When The Music Stops

Revive those rhythm action peripherals on your PC. For free.

Where lie your Samba de Amigo maracas? Displayed as a dusty trophy on the upper shelves of your bedroom closet, no doubt. Which cobwebbed corner of the attic have you stuffed your unwieldy Steel Battalion console desk? What treasure chest did you bury your Dreamcast fishing rod in after you'd fished all you had to fish?

We've had a bit of an on-again/off-again love affair with peripherals, us gamers. When almost the entire history of sofa gaming can be condensed into the sticks and buttons of your common or garden joypad, any alternative mode of input guarantees a burst of interest. You need only glance at the Wii to understand that fact; Nintendo is capitalising on that difference of control, and capitalising well.

Take heed, though, of the dedicated peripheral. Built generally for one purpose, and one purpose only, even those met with critical praise have never really survived beyond their initial period of novelty. Peripherals need constant love and attention to last and any device that focuses its specialities needs a steady supply of dedicated software. Once the buzz factor dries up and the software releases decline (if it get off the ground at all), it's time to lay it in the attic graveyard.

There are some, though, that endure. More specifically - through their popularity and effectiveness - it's the rhythm action peripherals that keep a pulse. We're talking chiefly about the hardy Dance Dance Revolution, the Lambrini-fuelled Singstar, and 'Eurogamer's No. 1 Game of 2006' Guitar Hero. Each in their own way has etched a place in the mainstream with a semi-regular stream of data released or promised for all. And yet now is more important than ever because, with the sun sharply rising on the downloadable content age, each of their makers are realising that not only can they keep their attendant peripherals alive at less cost to themselves, but at the same time, give the public what they want. Letting users pick and choose their own packages of content is certainly much more effective than a major airdrop every few months, especially if, in the manner of trying to please everybody, the complete compilations please few.

That's off in the distance for now, however. The good news, though: we, the public, got there first. Clever bedroom coders, not wishing to see their love of rhythm action die, have designed free clones of all three titles for PC, all perfectly capable of accepting the input of each peripheral, and all, like those titles from whom they've extracted DNA, perfectly simple to operate. What's more, in the spirit of the PC's resourcefulness each title gives you the option to either edit challenges to the tune of your choice, or grab a pre-made track online from the assortment that users have already produced. Free from the restrictions of official releases, it's plain to see that - if admittedly in a grey area of legality - it opens up infinite options for the tracklists of your choice.

We've got a summary of each, but really, the point of this feature is to implore you to dust off once more what have all regularly been deemed the best games of their type, regardless (or possibly because of) their control method. It's about as simple as investing in a PS2 to USB converter to attach your peripherals to PC, and you're up and running, ready to sing/dance/rock the night away.

Ultrastar

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It mimics the interface, certainly, if not quite the atmosphere.

Singstar's mics are probably the most enduringly mainstream music-based peripheral available today, simply because they lend themselves so well to a party atmosphere. Sony's tactic of constructing regular compilations of cutting-edge artists, sing-along classics, gay anthems, and golden-oldies has guaranteed that every package it releases has at least one song you'll want to throw off your self-conscience to. It's no wonder that ever since its early PS3 announcements Sony has made Singstar a poster child for its downloadable content strategy.

Predicted bad news, then: we're expecting restricted (and slightly costly) releases for PS3 Singstar. While we can't help feel that you'll be able to download the latest Robbie Williams or The Kooks (with a possible cynical emphasis on Sony BMG artists), what are the chances of Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, Cansei de Ser Sexy's A La La, or even those sing-able, yet beyond the realms of feasible marketability (or most people's tastes) classics, like One Armed Scissor by At The Drive-In, or all nine frayed denim jacketed minutes of Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell?

Which is exactly why Ultrastar was created. No fuss: in simple terms, just plug your USB microphones into the PC and sing along to your own mp3s.

The website to go to in terms of getting started is accessible through these magnificent blue words. It's a little basic in design, sure, but having said that, not really in need of much else. While pre-made song packages are superficially thin on the ground - quite possibly because of the precarious legality of supplying them - searching the corners of the web should find you a good few edited text files for inclusion with your own music files.

Making your own challenges, however, is a different matter. When we say a potentially infinite selection of songs, that does rely on mastering the editing process. Those with an ear for musical timings and pitch shouldn't have too many problems once they've sunk their teeth into the basic interface, even if getting someone else to do the dirty work is a far greater prospect.

The only real criticism to make of Ultrastar is that, without a background video, it's a little too dry. It's hard to imagine a successful party huddled around a white screen as you try to hit a high note. And it's that additional seeking for an MPEG video to synch to proceedings that puts a bit of a damper on the whole legally dubious experience. A good effort, but the least likely to hold your interest over Sony's original.

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