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.

It's not just us.

"This is definitely a new thing," says Farah Deen, a 21-year-old student in Olney who is a fan of the series. "Most of my friends would not be caught dead in a karaoke bar."

But she and her friends stay up late to belt out their versions of "Material Girl" on her PlayStation 3. Sometimes, she says, the guys get more competitive about it than her female friends.

Nick Matheson, a 22-year-old gamer in Winchester, says he picked up the game on a lark, thinking his young nieces would like it. He and about a dozen of his friends used to get together to play slightly more . . . macho games, like the Madden football games, the Fight Night boxing games, or the bloody, World War II-themed Call of Duty games. Now, they're all SingStar fans, too.

Matheson says his friends were a little apprehensive at first, but after he and his twin brother squared off on a round of Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl," it was on. Matheson and his friends quickly grew obsessed with the game, staying up all night trying to beat each other's high scores.

"For about a month straight, every weekend, we were up till 4 a.m. in the morning singing every song," he says. "We're extremely competitive about it."

He has already pre-ordered his copy of SingStar 90s.

Sony doesn't seem to like it much if you refer to SingStar as a karaoke game in conversation. Jeff Reese, director of software marketing at the company, says the k-word has "negative connotations" among consumers.

Reese said the company hopes the game's broad appeal will help its game consoles crack a more mainstream market of consumers.

"We see this as appealing to a new audience for us," said Reese. "It really serves to bring in nontraditional gamers."

In a few months, Sony is set to launch the first PlayStation 3 version of the SingStar games, along with an online store for the game. While the SingStar games have been limited in holding about 30 tracks on each game disc, the PS3's hard drive will allow fans to buy and download as many songs as they like. Fans will also be able to upload their recordings.

EA has a new-ish social networking-style site based on karaoke, called the Sims on Stage, where users occasionally win perks from EA such as concert tickets. The company wouldn't say exactly how large its community is so far, but EA Vice President Ranah Edelin said users are posting thousands of new recordings every day.

"Not being a [good] singer doesn't mean you can't get up and sing," said Edelin. "As some of our users have shown."

I'll stay far away from any upload features, thanks, but that doesn't mean I don't get a complete chuckle out of rapping along to Vanilla Ice on the latest SingStar or trying to channel Ozzy Osbourne on the American Idol game on a Saturday night.

The real Simon Cowell, by the way, did not return calls requesting actual comment.

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