We love to sing, even when we have no demonstrable ability to do so. We do it in the car, in the shower, in the corner of that dive bar after one too many. And we’re increasingly doing it before television screens with a microphone attached to a gaming console.
Karaoke games sure as hell don’t get respect from the hardcore gaming crowd, but damned if they’re not proliferating like Sex and the City knock-offs. Scoff if you will at Disney’s monolithic High School Musical franchise, but never underestimate the power of unleashing your inner Zac Efron.
Such is the tween charm of High School Musical: Sing It!, a game that gives both 9 year olds and, after they’ve gone to bed, their parents a chance to belt out the entire song catalogues of the original flick and its sequel, racking up scores and unlocking new stages.
At $60, it’s something of a steep pop, but then again, this is the same parent demographic that ponied up a grand for Hannah Montana tickets, so anything’s possible.
When you think about it, a gaming console isn’t far removed from the blow dryer previous generations of sixth graders used when turning their living rooms into Star Search. The difference is there’s a rudimentary tool to measure your relative vocal suckage. In determining your “score,” most of these games are tracking tone, pitch, and your ability to come within a barn’s broadside of either.
You may not rack up the points, but at least you finally have objective proof that you’re not the next Ashley Tisdale. (Thank God.) Meanwhile, Sony’s Singstar franchise has taken on an almost K-Telian, Time-Warner vibe, with the company kicking out era- and genre-themed discs to please all segments of the karaoke demographic. Feeling Madonna? Flip Singstar ’80s into your PlayStation 2. Rather channel Chris Cornell in Audioslave? Singstar Amped has you covered. And, hey, don’t forget Singstar ’90s, a title sure to remind us of the, um, musical excellence of Vanilla Ice and Color Me Badd.
The Singstar games are the Wal-Mart of the karaoke-game world, giving you the basics in a package that comes closest to approximating a hip MTV vibe. The artist’s music video plays on-screen, and you sing along, alone, or against a bunch of friends.
More than other karaoke games, Singstar captures the comedy element of the late-night bar — the joy of busting a gut at your tone-deaf friend’s fingers-on-a-chalkboard hubris. It’s the same reason that the opening episodes of each American Idol season — the ones where Simon and company eviscerate the most hopeless of America’s tone-deaf wannabes — are always the most entertaining.
Singstar for the PlayStation 3 comes out in May, giving anyone who’s bothered to pick up a PlayStation Eye camera the chance to finally complete the YouTube trifecta, capturing and sharing your own private performances with the world. Or at least on PlayStation’s Home Network.
I’m not sure if Simon Cowell would appreciate the irony inherent in a videogame based on his show. Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol is probably the weakest among the contestants. Idol tries to incorporate commentary from the show’s trio of pixellated judges. Six times out of 10, that commentary is wildly off-base. Let’s see: The score and the crowd reaction say you just nailed your performance, and you’re on the receiving end of another poisonous Cowell bon mot. Cruel to be kind just ain’t worth the time.
Which brings us, finally, to Rock Band. Arguably, the ability to break out your best Rivers Cuomo whine on “Say It Ain’t So” is the least appealing part of diving into the ongoing phenomenon. And it’s not just because the game’s focus on a realistic band experience includes surprisingly loud audience sing-alongs. Somehow, there’s just not as much drama in hitting the high notes in Garbage’s “I Think I’m Paranoid” as there is in nailing the fast-break drum solo.
And yet you can argue that rockin’ the USB mic in Rock Band is closer, in a very limited, very plastic kind of way, to the sort of ersatz fame we’re all reaching for when we raise the microphone and draw a deep breath in the first place.