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.
American Idol flagrantly steals its main gameplay mechanic from Gitaroo-Man.
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.