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.
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.
The Dance Dance Revolution series may be a bit long in the tooth these days, but it's still the leading example of rhythm action success. In times when arcades are wheezing in their iron lung, its visible presence amongst today's lightgun and driving cling-ons has engendered a cult following. It's more likely than not because of both its physical nature and its role as a podium for skilled showmanship: compared to any other arcade game nothing, nothing will attract a member of the opposite sex more than simultaneously busting a string of Perfect moves on two dance pads at speeds of over 400bpm. Nothing.
Although that's more likely wishful thinking on our part as we bumble through the Easy version of S Club 7 in the PS2's Dancing Stage Megamix; their precocious teenage beat is Konami's sugar-filled pop counterweight to the traditional hardcore dance. If the series is ever to be criticised, it's in its failure to fully exploit the gap between those two extremes, particularly in the UK.
Unheard of by most, Codemasters did attempt such a thing with Dance Factory: a game with the ability to intelligently add dance moves to your own CDs. Unfortunately, as its obscurity has taught us, it never quite worked. The game was too random to appeal and without the sculpture of professional arrowsmiths, a little flat. Indeed, these kinds of games work best when the moves are planned in advance and synched to the beats.
Which leads us to Stepmania. Having been around the longest, Stepmania is one of the most comprehensive and well-laid out of all of these clones. The established website still regularly supplies news and fresh songs, as well as giving you all the pictorial knowledge you'll need to design your own. For those who can't go through all the rigmarole of downloading it all, though, the site also sells a compilation CD of dozens of original songs to purchase for a small price. All earnings of which go towards a self-run competition offering cash prizes to dedicated creators of original Stepmania songs.
As for the actual software itself, it shows all the hallmarks of a professional release. All modes, from solo to multiplayer, are accommodated, and the interface both mirrors and enhances the DDR template with its garish colours, static backgrounds and excitable SFX. Again, editing songs takes a minimum amount of musical skill, but it's self-intuitive enough to pick it up in no time.
Given the love poured into it, and the community's enthusiasm, there's no doubt that Stepmania is an essential download. Its ample charms readily evoke daydreams of your own self, feet of flame in a dingy Japanese arcade, egged on by attractive otaku (instead of bumbling on your bedroom carpet).
Frets on Fire
What does Guitar Hero give us that led those who played it to declare it as one of the greatest pieces of gaming to plug into a PS2 (and 'Eurogamer's Number One Game of 2006', naturally)? Two words: wish fulfilment. The Rock God fantasy may be a small-minded dream of faded rock journalists and mid-life crisis AC/DC fans until... until you strap a not-to-scale plastic guitar on your shoulder and channel the spirit of rock into your pudgy fingers. Then you realise what Tenacious D's semi-parodic worship of the taut-stringed totem means.
Even if it is relatively new, the fast-paced PC programming world has already seen a couple of software clones pop up on the scene. In particular, Frets on Fire, which let you physically use your keyboard Guitar Hero-wise. Cradle it upside down and let the F1-F5 buttons represent the coloured buttons of the GH guitar, and strum by hitting the enter bar. It's the best thing to happen to the keyboard since the Shift key, if still no real substitute for the real thing.
Since Guitar Hero is the least likely to require distracting background visuals, its clone does its job perfectly well. Like buying own-brand supermarket food, it's almost exactly the same, but doesn't have that brand cachet you'd most likely prefer. And obviously, it's cheaper. And by cheap we mean free. And, yes, given the fact you can import Guitar Hero songs you'll no doubt be buying the guitar and discs anyway, so everybody wins, don't they?
Alternatively, there's also Freetar Hero, another GH clone. While FoF requires OGG files, Freetar Hero uses MP3s, making things a little easier to setup. Although it is admittedly a little behind in terms of presentation, it still shows some promise.
As for songs, don't say we didn't predict it, but a quick search reveals evidence of Gitaroo Man tracks. Find us the tune from the first level of Doom and we'll die happy. Oh, and can you also use a Wii remote to play? According to Wikipedia you can. Oh, yes. It's, like, videogaming's most free-love love-in ever. Long may it rock.