progress to full versions of complex ballads and hi-tempo tunes in the finals. After each song you are graded by the Pop Idol judges and once in the final ten you are subjected to an audience vote to get you through.
On screen is a cross-shape. From each side the four Playstation symbols travel towards the centre. You must tap the relevant symbol when its hits the dead centre, and you are graded on your accuracy from a miss (Boo) through to a perfect hit (Awesome). When two symbols that are the same arrive joined together you must press and hold. When two different ones are joined you must press them both together. And that’s basically all there is to the gameplay. Keep pressing accurately and your character will sing beautifully and in perfect tune. However start to miss buttons and the fun really starts as your on screen persona begins to wobble out of tune. High notes are missed, the wrong key is lurched into, long notes are rendered flat as a pancake and the words are stumbled over. It’s superbly done as you genuinely get the sense of a song going hideously, hideously wrong. Of course once that ordeal is over you must face the next one. Simon Cowell, eek!
Yes, Pop Idol’s high-trousered Mr. Nasty appears in the game to pour scorn and derision on you as you battle your way from the auditions through to the finals. As this game has been developed in conjunction with the US version, “American Idol”, he is the only real life person to appear in both versions. So UK players may be disappointed at the lack of Foxy, Nikki, Pete Waterman and Ant and Dec. Instead some generic presenters fill in the gap. Graphically the game is a mixture of two styles. The audition, studio and rehearsal areas are rendered realistically, with footage from the show breaking up the rounds. The actual characters, from your own avatar to the comperes and judges are cel-shaded and chunky. They also move in an adorably lumpen (and accurate!) way as they shuffle about emphasising the emotion of the song with hand motions and awkward dance steps.
You also have huge freedom in creating your character, with literally hundreds of clothes, hairdos, make-up styles and er.. hats to kit them out in. Once you reach the finals, you can even change clothes between songs. I hate to be a gender traitor, but I have to admit that this dressing up aspect appealed hugely to the girls playing the game as they agonised over their outfits for AGES! Each time you complete a few stages you unlock a new special costume to kit your character out in, which usually means some ghastly hotpant and bra combo for the ladies and tracksuit and beany hat for the blokes. Still, much amusement can be had from trying to make your character look like you as well.
As for the music, well it’s pretty much what you would expect. Falling firmly into the middle-of-the-road pop song/ballad territory (wouldn’t you just love to hear the words, “today I am going to perform “Scentless Apprentice” by Nirvana” on Pop Idol instead of the inevitable, “I Believe I Can Fly”?), it is stuffed full with over forty tracks you obviously never liked, but somehow you KNOW ALL THE WORDS TO. “Let Me Entertain You”, “Angels”, “Spinning Around”, “Baby One More Time” are typical of what it offers. As a sop to some of us older players, a couple of seventies classics have been thrown in (“I Will Survive” and “Lets Stay Together”), but otherwise its mostly recent hits. Word of Warning, if you happen to be over twenty-five you may find yourself saying “What the hell is this?”. Be prepared for much eye-rolling and mockery from the youngsters as they go “It’s Daniel Beddingfield you DUH!” (Who??). If you ever swore you would never turn into your Dad, this may find you teetering at the edge of the slippery slope playing this.
As you’ve probably gathered, this is a game that needs to be played with more than one player to get the full enjoyment. Easy mode is tailored so that even the most ham-fisted newbie can get through relatively easily. With short bursts of songs to start with, the game gently leads you through to the more complex and demanding tracks with trickier inputs, but the game is fairly generous with grading your accuracy in Easy Mode and the judges don’t crush your dreams too brutally. Ramp up the difficulty and it’s a different matter and this provides a longer challenge to the rhythm action expert. But the fun really begins when two or more of you enter the competition. As the other computer players are whittled down (and the game prefers to let human players stay on than the AI ones) it becomes rather tense. You can’t sing the same song more than once in the competition and you can end up in the final two with one of the hardest songs left to perform. It also pays to make your character dress stylishly as this can sway the audience a few points one way or the other as well.
As well as competition mode, there is a Party Play Mode where you can perform and pass cruel judgement on each other. A karaoke and jukebox mode where you can sing along with the words on the screen. A rehearsal mode where you can practice in your bedroom singing into a hairbrush, and for those fitter types out there you can compete using a dance mat rather than controller. The symbols change to arrows and you must leap up and down like some kind of demented River Dancer to keep in time with the music. Although this is not as slick as dedicated Bemani Dance games, it adds another layer of enjoyment (and humiliation potential) to what is basically the ideal party game. Best of all, the game retails at a very friendly price. It’s in most shops at around twenty-four pounds, and for such an enjoyable slice of pure pop fun that really can’t be criticised.
Are there any downsides to this game? Well if you despise the whole concept of Pop Idol and everything its represents you may not get much out of it. If you are one of those rather dour people who feel music should be deep, angsty and meaningful then you’ll probably dislike it as well. But then you probably don’t have any friends to play it with, so that’s OK. There are some aspects that are a little clumsy, for example the audience votes can seem a tad arbitrary in some cases, and the quotes from the judges and contestants can seem a little stilted. But considering the technical achievement the game manages in accurately depicting the way a vocal performance can go from perfection into flat, tuneless caterwauling that’s a pretty minor point.
The company behind this game are the UK based Codemasters, better known as the creators of the Colin McRae Rally and Micro Machines games. They should be applauded for taking this lucrative license and producing such a slick, enjoyable game, stuffed full of options to add longevity to what can be a fairly shallow genre. While lesser companies may have given us something as cynical as the rotten “Who Wants to be A Millionaire” and “Weakest Link” games, this manages to accurately represent not only the Pop Idol competition itself but induce similar reactions in spectators as the TV programme, from mirth to grudging respect. This was a genuine surprise to play and confounded many of the people I made play it expectations, by being both a good laugh and inducing levels of competitiveness not seen since Tekken Tag Tournament passed though the PS2. Even at full price this would be a game I would whole-heartedly recommend, at budget price, you really don’t have an excuse not to give it a whirl. It manages to walk the fine line of being accessible to casual gamers, while offering a decent challenge to experienced ones and I can’t recommend it enough.