Feel the Rhythm!

PopStar Guitar: We have Guitar Hero at home.

Featured Post Image - PopStar Guitar: We have Guitar Hero at home.

For several years, it really felt like the mainstream rhythm games of the past, like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, had been thrown to the dustbin of the past. Mostly to be fondly remembered by those who played it. The diehard fans moved on to open-source versions of those games like Clone Hero and YARG, while challenging themselves with unique custom songs made by artists like Chaotrope and Exilelord. While Rock Band 4 was getting new songs regularly, it strictly was for those who bought in early. It seemed like if you wanted to get in, you should’ve gotten in 10 years ago or even earlier. Getting used guitars and adapters were being scalped for hundreds, sometimes thousands, more than getting an actual guitar would cost.

The king returns.

Then in December 2023, things started brewing again. Epic Games alongside Harmonix – the studio best known for bringing Guitar Hero and Rock Band to the world, also an Epic Games Studio released Fortnite Festival, a spiritual successor to that rhythm game formula: A rhythm game with a highway where you tap notes in time to the instrument you’re playing as. While it strictly supported only gamepads and keyboard controls to start, just a few days ago they released Season 3, which had rudimentary support for Rock Band 4-era plastic guitars and the forthcoming RIFFMASTER guitar, with support for other instruments coming hopefully in the near future.

Thanks to Festival, I’ve been on quite a rhythm game kick lately. I rekindled my love for classic rhythm games, and really dug into the spiritual successors that people have been making like the aforementioned Clone Hero, YARG, and even fanmade mods for existing games like Guitar Hero II Deluxe.

Though, with the good we also have to take the bad. I started looking into the mostly forgotten, fairly busted games that tried to capitalize on the white-hot popularity that Guitar Hero and Rock Band had in the late 2000s. Though, in my case, it wasn’t the usual punching bags in the rhythm game community like Rock Revolution or PowerGIG: Rise of the SixString. Oh, no, I wanted to go deeper. Into the more crustier, mostly forgotten knockoffs. I ended up finding one that felt like I was playing the AliExpress of rhythm games, and that game is PopStar Guitar.

“Help, the guitars are trapping us!!”

Released in late 2008, this wannabe rhythm game was published by XS Games in the US, a noted publisher of mostly forgotten shovelware, and developed by Broadsword Interactive, makers of similar knockoff software of rhythm and racing games, including most infamously, Spirit of Speed 1937, a notoriously bad racing game released on the Dreamcast. (Side note: I recommend Cassidy’s Bad Game Hall of Fame article for more information on that game, it’s a doozy to read.) So, knowing the pedigree of these companies, I was already going in with low expectations.

Peak shovelware, right here.

PopStar Guitar had released on both the Wii and PS2, as expected for a lot of games from this period. You might’ve even heard about the Wii version and how infamous it is, being one of those games that required a lot of waggle motions to play. It even came with the AirG, a plastic shell over the Wiimote that could be used to make it easier to hit each of the buttons on screen. From what I’ve seen, it seems the Wii version is an absolutely insufferable experience to play because of that, so I went for the PS2 version instead, which supports conventional five-button Guitar Hero controllers just fine. Though, if you want me to suffer playing the Wii version, you could contribute to my Patreon and request it, perhaps? I’ll even buy the bundle with the plastic shell for maximum suffering!

A question for the ages: Can beats storm?

There isn’t a whole lot of story to be had. You make a band, create a name, customize all your band members, and start your way from being a bunch of nobodies playing at high school gymnasiums to being the true PopStar. It’s like Rock Band, where you Start a Band, Rock The World, but with only one instrument.

As expected, it’s a completely vertical highway. Blame Harmonix for owning the patents on that.

If you’re familiar with most rhythm games and especially Guitar Hero, it doesn’t take much to get started. Notes come down the screen, hold the button that matches that note, strum it with the strumbar when it hits the strike line, get score. Hit more notes than you miss and you’ll pass the song, gaining a score and some fans. Fairly common stuff for the genre.

That’s not candy, those are special gems. How special, I’m not quite sure.

PopStar Guitar does change things up slightly: If one hits enough notes at once, you’ll start a countdown that hitting the back button will do a special move for extra points. Hitting the circle notes with triangles has a band member do some kind of special move if successfully hit. In a rare case of taking from other games in the genre like Dance Dance Revolution, scoring is determined whethere you hit the note early, late or on time. Finally, the whammy bar is strictly used for the sustained notes: fill a bar below the highway and that unlocks a “solo” bonus song.

She looks like she’s in pain having to strum all this.

The game has a myriad of problems, but there’s one that immediately threw me off straight away: There’s no hammer ons/pull offs (HOPOs) in this game that I could see, so on Hard, the game’s highest difficulty, you’ll be given a bunch of notes that you’ll have to strum through to successfully pass. Which, hey, any rhythm game veteran who’s had to slog through 100%ing all the songs on the first Guitar Hero on Expert could get used to this no problem. For people like me, though, it felt like a bit too challenging on some of the songs, so much so that I had to kick it down to Medium to finish, which is identical to Medium in other music games, where the orange fret might as well not exist. Bonus: Sometimes I didn’t realize I’ve failed until I was suddenly thrown to the menu. They didn’t even put a fail animation, which is kinda funny to me.

The map looks nice, but god this looks more and more cheap looking as I play.

Other than that, it’s fairly common stuff for anyone who’s played these games. You can customize your bandmates which can increase their star level and make them… more famous, I guess? There’s other options available that are prevalent in a lot of these games, so I’m not really gonna go through each one.

Gotta say, that’s one cool guitar.

At this point I’ve been talking about the game’s elements, but what usually makes or breaks a rhythm game is its soundtrack. Even the most garbage game could have a pretty good soundtrack. Well, I can report that the soundtrack is… fine. There’s a venerable who’s-who of rhythm game go-tos: 3 Doors Down’s “When I’m Gone,” Paramore’s “Misery Business,” blink-182’s “All the Small Things.”

The selection isn’t nothing to sneeze at, but it definitely feels like a scattershot of different genres from rock, to punk, to country, to even current-day (at the time) pop like Kelly Clarkson and Rihanna. Most of these of are cover versions, which are perfectly fine considering. By the time this released, both Activision and Harmonix were priding themselves on no longer using groups like Wavegroup Sound to cover songs, and strictly relying on master tracks for everything. Which makes it look cheaper in comparison, but I’m amazed they got any master tracks, really.

I swear these sound like fake bands you’d see on a TV show.

But that’s only a smattering of the songs featured on the setlist. The rest is covered by indie artists by bands you’ve never heard of, like The Renovators, Vibrolux, and Lez Zeppelin (no, that is not a typo, that’s what the band’s called). In a sense, I like this idea, some of the best songs in games like Rock Band 2 were the Harmonix in-house songs like The Main Drag’s “A Jagged Gorgeous Winter” and Speck’s “Conventional Lover.” But the ones in PopStar Guitar aren’t really in-house bands, just bands hoping to make it big on a game that’s a copycat of other genres. They’re perfectly fine, but much like the rest of the setlist, they feel tacked on with no sense of consistency. Had they waited just a bit longer, perhaps they could’ve tried getting into Rock Band Network instead.

Earlier I mentioned Solo songs, and these are made by Chris Collier, a guitarist for the band Mission: Black, as well as an audio engineer for a good chunk of the indie music featured. I had to play through one of his solos, “Blue Monday,” countless times after playing the main song. He’s no Steve Ouimette, but he’s got the spirit, I’ll give him that. I like the idea of having bonus solos, just not in this game.

This is the downside of covering these games, sometimes they’re just gonna look the same.

I’m gonna be honest with y’all here. I genuinely didn’t get that far in this game. While I could potentially go through the entire campaign and be the true PopStar Guitar, it’s just not fun to play, even as a joke. The gameplay’s knockoff Guitar Hero without the charm and fun of it, and all the elements, from the menus to the user interface scream “done on a shoestring budget.” If you’ve ever seen those licensed games based on American Idol and such, you’ll understand what I mean.

This doesn’t even have the charm that even the most infamously bad rhythm games do, like Rock Revolution or PowerGIG, where you can see what they were trying to do, but didn’t quite nail the landing. PopStar Guitar doesn’t have that. It feels cheap as cheap could get. It being as bad as it is suddenly has me appreciating even the most middling rhythm games more. Like, yeah, I wasn’t a super fan of Band Hero, but after playing PopStar Guitar, I can better appreciate how much better Band Hero is put together as a game

*gasp* the… forbidden chords….

Basically, PopStar Guitar is a crusty, middle-of-the-road rhythm game, on platforms that already have better games on it (Guitar Hero: World Tour and Rock Band 2 both came out around the same time and are superior in every way) and is not worth playing, not even as a joke. Maybe as a gag gift for someone who’s into this stuff, but not really worth playing for more than a half hour.

Even in spite of how bad this game was, it has gotten me curious about other similar games trying to cash in on the rhythm game gravy train. Stuff like Rolling Stone: Drum King and Battle of the Bands. I wonder if those are any better…

All screenshots taken from the PCSX2 emulator and played with an Xbox 360 guitar, which may not be 100% accurate to playing the game on real hardware. But honestly, playing it on an actual PS2 probably wouldn’t be any better.

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