Musical games have long had their niche in the video-game industry. Fans of 'Dance Dance Revolution' or 'Pump It Up' like to show off their footwork; 'SingStar' and 'Karaoke Revolution' attract 'American Idol' wannabes. Such games can be fun at parties and they've always had a devoted audience, but they've never really attracted the masses.
That changed with the 2005 release of RedOctane's 'Guitar Hero.' Suddenly, every gamer had a fake Gibson connected to his PlayStation, and plenty of music lovers who don't usually play games got hooked as well.
The creators of 'Guitar Hero' are now developing 'Rock Band' - which adds drums and vocals to the formula - for Electronic Arts and MTV Games. Activision is preparing 'Guitar Hero III' for the holidays. And plenty of other studios have music games in the works. Fans of the genre are no longer a cult; today, it seems, every gamer wants to be a pop star.
'Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the '80s' (Activision, for the PlayStation 2, $49.99): Two-and-a-half stars out of four.
During the 1980s, dozens of excellent guitar bands, from the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets to Van Halen and R.E.M., roamed the earth. And yet, 'Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the '80s' inflicts Asia's 'Heat of the Moment' and .38 Special's 'Hold On Loosely' on us.
The latest edition of the 'Guitar Hero' series has the worst set of tunes by far. Instead of endearingly silly nonsense like Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man' (from the original game), it offers unlistenable sludge like Dio's 'Holy Diver.' It has a few new wave and pop metal gems (the Vapors' 'Turning Japanese,' Billy Squier's 'Lonely Is the Night') that are fun to play, but most of the tracks are things you probably never wanted to hear again.
More disappointing: 'Encore' includes only 30 tunes - less than half the content of 'Guitar Hero II,' and it's just as pricey. The core gameplay remains solid and enjoyable, even with lousy songs, so I can't be too harsh. But Activision really needs to step up its game if 'Guitar Hero III' is going to compete with 'Rock Band.'
'Boogie' (Electronic Arts, for the Wii, $59.99): One-and-a-half stars.
The premise of 'Boogie' is appealing enough, combining a karaoke game like 'SingStar' with a rhythm game like 'Dance Dance Revolution.' You make your character dance by swinging the Wii remote; midway through a tune you may need to pick up a microphone and sing a few bars.
The soundtrack is a predictable mix of karaoke favorites like 'We Are Family,' 'Y.M.C.A.' and 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.' And the graphics are vivid and colorful, with appealing, well-animated characters.
The problem with 'Boogie' is that the onscreen dancing really doesn't jibe with the controller movement. To score points you just have to wave the remote in time with the music, trying to match a metronomic beat, but you never feel like you're in charge of the action and there's no real skill involved. 'Boogie' deserves credit for trying something different on the Wii, but EA should have spent more time tightening up the controls before releasing it.
'High School Musical: Makin' the Cut!' (Disney, for the Nintendo DS, $29.99): Two stars.
I have one word for the zillion-selling 'High School Musical' soundtrack: Blecchh. Then again, I'm not a 13-year-old girl. And despite my limited appreciation of the 'HSM' songbook, 'Makin' the Cut!' is actually fairly entertaining.
It's essentially a knockoff of last year's 'Elite Beat Agents.' As Troy, Gabriella and the rest of the East High Wildcats perform in a nationwide talent hunt, you keep the beat by tapping icons as they fill up on the DS touch screen. Sometimes you may need to trace a letter or shoot a basketball, but the basic goal is to stay in rhythm.
'Makin' the Cut!' features 12 tunes from the original Disney Channel movie and its recently aired sequel. If you dig the music, it's a three-star game; otherwise, two stars.