The premise is a common element of Saturday night television: a young hopeful with aspirations of stardom and a desire to perform on one of the seemingly endless “talent” shows. Previous games, especially on the handheld platform such as the 2003 Gameboy Advance title Pop Idol (American Idol in the USA) have arguably emulated the experience without a great deal of success. Pop Superstar: Road to Celebrity is perhaps one of the first games in its genre to add such an extensive story element to the formula, and indeed the amalgamation of song and dance mini-games, RPG-like story and the fulfilling of your character’s needs, akin to The Sims, certainly creates an interesting and overall highly entertaining experience.
Gameloft originally released the game in 2008 on various mobile phone platforms, and the DSiWare version seems to be an enhanced remake with many new features and indeed a deeper storyline. The game opens with a pretty comprehensive character creation screen in which the player can choose the main character’s gender, hair style and colour, clothing style and skin colour as well as the background colour for the menu screen. After the character creation process the story begins with the main character in their bedroom being awoken by their mother and reminded of the pending Pop Superstar audition that is taking place at your high school.
One of the most striking things upon beginning the game is the level of detail that each of the game’s locations has: every environment looks as though it is actually inhabited and all of the locations are vibrant and lovingly rendered. The isometric graphics really work in this game and being able to see characters’ facial expressions creates a charm pretty uncommon in video games; fans of series such as Simon the Sorcerer may be able to relate. Following the initial dialogue with the main character’s mother a sort of mini-tutorial begins in which the player is introduced to the game’s controls and the various interactions available with the game world’s objects and characters. The main character is controlled either by the stylus or with the d-pad: stylus control works seamlessly and everything is pretty intuitive in terms of character interaction, with a simple branch menu being used to decide on the various actions the player can take.
The game has three main elements that fulfill the various requirements considered necessary to achieve stardom and success in the music industry, at least according to Gameloft anyway. The first and perhaps biggest element of the game is not, as you may suspect, the singing and dancing. Rather, the player must “network” and get on good terms with as many of the game’s extensive cast as possible in order to improve qualities such as charisma, humour and of course simply to increase the player’s potential fan-base. All of the characters in the game, from your peers in high school to the other students of the Pop Superstar Academy have their own personality and likes and dislikes. In order to develop relationships with these characters the player has to make the correct choice when choosing what topic to talk about and indeed when is the right time to tell a joke or relate an anecdote. Once friendship has been established the player can offer to duet with another character, improving vocal ability, or even attempt to begin a romantic relationship.
The level of character interaction is really quite deep and some of the characters are rather amusing caricatures of real life celebrities, such as the Justin Timberlake doppelganger working on his new single, “Cry Me a Lake.” Humour is one of the biggest factors in the game and for non-fans of the many talent shows that have in recent years invaded our television sets, the satirical portrayal of the entertainment world in this game will perhaps appeal to you. On the other hand, fans of the genre will no doubt be charmed by the intriguing and fresh approach Gameloft has for the genre. While maintaining these various relationships the player must look after the main character’s various “needs” such as stress, hygiene and hunger – similar to The Sims although perhaps not quite as in-depth nor as frustrating.
The second of the game’s three main elements is the progression of the storyline that takes the player from doing online web-shows in their bedroom to landing a place at the prestigious Pop Superstar Academy to becoming an all singing, all dancing sensation. The story is pretty fast paced with the player being given a few usually simple tasks to do in order to progress to the next chapter. For instance prior to the player’s enrolment at the academy, the main character must find a job at the local mall in order to earn some money. These minor tasks, which deviate from the main story, add a further level of depth to the game and serve for the basis of some of the game’s amusing dialogues.
Finally what is perhaps the backbone of the game: the singing and dancing mini-games which allow the player to put on performances in order to impress the judges and ascend into the upper echelons of stardom. These games are generally quite simple in their presentation and are set to real examples of popular music such as Avril Lavigne’s Girlfriend, which is also the game’s theme song. There are four different types of music mini-games and each has a different method used in order to succeed. The dancing mini-game follows a standard rhythm game layout with the screen being tapped in time to the beat and on specific parts of the screen. The drum and guitar mini-game are something like a scaled down version of Guitar Hero and use the shoulder buttons as the main method of control. The singing mini-game is perhaps the most challenging – the player has to move the stylus along a predefined path while keeping in time with the song, it sounds simple but it’s really not!
The player is graded for their performance on each song and there are multiple difficulty levels for each song, with the harder levels being unlockable after the easier levels have been completed. Besides the musical mini-games there are also a few other mini-games such as the player’s job at the fast-food court in the mall, which sees the player create burgers to the customer’s specifications, with the various parts of the burger falling from the top of the screen and the player catching them in order.
Overall, Pop Superstar Road to Celebrity is perhaps one of the best games released so far on the DSiWare service. The graphics are very pleasing, the dialogue is charming and the gameplay is simple enough to enjoy in short bursts and deep enough to keep you hooked for hours. The varied environments, songs and unlockables are bound to keep the player returning for more, and fans of the simulation genre will no doubt be pleased by what is arguably one of the better people simulation titles on the DS platform. Small touches such as the random quotes from celebrities in loading screens and the use of the DSi camera as a profile picture for the main character's MeandmyLife (the in-game version of MySpace) give the game an overall polished feel and one can't help but be impressed by the level of attention Pop Superstar pays to detail. The game is more than worth its premium price tag and it’s somewhat surprising that the game wasn’t released on a physical cartridge. Pop Superstar is most definitely an example of the potential of the DSiWare service.