It’s bad. It's bad. You know it!
What is there to say about Michael Jackson: The Experience 3D? Well, it is an experience, and since he is dead, anything more than lying inert is probably a step up. (Too soon?)
Michael Jackson: The Experience 3D is a bit too different from the console dance games to be called a port. Instead, it’s a 3DS rhythm game in which a digital, semi-3D Michael Jackson of an indeterminate era dances in the background while you tap, scratch, and swirl the stylus to the beats of 15 songs of the posthumous King of Pop. What I can say about it is this: It’s tough wanting to like a game, but feeling like you can’t. It’s like the feeling you get when Darth Vader yells “Nooooooooooo!” at the end of Revenge of the Sith; at first you’re so happy to finally see the black chrome-dome, until your smile turns down in horror as James Earl Jones’ voice starts whining about Padmé.
With no button controls, everything in the game is accomplished with flicks or taps of the stylus, including menu navigation, which can at times be tedious. And make no mistake, the game demands the use of the stylus. This by itself isn’t that bad, but the controls require a degree of precision that makes it difficult to hold the 3DS within its 3D “sweet spot” while playing, which for a game that has “3D” in the title, is a poor indicator. A lot of people don’t play 3DS games in 3D, but even then, it only feels possible to execute the moves accurately while the 3DS is stationary or placed on a flat surface, which is detrimental to a game developed for a handheld platform.
The motions required do not entirely match what the screen says either, and, especially for a half-circle motion, must be figured out by trial and error to see just how much motion you need for the game to register it correctly. There are also incidents where the game records a perfect score and a miss simultaneously, a bug that is totally frustrating.
Leaving aside the viewing problems and these gameplay hiccups, the game could actually be fun. The game features a neat leveling system, where the more points you gain, the more of a statue of Michael Jackson is carved out of marble along with dance-related rank titles starting with stuff like “Head Bopper” and moving up through titles like “Groove Machine”. (Perhaps if you level up far enough, you get “Alleged Kiddy-Fiddler”. Zing! I kid, I kid.)
However, except for a series of nasty design flaws, in what seems like an attempt to pad the game, some basic features of rhythm games have to be earned by leveling up. When you start out, you can’t get a “perfect” score for performing a move with total accuracy; this score category has to be earned by leveling up. Higher difficulty levels, where more points can be scored, must also be unlocked by gaining points. This hobbles chances for skilled players to advance according to their abilities, rather than the game’s set pace.
Another major flaw in the design is the mid-song breaks that show a pre-rendered cinema of a short section of the music video for the song being played. These breaks are bizarre for a number of reasons. First is the aforementioned CGI multi-era Michael, who looks kind of a like a plastic, pasty melange of facial features from different points in Michael Jackson’s career and plastic surgery history. It’s a weird sort of “Best of Michael Jackson” face, like a compilation album of his changing bone structure. The second issue, with more impact, is that these scenes interrupt the flow of the game, making it easier to miss a beat and break a combo chain when the game starts up again.
On the plus side, once you're completely leveled up and playing on a flat surface, the game can be genuinely enjoyable. The motion gameplay, once the shapes are mastered, is fun on the medium difficulty and challenging on expert. Song-related challenges also open up other modifiers, moving back-up “performers” in the form of cardboard cutouts and song-specific effects. As these are unlocked, the songs become more entertaining and fun to play. It definitely could have used a Street Fighter II car-destroying mini-game at the end of “Black or White”, though.
Michael Jackson: The Experience 3D feels cheap. It’s clear that Michael Jackson’s likeness was the only one licensed; Macaulay Culkin and Eddie Murphy’s characters, featured in the Dangerous-era videos, are portrayed as generically as possible to avoid lawsuits. The pre-rendered video scenes are surprisingly lifeless, the animation choppy and stilted. The dancing Michael Jackson model in the game looks like it would be at home on the DS, rather than the more hardware-intensive 3DS. It’s a shame, since the catalogue of 15 songs still hold up remarkably well. If you play this game, the songs will be indelibly stuck in your head for days, and you’ll find yourself tapping your foot to “Smooth Criminal” or “Billy Jean” during idle moments.
Michael Jackson: The Experience 3D is an unfortunate game that punishes the player at the beginning and far too slowly develops into a functional game. I found myself playing the game just to listen to the songs, which speaks to the enduring power of Michael Jackson’s pop legacy that I was willing to weather this game in order to listen to the music. Bottom line: Buy some CDs or MP3s instead.