Karaoke That Lets You Compete

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, March 16, 2008

Simon Cowell thinks I'm awesome.

"You are a natural, a complete and utter natural," raves the "American Idol" judge, after I croon the '70s-era song "Come Sail Away" into my Xbox 360. "You're one of the best we've ever had," he offers, after a performance of the grunge-era "Black Hole Sun."

Cowell isn't famous for flattery, of course, unless you turn the settings way down to "easy" on a new video game based on the TV show. Then you can get away with quite a bit of tone-deafness. Personal note to Randy J.: I love you too, dawg.

American Idol Encore is one of the latest video games that invite players to plug a microphone, rather than a game controller, into their home system. It's like karaoke: Pick a song and follow the notes represented by horizontal bars that whiz by on your TV screen, along with the words. The game tells you whether you're in tune. Hit the right notes, and you win points; go off key for too long, and you might get booted off the virtual stage.

Singing games have been around for a while, but this could be a breakthrough year for the genre -- at least, that's what some game companies are hoping. Lately, it seems big-box electronics stores have a wide range of titles for almost every contemporary music taste, from High School Musical to hard rock. Game publisher Electronic Arts has even launched a social-networking site where users post and rate each other's performances.

One of the biggest video-game phenoms of the moment, Rock Band, riffs off the success of the Guitar Hero series by throwing in a microphone with guitar and drum game controllers. Where Guitar Hero appeals to the guitar-playing wannabe, Rock Band, as the name suggests, completes the band. Despite the game's hefty $170 price tag, the set quickly sold more than 1 million units this holiday season.

There are more sing-along games on the way: This week marks the debut of the latest sing-along entry in Sony's SingStar series, exclusively for PlayStation consoles.

While other singing games display an avatar busting moves to the music, the gimmick with this series is that it plays a song's original video as your friends sing in head-to-head or duet modes. Previous versions of the series have had an '80s theme or been based on more current pop songs from the likes of Avril and Britney. The latest version, SingStar 90s, features songs from Chumbawamba and R.E.M. The franchise has sold 11 million copies worldwide.

I avoided this entire genre with a cringe, as any sensible person would, until fairly recently.

Here's what I offer as an excuse: Last fall, I got married in the Caribbean at the tail end of the rainy season. Fearing that my friends and family would be stuck indoors and in need of entertainment during a downpour, I threw a couple of unopened SingStar games into a suitcase.

I can't blame rainy weather for the results. Ever see one of your best friends and your new brother-in-law crooning away to win the most points on the song "Tainted Love"? I highly recommend it, though not for the musical value.

Ever since, my wife has broken out the SingStar just about every time we've had a get-together. And yes, despite this, people still come over.

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