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Having a party? Don't forget the video games

Partygoers Sara Loken and Kevin Swantek enjoyed their virtual boxing match, courtesy of Nintendo's "Wii Sports" game.
Partygoers Sara Loken and Kevin Swantek enjoyed their virtual boxing match, courtesy of Nintendo's "Wii Sports" game. John Brecher /
/ Source: contributor

You’re having a party, and you’ve sent out the Evites and bought the chips and dip. What’s missing? The video games!

Video games are no longer solitary affairs. These days, there are plenty of games on the market that will get your group singing, dancing — even swinging a controller like a golf club. But which games are best to jump-start your party?

To find out, we invited over a group of 20- and 30- somethings on a chilly winter night to test out six games: Nintendo’s “Wario Ware: Smooth Moves,” “Wii Sports” and “Wii Play;” Konami’s “Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA,” and “Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol” and  Red Octane’s “Guitar Hero 2.”

'Wii Sports' the clear winner
While many games got high marks from our testers, one emerged as the clear winner: Nintendo’s “Wii Sports.” This rated-“E” game comes free when you buy a new Nintendo Wii, and its a great way to get accustomed to the Wii’s unique, two-piece motion-detecting controller, which consists of the Wii remote and a Nunchuck.

Unlike “Madden” or “Fight Night,” “Wii Sports” is a snap to figure out. “Wii Sports” consists of five sports: boxing, bowling, baseball, tennis and golf. Our testers loved the game because you didn’t need to master a complicated controller to be proficient at any of the sports. Anyone could jump in and play.

“Wii Sports” also lets two players challenge each other directly — as long as you have a second controller, that is. Our crowd loved picking sides, as well as picking on the loser — all in good fun, of course.

Sara Loken — at 21, our youngest tester — took on Kevin Swantek, 30, in a boxing match. She beat him two games in a row, despite never having thrown a punch in real life.

“Punching is pretty universal,” she said.

'Wii Play' stirred up friendly competition
Another game that stoked the competitive fires was the “E”-rated “Wii Play” ($49.99) also by Nintendo. Its player-versus-player style is very similar to “Wii Sports,” as is its use of the Wii controller. But instead of playing sports, you try your hand at nine simple arcade-esque games like table tennis, cow racing, and even a “Duck Hunt”-inspired shooting range. It may not be as intuitive as “Wii Sports” (how could it be if you’ve never raced cows?) but the group quickly picked it up.

A big plus for “Wii Play” is that a Wii remote comes packaged with the game, allowing you to challenge an opponent right out of the box. Otherwise, a separate Wii remote will set you back $39.99 a good chunk of change all in the name of a party. And if you want an extra Nunchuck, it will cost you $19.99.

Dancing for a crowd
For $59.99, you can pick up the “E10+”-rated “Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA” from Konami, which comes complete with a touch-sensitive dance pad. This game had our testers clamoring to try it, although our crew wasn’t necessarily familiar with all the available songs.

Players of “Dance Dance Revolution” use their feet to control the game, stepping in time on a big, arrow-covered mat while following cues on a TV screen.

“It’s a lot harder that it looks,” said Diana Landas, 31.

The virtual dance competition brought out the killer instinct in our players, with each one trying to out-dance the last. All that jumping around made “Dance Dance Revolution” Landas’ favorite game to watch.

“I was impressed to see my husband move like that,” she said.

But even with everyone eager to play, "Dance Dance Revolution" didn't rate as high as "Wii Play" because of its high learning curve.

Playing rock star
“Guitar Hero 2,” from Red Octane and Activision, suffered a similar fate with our testers. The rated-“T” game was well-received by our panel, but it was clear that mastering this game would take a whole lot of practice. The game, which sells for $49.99 or $79.99 if you want it bundled with a guitar, is very similar in style to “Dance Dance Revolution.” But instead of stepping on a mat, players press buttons and flip levers on a plastic guitar.

Game tester Jason Black, 34, said he lacked the hand-eye coordination — and the practice — necessary to master “Guitar Hero.”And Loken, our master boxer, struggled to press the correct buttons at the right time. But 34 year-old Tyler Landas, who plays the guitar in real life, liked feeling like he was playing a song — without worrying about hitting all the right chords.

Got a strong ego? Play 'American Idol'
Hitting the right chords is essential to win at Konami’s “Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol."  And to play this game, it also helps to have a bulletproof ego.

As with the reality TV show, you’ll sing in front of a panel of judges, including the famously acerbic Simon Cowell and the Big Dawg himself, Randy Jackson. Paula Abdul, who didn’t lend her likeness to the game, is replaced by “Laura,” who is pretty dull by comparison. All judges take turns pummeling players for tunelessness, lack of rhythm and poor showmanship. If you want to pay $39.99 ($54.99 with the microphone) to get your Hollywood dreams dashed, this is your game.

You can play the “E10+” –rated “American Idol” without the judges’ remarks, but our panel didn’t like that. They wanted — and waited for — the judges’ feedback even when they were being torn apart for their bad singing.

“I’d buy this game just for the insults at the end,” said Tyler Landas.

Spontaneous sing-a-longs
The good thing about “American Idol?” It got our crowd involved. In fact, the worse someone sang, the more the crowd wanted to “help out” with sideline sing-a-longs. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a fair share of laughter at the singer’s expense, though.

Fear of embarassment is what prevented our crowd from crowding around the microphone. That and being unfamiliar with the songs in the game, which included a pretty recognizable range of tunes including “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin,’" “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Do I Make You Proud.”

“The songs that they had on (‘American Idol’) are not the songs that I necessarily listen to and know by heart,” said Swantek, who, along with his male compatriots, murdered a version of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” "Confidence goes way down when you have no idea what lyrics are coming,” he said.

'Wario Ware' just wasn't fun to watch
Knowing what to expect turned out to be important with our panel. That was a key problem with Nintendo’s critically acclaimed “Wario Ware: Smooth Moves,” which features a collection of mini-games that the player has to figure out in a split second.

The games in the “E10+”-rated “Smooth Moves” ($49.99) were funny — and weird. For example, players may have to sauté food, shave a moustache — or even pick a nose. And though it can be a lot of fun to play alone, Swantek didn’t think it was fun for parties. "It's not fun to watch," he said.

And ultimately, that's the key with these party games. The people watching the gameplay need to feel like they're having as much fun — and possibly even more — than those doing the playing.

So go ahead and laugh at your friends as they sing, dance or flail around like fools. Remember, they'll be doing the same when it's your turn.