Forget Civilization, Mega-Lo-Mania and Populous. The Sims? Screw 'em, they're small time. Black & White? It's difficult to take a deity who manifests as a giant zebra seriously. No, if you want real power over the hearts, minds and most importantly wallets of millions of steadfastly loyal Consumer Units then the way forward is to become the manager of a highly successful pop group. Normally that'd take huge amounts of cash, hundreds of contacts in the music industry and ruthless streak that'd make a piranha blush, and I'm going to assume those are things that you don't possess (except maybe that last one). Never fear, though! Eidos and Teque Software have come to the rescue of wannabe music moguls the world over with their 2001 Playstation music management sim Popstar Maker!

Oh god, look at that artwork. Buckle up, kids: we're in for a bumpy ride here.
This should be perfect for me: what with my goatee, ponytail and paunch, I already look like a stereotypically pathetic music agent. The premise of Popstar Maker is simple. You're given £50,000 and tasked with creating the greatest pop group since Daphne and Celeste. A daunting task, I know, but I'm sure we'll make it through and get rich by siphoning money away from the band members through a series of unfair contracts. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though: first we have to select the emotionally subnormal meat-drones that will make up our band. They will all have Heart-Wrenching Backstories. This is extremely important. Right then, who shall we take?

Jack is average in all departments. He tries to compensate for this by wearing a vomit-smeared boilersuit with the arms and legs removed. He also wraps his feet in black electrical tape, which he says is a security measure enacted to "nullify their sensors". He's the heartthrob of the group!
Heart-Wrenching Backstory: Wants to raise money to fund his shelter for puppies with cancer.

Liverpool and England midfielder Steven Gerrard has given up his footballing career to pursue his dream of becoming the world's greatest pop singer. His many years of playing football at the highest level mean he's used to the crowds of adoring fans and occasional death-threats from fans of rival bands, but just how will his excellent passing skills and ability to command a midfield serve him on stage? Stevie G is the brooding and mysterious member of the band.
Heart-Wrenching Backstory: As an England player, his international career brought him nothing but bitter disappointment.

Called Jo Jo after her parents noticed the similarities between her and a circus monkey of the same name, Jo Jo is the only member of the group with any real talent. However, she has a face like a bag of smashed crabs and must therefore be hidden at the back of the group at all times. She's the mother figure within the group, which is weird because she's, like, seventeen.
Heart-Wrenching Backstory: Failed clone of Jennifer Lopez.

Last but not least there's Kelly. Cheerful and bubbly, Kelly was found in the ruined city of [REDACTED] after successful infiltration of the Red Zone by Tac-Squad 5. She's normally the life and soul of the party - until she starts singing, when suddenly [CLASSIFIED - "DOMINION" LEVEL CLEARANCE REQUIRED TO ACCESS FILE]. Boys love her for her winning smile and toned body, while the girls are taken with her kind, sweet personality. She's a marketing department's dream!
Heart-Wrenching Backstory: Subject is the last surviving [EXPUNGED] and will continue to be wracked with grief until the stars align correctly and she can finally [DATA CORRUPTED: UNEXPECTED EOF].

You can have between one and five people in your band, but I think I'll stick with four. If it's good enough for the Beatles, it's good enough for... erm... what's our band called again?

Once your band has been assembled and has passed the many rigorous tests to ensure it appeals to all key demographics, age ranges and ethnicities, you're given control of your media empire.

Here's the main menu, from where the day-to-day running of Flesh Hammer Inc. will be handled. We'll get to the options in turn, but first things first: let's get into the studio and lay down our first hit single!

Of course, this means buying the rights to a track that someone else wrote and recording it with our own caterwauling vocals. You have to start out with a cover version. It's the Law of the Manufactured Pop Groups. By performing cover versions you can gradually assimilate yourself into the public consciousness, letting your targets get used to the sound of your voice via songs they've already heard until they're sufficiently softened up. Then you can drop your own "original" tracks! For now, though, let's buy a few pre-made songs. We'll start with "A Little Bit Flat" by Grammy-winning fictional songwriter David Love. David's down on his luck - his first band, David Love and the Hot Spurts, were an extremely popular skiffle combo until the punk movement of the seventies changed the music scene forever. Now he writes songs for assembly-line pop groups, hoping he'll make enough money to at least stop the repo men from taking his prosthetic leg.

Once you've selected a song, it's time to make it into a single. Be mindful of the aesthetic tone that your band is trying to strike when selecting the single's specifics. Flesh Hammer's unique mix of California soul and the sound of children smashing bin lids together is obviously best symbolized by the simple yet brutally effective image of a thick-soled shoe on a blue background, but this will not be true of all your releases! Some might require the full Nineties treatment, in which case you should go for an alien's head on an acid-yellow background. Bangin'.

You can't just go releasing singles willy-nilly, of course. Your band members are as untouched mounds of clay, virgin spirits to be moulded into singing sensations. To improve their skills as well-paid marionettes, you must train them by setting aside a training day and spending money on them. No, that really is it. Just click on the stats you want to increase, some money will leave your account and the band member might get better at whatever you told them to get better at.
The blue section of the bar is their current skill level, while the orange section is their potential. As you can see, Kelly's got a decent singing voice but her low charm stat means she has the brusque manner of a cabbie with haemorrhoids.

The other thing you can do is put on a spectacular live show to raise your profile. Twenty-six people turned up to Flesh Hammer's first gig, an Aztec-themed extravaganza at the Basement Club. The lives of these twenty-six people were presumably changed forever that night, because who could have been present at the genesis of Flesh Hammer's rise to stardom and not been moved to tears? We'll never know what it was like, because you don't actually get to see your band perform. Not yet, at least.

Jo Jo isn't happy with the workload, and I'm worried that her mutinous nature could spread to the other band members. Stevie G has already been caught trying to chew through his standard-issue Performer Restraint Harness, and those things aren't cheap. I'm sure Jo Jo will realise the error of her ways after some "re-education". I'd terminate her contract now, but she's the only one of these pathetic apes who can dance and sing. Anyway, once our new single, For Your Smile, climbs the chart she will become compliant enough.

I've done it! I'm a musical genius, a maestro of marketing, a colossus of the European pop charts not seen since David Hasselhoff tore down the Berlin Wall with nothing but the emotional battering ram of his voice. I'm Colonel Parker and Simon Cowell rolled into one! I'm Colonel Goddamn Cowell! Fetch me some epaulettes, right now! The band seems content - even that traitor Jo Jo mumbled a meek apology. I told her she'd see I was right. They'll all see.
No time to rest on our laurels, though! After our recent chart success, the band came to me with the idea of writing their own song for the next single. Why not, I said - these fans will buy anything we put out!

There's a built-in music editor that works like a Fisher-Price version of FruityLoops: simply place samples in the squares to create a tune. You're limited to a certain number of samples per track, so it's hardly overwhelming, although the fact that there's no copy-and-paste functionality makes creating a song longer than four bars or so an exercise in grinding tedium. It's handled about as well as it could have been on the PS1, I suppose.
Several weeks later, Flesh Hammer had produced their latest single. Having a collective IQ equal to six ounces of frogspawn, they couldn't decide on a title. Jack's suggestions included "Song", "Noisy Sound" and "Noisy Song Sound". Kelly began to chant the seven secret names of [EXPUNGED]. In the end, we just picked some letters out of hat and POP RECORD-2YN was ready for release. Now, bear witness to the aural majesty that is Flesh Hammer!

The call soon came in - we were number one with a bullet. Pop Record-2YN had become the season's ultimate party anthem, champagne flowed even more freely than the tears of our enemies and I placed my earnings in an off-shore bank account. Times were good.

We were at the top of our game. The debut album went to number one. We were invited onto every TV show in the land. The band, already becoming inured to the trappings of success, became involved in ever-more obscure and hedonistic practises, strange religions, vast quantities of mind-altering drugs. They got together and decided that they would no longer put out the same old musical clich├ęs: they were visionaries, riders on a cresting wave of musical exploration not seen since Ug the caveman figured out that hitting a rock with a stick made sort of a cool noise. They came to me with a new single - bold, original, and completely tuneless. They called it Acid Salad, after an incident involving the buffet at Stevie G's wedding which my lawyers have advised me not to discuss.

I was a little dubious, but in the end I relented. Besides, as much as I despise Jo Jo, her haunting "come together!" lyric really gets under your skin. The band started a tour in support of the single - The Flesh Hammer "Up your Alley" Tour - and audience reaction was even better than I could have expected. I suppose I shouldn't have worried. With dance moves like these, it was a guaranteed success.

Once you created your own songs, you'll be given the option of watching a performance of them whenever a gig rolls around. You can switch between camera angles. That's it. I mean, I suppose you could look at it, but I wouldn't recommend it. The band members possess the grace and fluidity of a deck-chair and their dance routines seem to have directly lifted from videos of people being electrocuted. By the way, this is the Aztec themed stage show. Yep. Maybe the Downtown setting will look better?

Oh dear. It's less the tough-but-vibrant urban streets, more a run-down shopping arcade in Leeds. It's a wonder that anyone came to these shows at all, but something must have worked. Sales of Acid Salad shot up soon afterward, and by the end of the week Flesh Hammer once again had the number one single in Europe. However, trouble was just around the corner...

Jo Jo quit the band. That traitorous swine! I made her a star, and she thanks me by leaving the band via e-mail?! Disgusting. Poor Jack is beside himself with grief: he knows he can't sing, I know he can't sing, but someone has to front the band now. I'd let Kelly do it, but the cost of her security detail is becoming too expensive. Too many pay-offs to the families of guards who got too close to one of her "special performances".
Interesting wording in this email, though. "Believe me, I've done some degrading things in my time," says Jo Jo. Fascinating. Note to self: find photos of these "degrading things" for future blackmail purposes. No one leaves Flesh Hammer unless I say so.
Was Jo Jo's departure the beginning of the end for Flesh Hammer? Possibly, but I must also take some of the blame for letting the band disappear up their own collective arse. They decided that while Acid Salad had pushed the boundaries of pop music, maybe even bent them a little, what the public really needed was something so mind-blowingly avant-garde that two hundred years later scholars will be discussing it as the turning point in 21st century culture. What they gave me was this.

It was just Jack shouting "oh yeah!", his voice autotuned out of all recognition. No backing music, no percussion, just the stupidest man in pop music hollering two simple words. I'd seen the unmitigated dreck that that made up the pop charts - hell, I'd released some of it myself - but this? Maybe it was a step too far. Maybe people weren't ready for it. After much thought, I eventually cleared it for release. People would buy what I told them to buy.

It reached number two on the singles chart. Number two! One man's voice, no, a robotic approximation of one man's voice saying "oh yeah!" was the second-highest selling single that week. Sadly, it never quite reached the number one spot, and this was where it all came crashing down.
Maybe it was Jo Jo's departure, or that the public simply weren't ready for the mind-rattling artistic vision of Flesh Hammer's second album, Slaves 2 Meat, or that the label didn't do enough promotional work. Whatever happened, the album tanked and tanked hard. It only reached 71st place on the American album charts, beaten to seventieth spot by the soundtrack to Alvin and the Chipmunks 7: Do Not Squeak Ill of the Dead.
The higher-ups weren't happy. I wasn't happy.

I put the remaining band members on a tough training routine, but all they did was bitch and whinge and cry about their "human rights". They've already forgotten where they came from, who made them. I think Stevie G has even forgotten how to tie his own shoelaces, if he knew in the first place. We didn't pick them for their intelligence, that's for sure.

Not you too, Stevie G! You ungrateful little prick! If you leave this band I'll see to it that you and everyone you love spends the rest of their days locked in a shipping container at the bottom of the North Sea, with just enough air and water supplied for you to turn on each other in a cannibalistic rage.
No, I've got to keep calm. Think of a way to get the band's confidence up. I know, I'll put on a huge show! The biggest show Flesh Hammer has ever performed! We'll play at Wombley Stadium, to an audience of thousands. It'll be the best gig Wombley Stadium has seen since Frankie Morcury's legendary performance! Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to make music history here today.

What a show! The songs sound amazing, the Arctic theme looks spot-on and no-one seems to have notice the hastily-dressed shop mannequin we got to stand in for Jo Jo. This is great, there's no way we can fail now!

We're ruined. The fickle whims of the public have destroyed the lives of yet another manufactured pop group.

It's all over, the dream has died and we're all condemned to an eternity of appearing on various "Where Are They Now" programmes. This is all Jo Jo's fault, that venomous harpy. Once day I'll get my revenge, when she's all alone, when she least ex...

Oh look, Kelly won the award for Best Looking Female. Ha! If only they'd seen her true form, the writhing flesh silhouetted on the wall of a tour bus, the thousands of unseeing eyes, long talons rending at the very fabric of our cozy universe, tearing, tearing, forever tearing at these fragile walls! One day she will be free, and then everyone will know. Still, it'll look nice on her mantelpiece.

And that's the end of Flesh Hammer. Too far ahead of our time, we were. Too advanced. Oh well - I'm sure I can find a job that puts my many talents to good use, like estate agent or no-win no-fee lawyer. I'll be back at the top in no time!

Okay, so this obviously isn't a great game. The developers have shot themselves in the foot with the basic concept, for a start. Maybe they come from a parallel dimension where kids don't want to be pop stars; they want to be Simon Cowell. That's fine, I'm all for parallel dimension equality, but that's not how it works here. The life of a band manager is, quite frankly, rather tedious. Popstar Maker only has a very limited selection of things to actually do. The song creator is the main one, and I suppose it works okay in an incredibly rigid and uncreative manner, but there are much better ways of making music even on the PS1. There's definitely no point spending time trying to make an excellent song that will set the charts on fire, because you can literally enter any sequence of samples and it will do just as well. It's almost as though the chart success of a song depends entirely on the amount of advertising that is thrown behind it, regardless of any musical competence!

In the same way that I wondered whether Taito's Front Line was a subtle satire on the futility of war, I think Popstar Maker could very easily be taken for a sarcastic look at the record industry. Things like Jo Jo's line about doing "degrading things" give you the impression that the developers weren't exactly taking it seriously, but best of all is the blurb on the back of the box. It honestly says "Look at the charts today, inundated with manufactured bands. The music business is in need of some fresh talent. Are you the person to make the next super band that will take the world by storm?". That is some deep irony right there, or possibly some deep obliviousness.
It's also an irredeemably ugly game, with polygon model so angular they make Street Fighter EX look like Crysis and one of the worst-looking UIs I've ever had the misfortune to interact with. It's extremely easy too - I had to make a really concerted effort to go bankrupt. I should probably cut it some slack, though. It's clearly a budget title, and I'm so far out of its target audience that I might as well be orbiting Neptune. It did raise one smile from me, though: the name of one of the other bands that sometimes appears is a reference to the Space Mutiny episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

We put our faith in the musical talents of Blast Hardcheese!
If you're desperate for a band management simulator, I guess you might want to give it a try. Your other options are pretty limited, as far as I'm aware. Otherwise, do the pop charts a favour and steer clear.

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