"I'm a maaaan, without convic-shuuuuun, I'm a man who doesn't knooooooooooow!"
Ah, Singstar. How we love your ability to make total fools out of normally sane and balanced individuals. How we cherish the unintentional comedy value to be had out of a drunken Saturday night, a gaggle of friends and a couple of microphones. It's karaoke for people that don't like karaoke.
Finding out just how dreadful ordinary folks are at singing can be a strange and shocking thing, but we kind of expect that your average Joe won't be able to hit the notes that Foreigner's Lou Gramm managed during 'I Want To Know What Love Is'. It's hardly revelatory that a beefy Rugby type sounds a bit of a berk belting out 'Simply the Best'. But nothing can top the side-splitting antics of hearing a formerly mute friend belt out 'Eye of the Tiger' with aplomb. Where did that come from? You'll see a different side to your friends that's for sure.
But the problem with Singstar games - for many of us - is that its track listing can tend to be a bit scattershot in its approach. For every rip-roaring all-time classic, there's a dodgy Daniel Bedingfield number stinking the place up. In fact all three versions released to date have been trying hard to please everyone, but have succeeded to wildly varying degrees in doing so. The problem's a generational thing to a large extent; if you're not familiar with all the current pop hits, you're stuffed. Likewise, if you're a nipper, it's no use loading the track list with crusty old 60s and 70s numbers.
World shut your mouth
But it's not even as simple as being an issue of song familiarity; many of Singstar's numbers suffer in terms of their singability. For example, loads of Singstar Party's songs were simply pitched way too high for 'normal' people to sing without sounding like a complete falsetto clown. As familiar as you may be with certain songs, a world of shame awaits as soon as you open your mouth.
So, to address the familiarity issue, Sony has realised that being a little more targeted in its approach might help make the game's appeal extend a little further, and Singstar 80s is the first specifically niche-targeted edition to make it out of the blocks.
As such, the 30-odd track list has some sure-fire crowd-pleasers in there that can't really fail to get most people giggling at the prospect. Tracks as ubiquitous as Come On Eileen, Our House, Uptown Girl, Eye Of The Tiger, Rio, Simply The Best and Don't You Forget About Me are just destined to become instant Singstar classics. On the other hand, some of these are such done-to-death wedding party staples that some of us would sooner spoon our own eyes out than have to be seen singing along to such a cringeworthy collection. There's a fine line between what constitutes a classic and just plain irritating. There are only so many times you want to hear Karma Chameleon in your life, and most of us reached our upper limit in August 1983.
On the whole, Sony has managed to balance the collection with reasonable astuteness, getting a decent mix of party belters, ballads and songs that will suit the average male voice without having to inhale helium first, and the average female without having to smoke 80 Marlboro reds. There are, of course, still the odd numbers that will test even the most confident singers, but that's the challenge, we suppose. We can't all be Barry White and Barry Gibb at the same time. Not without Absinthe being involved, at any rate.
The actual structure and mode offerings remain practically unchanged since the spring release of Popworld, which comes as a minor disappointment. The general premise is simply to stay in tune with what's going on - the actual octave doesn't matter, which is a relief to those of us whose testicles dropped when Frankie were busy Relaxing. The skill of the game is undermined in that there's no actual requirement to sing the words either - you can just blether your way through the game as long as you're pitching it all correctly. Once Sony can actually come up with a singing recognition system that truly measures the phonetics of what you're singing rather than just the pitch of the note it'll be a true test of your singing prowess. On the other hand, any game that lets your win by swearing in tune has to be commended.
Foul-mouthed antics aside, there are a plethora of single and multiplayer modes to wade through, though it's pretty unlikely you're ever going to want to play it all on your own unless your some kind of sadomasochist that enjoys punishing everyone and everything within earshot with your wailings. Generally speaking, the multiplayer modes are reasonably good, giving you the chance to battle it out simultaneously on the same tune, with points being racked up in relation to your ability to hold the tune. This mode is by far the most enjoyable and adds a much-needed competitive element to what would otherwise just be a freak show. It also lets your mumbling off-key performance hide behind someone else's, which is a crucial reason why it's such a popular multiplayer game.
What's the point?
There are a few other fairly pointless modes which could be massively improved - most obviously the Duet mode, which is massively hampered by a lack of genuine duets in the collection, as well as the inability of the game to recognise harmony elements. Merely giving you alternate verses doesn't quite work, especially when you end up with a particularly tough bit to warble through.
Perhaps the best way of duking it out in a party scenario is the game's Pass The Mic mode, which allows you to play up to seven different rounds of differing game styles from standard Battle, Medley (short snatches of songs), First to the Post (the first to reach a point tally wins), Duet, Keep It Up (keep the performance bar above a pre-determined level for as long as possible), Micro Medley and Pass The Mic (team mates take it in turns to sing a section of the song). For up to eight players, it's a definitely a great way to ensure everyone's involved and not just sniggering from the sidelines...
You can also hook up an EyeToy to enable the game to film video clips of your 'performances', but you'll soon tire of having your memory cards filled up with junk warblings. A far better idea to get an audience member to use a digital camera that does the same job but in far better quality, if you ask us. Annoyingly, Sony still hasn't managed to fix the synching issues with the audio playback, meaning that even your finest performances will sound suspiciously off the pace for reasons we still can't work out. How hard can it be, Sony?
As a side note, Sony has also thrown in a bewilderingly rubbish version of Pong where you must make a high or low sound in order to move the bat up or down the screen. Complete with cute 80s retro graphics, it feels like more of a throwaway joke than anything that seriously going to entertain anyone for more than five seconds, so on that basis we'll let them off.
So, version four's out the door and Sony's still content to milk the idea a little bit more without actually improving the technology behind the game. We're wholeheartedly in favour of the more targeted approach of an 80s version of the game, and apart from going for some dreadfully obvious choices it's not a bad little package. If Sony could offer more tracks per release it'd be worth the money, but as it stands it feels a little overpriced for the existing fans who'd be more than justified in feeling a little brassed-off with the idea of spending more on what is essentially the same game as last time with new tunes. But if you've somehow managed to resist the temptation to teach the world to sing, get on board the Singstar bandwagon with the '80s edition, without doubt the definitive edition to date.