American Popstar: Road to Celebrity
Genre: Rhythm/Life Simulation
Release Date: 05/25/09
There was this game I played a few years back on my cell phone called Surviving High School. The gist of the game was essentially that you were going through your senior year of high school, trying to find a girl/boyfriend, trying to be some sort of star athlete, and in general trying to be the most awesome kid at your school. Despite having been out of high school for nearly a decade by that point, and despite the fact that the game was small, derivative, and generally linear, I had a lot of fun with it, mostly because it succeeded at doing what it was trying to do, which was emulating The Sims while still being its own thing. Since then, I’ve played an unfortunately large amount of games that, like Surviving High School, tried to emulate what The Sims did while being story-driven affairs, and almost none of them have managed to get it right. They failed to make the concept in any way meaningful, or they forced you along a linear path with no possible way to advance otherwise, or they focused on meaningless stat-building instead of actually focusing on making an enjoyable product. American Popstar: Road to Celebrity is the latest in a long line of such games from developer Gameloft, in which the Sims-esque dynamic is crossed with making it big as a musician. As downloadable games go, it’s fairly entertaining and makes surprisingly good use of the DSi features, but several notable flaws make it less interesting and enjoyable than it potentially could have been.
American Popstar starts off promisingly enough: you’re given the option of creating your own character (male or female) and dressing them up a bit before the game kicks in with the tutorial to show you how everything works. After learning the basics, you’re sent off to school to participate in the American Popstar auditions to show the world that you’re a big deal. As you’d expect, you’ll go through many hardships along the way, both because of bad decisions and because of the actions of others, but ultimately, you overcome your hardships, prove yourself to the world and become a big-time smash hit through your own abilities… and the powers of a magical fairy who gives you good luck and stat boosts. Yep. The story is fine enough and it’s cute, but it’s exceptionally linear. You can’t succeed unless the game says so, you can’t pick any other girl/boyfriend except for the one the game sticks you with (even if you happen to like someone completely different), and it feels more like a silly teen film that you’re just nudging along than a story you’re actually taking part in.
On the plus side, Gameloft opted to use sprites in American Popstar instead of the horrid 3D they used in Miami Nights, and this makes for a far more appealing product. The sprites themselves are fairly basic, but they emote well and are cute to look at. The character art that pops up for various characters is also well done, and it’s nice to see that your personal artwork changes as you change hair styles, so your character doesn’t look entirely different from their picture. The environments are also sufficiently different from one another so as to look unique, though most aren’t anything special. On the other hand, the developers put in an animation of someone doing the Peanuts dance, and it’s very hard to say anything bad about that. Aurally, the biggest bit of note about American Popstar is that it includes snippets of semi-popular Top 40 tracks. The tracks are roughly about a minute or so long, and while they don’t appear to have been performed by the artists that made the songs famous, they’re performed by reasonable enough facsimiles of the bands to be convincing, and they sound fine. The background tunes in the game aren’t quite as good as these pop hits, but they get the job done and sound fine. The odd sound effects and voice samples sound functionally fine, if not fantastic.
Playing American Popstar is simple enough, as most of your time will be spent wandering around talking to people or interacting with things. You can move around the world with the D-pad or the stylus, and interacting with a person/thing is as simple as pressing a button near the thing or tapping it with the stylus, then pressing a button or tapping on the thing you wish to do. Conversing with people is as simple as choosing a conversation option, which usually breaks down to “Talk” for regular conversation/jokes/compliments, “Affection” to give gifts and make smoochies, “Offer” to have duets of various types, and “Challenge” to challenge them to a competition of some type. Each person has different tastes in conversation, so you’ll have to pay attention to the scrolling bar by their name to discover what things they best respond to and talk about those things. Items are much simpler, as they simply pop up a list of what you can do with them, and you can choose to do whatever is there, so you can sleep in a bed, wash your hands in a sink, and so on. Moving from location to location is also simple enough, as you’ll just use the stylus to move around the world map, then tap on a location and, if necessary, a sub-location in that location to go there.
Of course, there are all sorts of mini-games in American Popstar, and while a few basically just boil down to one-shot games to make money or advance the plot, the music-based games are more involved and pop up regularly. The four main mini-games you’ll encounter work as follows:
SINGING: You’ll be given a phrase line to follow and a bar that scrolls across the phrase line which you’ll have to follow along with. The idea here is to trace the phrase line in time with the scrolling bar to fill the phrase line green, which earns you points. This is far and away the worst of the mini-games, as it’s generally very picky about whether you are or aren’t in tune with the song. On harder difficulties it can be nearly impossible to actually earn a decent score.
GUITAR: Six frets are lined up at the bottom of the screen, notes fall from the top, and you’ll have to tap/hold the frets to set them off as they reach the bottom. This mini-game is perfectly fine, though it can be difficult to set off multiple notes at once if you’re not prepared to scrape across them quickly.
DANCE: Five spots are at the top of the screen, dance steps fly towards them from the bottom, and you have to tap the spots as the steps reach them. This mini-game is similar to the guitar game above, but the layout and design aren’t as good; having the spots at the top of the screen means your hand can get in the way of the screen as you tap if you’re not careful (which you won’t be on higher difficulties), and the pacing on higher difficulties is harder to adjust to than the guitar mini-game, making this a bit more complex.
DRUMS: This is the easiest to play of the mini-games. You’re given two snare drums and a cymbal to play, which you can do with the stylus (which is hard) or the left and right bumpers (which is easy). Notes fall individually or in pairs, and you’ll have to hit the snares/cymbals as they reach the bottom of the screen. This mini-game is exceptionally easy to play, works very well, and isn’t overly complex except on the hardest setting, making it a personal favorite.
As you interact with people/things and go through mini-games, your stats will rise/fall in relation to the activities. For example, rocking out with a friend might increase your guitar skill and your charisma, but might make you tired. Your stats don’t decrease on their own, mind you, so you won’t be constantly monitoring their status, but you’ll have to manage the base line stats (hygiene, hunger, bathroom, energy) and fix them when they get out of line. The rest of your stats are related to your abilities, i.e., your charisma, your musical skills, your humor and other such things, and as you use these skills successfully, they increase. Maxing out your skills can be done with some basic repetition, but bad performances and storyline events can also decrease those stats, so you’ll want to keep an eye on them as well to make sure they’re at their best. Curiously, the whole game is based around stats that improve charisma, musical talent, and tenacity, all of which are vital tools for the successful musician… but there are no intellectual stats in the game to improve, though after reading the quotes by famous performers the game like to sprinkle in during loading screens (a sample: “Pink isn’t a color, it’s a state of mind!” from Miley Cyrus), that might actually be appropriate.
So, yeah, American Popstar is mostly solid with some minor hiccups here and there, but there are a few odd things that ruin the experience a little. First off, the above-mentioned mini-games. Now, in case this was not readily conveyed above, singing is the worst game of the lot, it is often more frustrating and annoying than enjoyable, and isn’t very well implemented. Drumming on the other hand is plenty of fun, easy to learn and work with, and quite enjoyable overall. So, go ahead and take a guess: of the two mini-games, which one do you play more often? Yes, SINGING. Singing factors into most of the performances you have to make in the game, while drumming pops up a small handful of times and is almost never relevant to the experience, to the point that it isn’t even an OPTION when you’re performing in most locations. This is, presumably, because there are no famous drummers in the world, as I’m certain Keith Moon, Phil Collins and Dave Grohl can tell you. Some of the decisions/plot points the game puts you in are really stupid, Disney Channel situations, and while that works for, say, a sitcom, giving the player the option to maybe NOT be a spiteful moron would be nice.
It’s also somewhat unfortunate that, much like Miami Nights, nothing really matters much unless the game decrees it to be so. Your stats don’t matter until the game needs them to be at a specific level, whereupon it will either force you to grind them to a specific level or magically jack them up by way of your fairy godmother. It doesn’t matter if you have money until the game says it does, and then you will conveniently either make money or find an alternate solution. You needn’t tell jokes, challenge people to contests, give gifts or do anything other than talking until the game forces you to, and then you can just go back to ignoring said options because the game will most likely never ask you to do them again. This is also true for friends and romantic interests. You’ll have to make a few friends for storyline purposes, but you’ll never have to follow up with them in any meaningful way, and your love interest is decreed at the beginning of the story, so you needn’t consider wooing anyone else, because there’s no point, really. All of the above complaints are symptomatic of a bigger problem with the game, though: it’s a straight shot from beginning to end that doesn’t deviate or change in any way. The aforementioned Surviving High School, which was a five dollar game cell phone game that offered a surprisingly large amount of choices for the player to go through, which made it worth playing multiple times just to see through different paths. American Popstar is an eight dollar game that will show you everything it has to show off the first time you complete it, giving you no reason to come back to it.
This isn’t to say that American Popstar isn’t amusing and enjoyable, mind you. If you’re just looking for a cute, Sims-like game that allows you to be a top pop star, American Popstar does a good enough job of this… it just doesn’t do enough to make it better than many of its competitors. The game has a cute presentation, is simple enough to play, and is pretty entertaining, and if you’re a fan of these sorts of games, it’s worth checking out. However, the linear and cliché story is very by-the-numbers and you’ve seen it all before, some of the mini-games work better than others and the ones that tend to work the least are given the most focus, your stats/friendships/romantic interests are mostly meaningless unless the plot calls for them, and there’s no reason to play it more than once. Until someone releases Surviving High School or something similar to it on the DSi service, American Popstar isn’t a bad alternative, especially for eight dollars, but unless you’re a big fan of simplified Sims-esque games, you most likely won’t play through this more than once.
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
FINAL SCORE: BELOW AVERAGE GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
American Popstar is fine for anyone who likes the recent crop of dumbed-down Sims-like titles, always wanted to be a pop musician, and doesn’t mind a little bit of obvious cliché and frustration in their entertainment. The presentation is generally nice, if not spectacular, the game is mostly simple to play and easy to understand, and a good bit of the mini-games that populate the experience are fun and enjoyable. Unfortunately, this game is very one-dimensional and stereotyped, not all of the mini-games are particularly well designed, there’s no effort or thought involved in raising your stats or making friends/romantic interests because the game just forces you to do what it needs you to do at the moment, then moves along without asking you to maintain things or dedicate any actual effort to something (beyond grinding, of course), and there’s no reason to come back to the game once you’ve completed it. American Popstar is cute and simple, and anyone who’s looking for something cute and simple should have some fun with it, but for anyone looking for something a little more varied than a linear, entry-level Sims-like product might better be served downloading Surviving High School for their cell phone instead.