Microphone Check, One, Two, One, Two
While DJ Hero and Scratch: The Ultimate DJ will be battling it out to corner the fake turntable segment of the rhythm game market, MCing–arguably the most recognizable part of hip-hop music–still suffers from a woeful under-representation. Sure, Eidos' Get On Da Mic dribbled out to consoles a few years ago and sundry rap tracks claw their way onto franchises like Konami's Karaoke Revolution (heh, remember them?), Rock Band or Guitar Hero. But, a game wholeheartedly devoted to rap performance hasn't yet broken through to the mainstream.
Def Jam Rapstar, created in partnership with Def Jam Interactive, 4mm Studios and Terminal Reality, aims to change all that. I'll have a more detailed write-up of the game's philosophy and features after E3, but I wanted to talk about my hands-on time with the game earlier today. The demo had eight songs available, with Kanye West's "Golddigger" and T.I.'s "Whatever You Like" amongst them. In terms of presentation, Rapstar's not so different than other karaoke-style games. Lyrics appear on-screen with timed prompts and players are scored according to how their performance matches the track. Videos of the song accompany the performance and attempts are graded as Insane, Rough, Weak, etc. For my battle with 4mm co-founder Jamie King, I chose Pete Rock & CL Smooth's classic T.R.O.Y.
Picking up a wireless mic, I watched King rhyme over CL Smooth's slice-of-life couplets when suddenly it became my turn. I won't lie to you, readers: I've known this song by heart for more than a decade now but I flubbed a few lines. I squeaked by King by less than 1,000 points at the end of our battle. We dueled it out another time and I destroyed King, beating him by more than triple his score. Hip-hop's competitive at its core and the braggadocio energy of the music moved through me in a weird way on the second go-round. It's not something I've ever experienced in Rock Band or Guitar Hero, where the emphasis is on cohesion and complementing each other. Even Singstar, a game with a similar Vs. mode I've battled friends on, has never felt like more than a goof during a party than a contest. On Rapstar, I wanted to crush King and, stranger still, I knew I could.
Looking back on our duel, I remember trying to imbue the lines of one of my favorite all-time songs with my own stamp, my own feeling. It was because I felt I owned this song, could attach it to certain memories. It's a reflex that most karaoke games work off of but, again, hip-hop fans haven't had much to turn to in that regard. 4mm's overarching point about Def Jam Rapstar is that there's a hugely underserved audience that would flock to the game because Rock Band and its ilk don't cater to their tastes. A wide-open space in the market isn't enough to assure them success but with a well-curated tracklist and other compelling features, Def Jam Rapstar might strongarm other music games into making room for a new King of Rock.