Codemasters' rhythm action game, based on the hit show American Idol, attempts to combine the timing-based, performance-emulating mechanics of games like PaRappa the Rapper with the pageantry of entertainment mastermind Simon Cowell's feverishly popular reality TV series. Neither part is really done right, resulting in a game that's built on compromise.
The action in American Idol is directly derivative of mechanics found in Koei's inspired rhythm action game Gitaroo-Man. However, the mechanics lifted from Gitaroo-Man represent only a portion of that title's gameplay system, and they were better implemented in Gitaroo-Man as well. In American Idol, you're presented with a cross in the center of the screen, while in the background your would-be American Idol sings his or her cel-shaded heart out. Button commands move from the tips of the cross toward the center, and the closer the command icon is to the center of the cross when you press the corresponding button, the better your avatar's singing will be.
Or, if you screw up and your timing's off, the singing will falter. The bad singing is done well, and it's apparent when you're not playing right. The gameplay is fairly simplistic and requires only a single hand on the arrow keys on your keyboard, though it'll regularly throw you some curves. The speed and complexity of the button commands can get pretty rough in the expert difficulty level, but even then the judges are pretty forgiving, so you really have to butcher a song pretty badly not to win. The game also supports a Dance Dance Revolution-style dance mat, though considering the fairly extreme rarity and borderline uselessness of a PC-based dance mat, it's a pretty impractical feature. American Idol's gameplay is shallow and easy, and, unfortunately, the game has little to distract you from this fact.
The heart of American Idol is the competition mode, where you create your own American Idol contestant with aspirations of being the next Kelly Clarkson or Ruben Studdard. You'll start in the audition room, move to the theater, and finally end up on the American Idol stage. Despite the set changes, the gameplay remains the same the entire time. So, basically, you'll perform a song, listen to critiques from the judges, which regularly seem to have little bearing on your actual performance, and repeat. Since you'll be on "TV," your appearance factors in to how well your performance is received, so American Idol includes a little dress-up mode where you can choose a variety of different outfits. You're given a rating on your apparel after finishing a song, but the actual logic behind this fashion feng shui is unclear.
There are several other options beyond the main competition mode in American Idol, but they are all pure filler. The rehearsal mode lets you try out songs without being judged. The party mode lets you and some friends each take a crack at a song; then you get to judge the other players' performances, which--since the people who are singing are also doing the judging--seems like it could get really political really fast. The aptly named karaoke mode presents you with an instrumental version of one of the songs, along with sing-along lyrics at the bottom of the screen. At the end of the song, there's an option to "judge" the performance, after which you're dumped back to the menu screen. Finally, the jukebox mode lets you listen to the game's amateur renditions of the pop songs featured on the soundtrack, which seems a bit pointless. If you wanted to hear these songs, wouldn't you just go listen to the originals?
Though, to be fair, the song selection in American Idol is the game's best asset, consisting of 43 pop songs that cover a surprising range. The songs, however, never stray from the kind of material that you'd hear contestants on the show actually singing--which could be good or bad, depending on how you like your pop music. There are plenty of songs like "Hit Me One More Time," "Livin' La Vida Loca," and similarly obvious choices that exist right alongside more interesting selections, like The Commodores' "Easy," Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," and George Michael's "Fastlove." Some people might be projecting their own star fantasies when they watch American Idol, but the dark, underlying appeal of this nationally televised talent show is seeing Simon Cowell rip enthusiastic--but undertalented--aspiring performers to shreds. In this respect, the game fails pretty thoroughly. The game features original voice work from American Idol judges Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Simon Cowell, but their readings are flat and apathetic, and the number of lines recorded is so limited that you'll hear several of the judges' comments repeated through the course of a single career game.
The game definitely looks worse than it sounds. The characters, who are presented with a low-rent cel-shading effect, are boxy and poorly animated. You'll rarely see a contestant doing more than a little side-to-side shuffle while performing. The different environments, which look roughly like the different locales used by the show (except much more simplified), are coated in grainy textures that exhibit some pretty bad color-banding. There's really not much else to say about the visuals in American Idol because there's really not that much to them.
Though the rhythm game format seems like a natural fit for the American Idol property, its execution betrays the concept, and the end results just don't do the show justice. Perhaps a more interesting game would be an American Idol adventure game, where you play as Simon Cowell and have to pick through dialogue trees to choose what sort of venomous remarks you'll make to the contestants. If you want a good rhythm game, look elsewhere. And if you want American Idol, just go watch the show.