Name of Game: PopStar Guitar
Developer: Broadsword Interactive
Publisher: XS Games
Release Date: 11/18/2008
We are now firmly in the age of the casual game. And that’s fine, it’s good. This entire pastime started with casual games. Without Pong, what would we be doing with all of our free time? In fact, some of the best games of the last few years have been casual games. However, the easy-to-design-for Wii and the explosion in rhythm game popularity have created a perfect storm of shovelware on the Nintendo system. Almost anyone can program something, press it to a disc,and ship it to stores. In fact, look for my first game, Baking Billy Sings the Classics next year. It’s a persistent online Massively Multiplayer FPS with resource gathering elements, rhythm based minigames, and enhanced AI controlled squadmates. In real time. That’s not what we’re here to discuss though. Out now for both PS2 and Wii, XS Games releases PopStar Guitar on the shivering masses.
PopStar Guitar is here to fill the void of pop music on consoles that the Guitar Hero and Rock Band juggernauts have left mostly untouched. Let’s face it-the desire to be a pop star is pretty big in our society these days. People look at Britney Spears and say to themselves “I could do that-and probably do it without self destructing.” Fame, fortune, paparazzi-everything you could dream about-and now you have the chance to go out and get it, with PopStar Guitar. To that end, you create your band with at least one member of the opposite sex to sing the appropriate songs, name them, name the band, and step into the spotlight. You’ll start at high-school level battle of the bands type events and work up to full on rock concerts in the main game. There are two mini-games here to get you used to the feel of the controls, one of them that you can even do multiplayer. Aside from briefly experimenting here, you won’t care too much about them. You can also earn money used to buy more outfits and accessories for your band.
Once you are past the startup screens, the entirety of the game will be a column of notes scrolling down the left hand side of the screen, and the band playing to the right. As you advance in venues, you will see different stages, setups, and lighting. The band itself follows the cartoony example set by other games in the genre. Slightly deformed and ultra-simplistic bodies with highly cartooned and easily recognizable faces. Nothing is great though. More attention was placed, and rightfully so, on the sounds
If it’s a music game, it better have some good sound, right? Yes. And PopStar Guitar doesn’t disappoint there. There are over 50 songs on here, and most of them come from actual bands with actual pop music hits. Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Rhianna, Three Doors Down, all of them lend their tracks to the game, and they fit very well. Then you have some covers-while they are obviously covers of other bands, they aren’t so jarring as to make you hate the game. The other music is “original tracks” from what we can assume are bands that haven’t reached stardom yet. Good for them. Practice, kids. Practice.
The music is good, crowd effects are sensible, and the sound effects from the music you play with the AirG are okay, so what’s the problem here? The AirG. I haven’t seen a game like this yet that completely covers up controller sound, and PopStar Guitar is no different. Worse, in fact. The AirG clicks very loud when you press, and just as loud when you release. The Wii Nunchuck is arguably quieter than the strum button on the guitar replicas of other games, but it seems like the AirG doubles that volume. Fortunately, you can take the AirG off the Wiimote, but that defeats the purpose of the add on.
Control and Gameplay
It is very difficult to innovate backwards. When Mario gave players the ability to run, it wasn’t long before Sonic was breaking land speed records. When Master Chief jumped into a Warthog, it wasn’t long before every FPS needed to have a vehicle section. And now after Guitar Hero, every music game has to have a guitar. This game tries to go a cheaper route: the AirG peripheral is a snap on cover for your Wiimote. You strum using the nunchuck’s control stick, and press the bright, shiny buttons to hit the notes as they scroll down. That’s it. That’s the game. To their credit, two of the AirG’s are included so that you can easily play co-op or one of the two minigames with a friend. At least until they stop being your friend and walk away because you made them play this. In order to suspend belief enough to think you are actually playing an instrument in a band, you need to hold something solid in your hands. Here, you have a plastic brick in one hand and a plastic banana in the other, connected by a length of wire. There is no way to fool your senses into thinking this is an instrument. Unless it was Tambourine Hero. (Note to self, buy rights to Tambourine Hero)
I really have to question the guitar choice entirely. When I think of the Jonas Brothers, Rhianna, Miley Cyrus, whoever, I don’t’ think of screaming guitar riffs and face melting solos. I think of synth beats, singing, and back-up dancers. The peripherals this game should have come with-or at least, support- are the DDR pad and a microphone. Pop music is to guitars as zip drives are to media storage-A decent start, but we’ve moved on since then.
And all of that would have been okay, if the AirG worked. At all. I’ve mentioned how the thing clicks loudly when you press it. It also sticks badly, up and down. What does all this mean to you the player? It means that even if you are on Beginner, you are going to have a frustrating nightmare on every single song.
Control and Gameplay: Dreadful
PopStar Guitar comes with fifteen actual songs, fifteen covers, and over twenty-five not-yet-ready-for-prime-time songs. It’s a fair amount of music to master, even if the primary stuff isn’t what you would be hearing on the radio. If you want to advance, you’ll need to master them all, across three difficulty levels. Granted, in order to do that, you’d have to actually want to go back and play more of the game. Because of the annoying controls, you don’t even have that much fun on easy, let alone hard mode.
Difficulty and balance in music rhythm games always comes via two ways-speed and number of notes. On the plus side, there are only four notes that you have to hit with the AirG. Also, the AirG is compact enough that both large-and small-handed people can grip and feel the notes. Gripping is not an issue. Speed isn’t much of one either, until you crank up the difficulty. Notes scroll down lazily so that you can get an idea of which key you’ll need to press. The only real problem with balance is, again, the AirG. As the buttons tend to stick, you’ll have a hard time pressing the notes in their proper setting, especially if you have a sequence like red, red, red in a row. The peripheral doesn’t allow a quick enough press/release much of the time.
This product is in no way original. Pop music has been done to death; rhythm games are storming the retail shelves at every opportunity; and this joining thereof is as devoid of originality as the last reality tv series.
Obsessive Compulsive behavior is a problem, and with time and understanding, we can overcome. This game would only be considered addictive only if it were to be given to a sufferer of that syndrome. Anyone else, when given a copy of this game, would do the smart thing and walk away. I can see if you really, really love pop music and you really, really love hitting the right button at the right time liking this game, but if not? No.
Before you understand what this game is, and how it is played, there is a definite appeal to it. While the Rock Band and Guitar Hero games can be very expensive or daunting to get into, here you have a game that is reasonably priced and aimed right at the tween segment of our society. You can see it sitting there on the shelf, telling Mom and Dad “It’s okay-buy me for Jill and Bethany. I’ve got a nice rating. I’m T for Teen! I’m not gonna break the bank. And both of them can play at the same time, since I come with two AirG’s!” Don’t fall for it, Mom and Dad. And Deren! Don’t buy this for your girlfriend Jenni. She might think she wants it, but she’d be happier with something else.
I know this because my wife actually cheered when we opened this up and got ready to play it. Afterwards, she spoke two sentences to me. Neither of them bear repeating. So I do applaud XS for knowing how to think up a good, well positioned game. I just wish they had done some more with it before launch.
Appeal: Above Average
There’s not going to be any bonus tracks to download, as the systems don’t really do that. Nor do I see any patch attempts coming down the pipeline. Most likely, we’ll get another one of these next year if sales do well. And if it is an actual, problems addressed, new version of the game, that might be worth looking into. But if XS Games just licenses more tracks and presses them onto a disc, well, that game won’t be worth your gaming dollar either. I wanted to like this game, I really did. But there were a few crucial failures on the fun side of things. One important note-The PS2 version allegedly allows use of Guitar Hero peripherals-which would have greatly improved things on the Wii.
Control and Gameplay: Dreadful
Final Score: Poor Game
Short Attention Span Summary
Take the form of any other music rhythm game on the market, add songs that are more purely pop music, price it well within most people’s reach, and then hamstring what could have been a decent game with a horrible control scheme. In the realm of music games, PopStar Guitar is not a headliner. They barely rate garage band.