Konami used to have the best music games development team anywhere. Its pop'n'music series is still highly popular in Japan and among a niche, importer U.S. fan base, in spite of a fumbled Wii release. Beatmania IIDX is still one of the best music games in the entire industry, and its patterns are being emulated in so many of today's music games. Dance Dance Revolution is still popular. So why is it that it keeps farming out its highly valuable brand name to third parties who make mediocre games, sullying what was once the biggest brand in the music/rhythm genre?
The Karaoke Revolution series has had challengers. While Sony's SingStar series never really turned me on with its music video-centric focus, Microsoft's Lips has proven a highly capable challenger, with engaging visuals and features that no one else has even begun to challenge. Then there are the elephants in the room: the games that let you play guitar along with your singing, if you so choose. Sure, Guitar Hero's vocal rules are sadistic at best, but Rock Band has the same mechanics, the same character customization core, and does a lot of the themes better.
Amidst all of this, Konami has decided to "reboot" several of their series in hopes of getting a fresh foothold in U.S. marketing ... and then they hired Blitz Games to do the new Karaoke Revolution. The result is pretty bad, with only a couple of saving graces.
For reference, this new Karaoke Revolution had me excited at E3 because Konami stated that all the songs from previous games were likely to come back as DLC, and that the new game would be all master tracks. If anything could get this game to be interesting again, it was the likes of Madonna. Instead, we got a paltry DLC list, with several genre categories completely empty, and all covers. If you want the original versions of any song on the list, you have to stick with the 50 songs on the disc, even though 80+ tracks have become the norm in music/rhythm offerings. Even worse, the selection is pretty weak, with utterly none of the high-energy selections that are the key to karaoke parties. One-tenth of the soundtrack consists of the Jackson 5, with only one song by the guy who made sure the Jackson 5 are even remembered nowadays. There's the requisite Coldplay, Daughtry in the rock section, and little else to make the selections interesting, even in the DLC. I can't figure out what audience, if any, Konami was going for, but the current spread feels like a surefire bore to just about everyone — even fans of bands like Coldplay and Daughtry.
To make things worse, the game's visuals are either boring or just flat-out creepy. The drummer's animations pull off the miracle of being worse than those of Rolling Stone: Drum King, and the singer busts out some uncomfortable-looking robotic dances. The game manages to drop characters who previously looked fine and would have been perfectly acceptable if their polygon count had just increased to HD levels, and sped headlong into the uncanny valley, complete with some ridiculously precise character customization. They can never stop looking creepy, no matter what you do. (I spent a half-hour trying to create someone I could stand to look at before singing a single song.)
Then there are the highly customizable venues, complete with the option of running original music videos in the background. The venues are always comprised of a generic stage, generic accents for the stage, and ridiculously poor design for the stage, to offer the singer maximum space for creepy dance moves. Apparently, the goal is to make the player feel like a pop sensation. Let's just say that the sensation is thoroughly lost. This isn't even counting weirdness like zooming in on the drummer and then spinning the camera until he's upside down. I failed a song trying to figure out who came up with that one.
About the only saving grace the game has are its mechanics and charting quality. The core mechanics are exactly the same as they were when Harmonix ruled the scene, except for two ideas that are legitimately fun. First of all, there's no more "star power" like you know it. Instead, during certain parts of the song, the game lets you rack up multipliers extremely quickly if you're doing well. Secondly, while the game scores on a per-phrase basis as usual, it also racks up multipliers on a constant basis and without limit. This creates a system that does a better job than I've seen in a long time at making every note count for getting the maximum score, without pulling the "one insane phrase will kill you" routine of newer Guitar Hero games. Props for whoever came up with the switches to the game rules, but negative points for whoever came up with the interface details, which make the most important stat for many players — the life bar — disappear, reducing the visual cue for how well you did on a phrase to the words on-screen. I miss the days when a Bemani game had the ratings included Miss, Boo, Almost, Good, Great and Perfect — you know, when they made sense.
Konami could easily have saved its reboot of Karaoke Revolution. Redo the graphics to a less creepy style that brings back the energy, keeps the mechanics, and chooses a much stronger song list, and the sequel to this game could be immensely satisfying and bring this series back from the brink. For now, when I want to sing, I'm sticking with EA's Rock Band 2. At least Konami has done a better job at vocal games than Activision, but for someone who used to be a hardcore Konami fanboy, that's still a pretty bitter pill to swallow.
More articles about Karaoke Revolution