The '90s music scene is likely to have been the soundtrack to many gamers' formative years. The decade was an engaging era for music, with the birth of Britpop, the maturing of rap and R'n'B, and the international rise of the modern dance and rave scene. It's fair to say, then, that SingStar '90s has a deep well of talent to choose from, as well as a huge army of gamers who will instantly identify with the music of the time. What Sony has actually come up with is a mixture of true classics and some real clangers, resulting in a list that's generally more notable for what's missing than what's been included. On the other hand, the game is as beautifully presented as ever, with music videos from the original artists and clean, simple menus, as well as multiplayer features, EyeToy support, and a rap mode.
Sony Europe sent over a finished copy for us to play around with, and we wasted no time wrapping our vocal chords around a brand-new set of songs. The game features 30 original songs from famous artists, along with six medleys that group the songs by genre. Up to two people can sing along at one time, with most songs featuring a head-to-head playing style, and a few offering duets or raps. The game measures your pitch and timing, and displays the results in the form of bars on the screen, so you can tell in real time if you need to go higher or lower to hit the note. The aim is to hit as many notes as possible in order to get the highest score, with the game awarding various grades such as "tone deaf" or "wannabe" along the way.
Although you can just pick up a mic and sing a song of your choice, SingStar is designed to be played in multiplayer. Up to eight people can play in the party-game mode, which features three different minigames: pass the mic, battle, and duet. In pass the mic, up to eight players can split into red and blue teams to enter a set of challenges over seven rounds. Choosing from short or normal song lengths, this game offers seven rounds of battles, all of which are medleys that involve passing the mic between the different players, with the winning team decided on overall points. The battle and duet modes are simpler, with two people singing against each other or together, respectively. In addition to the multiplayer modes, there's also a freestyle section that alleviates the stress of being scored, and a chart that tracks local players' top scores.
Plug in Sony's EyeToy and a few new features emerge. After connecting the camera to the PlayStation 2's USB port, an image of you and a friend can replace the music video in the background, either with or without '80s-style video effects. The effects are actually pretty fun to watch and seem to have been programmed to coincide with the music, with bouncing balls, shadow effects, and rainbow colours among the visual gimmicks the game has to offer. The nicest touch is that the video captures clips of you singing the key notes, so you can watch them afterwards to see how embarrassing you look without the music.
All these features should be familiar to long-term SingStar players, so the most important thing, to many people, will be the song selection. No SingStar is ever going to cater to everyone's tastes, but SingStar '90s certainly ticks off the majority of genres. It has indie credentials thanks to the inclusion of REM, Radiohead, Nirvana, and the Crash Test Dummies, while the pop demographic is taken care of with "Love Shack" by the B52s, "Kiss From A Rose" by Seal, and "Never Ever" by All Saints. The R'n'B demographic also receives a couple of nods with Sir Mix A Lot's "Baby Got Back" and MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This," with pure-cheese classics such as Aqua's "Barbie Girl" and Spice Girls' "Wannabe" thrown in for good measure. What's sorely missing, though, are tracks from Britpop icons such as Oasis, Blur, and Pulp. To many people in Europe, the '90s are synonymous with guitar bands and the rebirth of rock-and-roll cool, so these omissions certainly seem to hint that we may see a dedicated Britpop collection at some point in the future. Even hardcore music fans would admit that it's strange not to see songs from another '90s staple: boy bands. There's not one Take That, East 17, or Boyzone track on here--only the American band The New Kids on the Block get a look-in.
Even though the omission of some of the above bands may hurt the package's image overall, SingStar '90s is as addictive as the best games in the series. Players of the original SingStar may remember that it had a single-player career mode, and while it was a minor distraction, it's a shame that it doesn't feature in this version.
In the face of stiff competition from the upcoming Rock Band, which also includes a microphone and analyses your singing in a similar way, it will be interesting to see if Sony is forced to up its game a little for the PlayStation 3 version. For the time being, though, SingStar '90s is as essential as ever for karaoke fans.