All reward and no risk makes Little Johnny a dull boy.
Imagine you’re sitting at the right hand of God during the creation of the cosmos (or if you prefer a more secular metaphor, pretend you’re looking over someone’s shoulder while that person is playing Spore). With each new and ridiculous creation, you turn to the Creator, give him—or her—a quizzical glance and politely ask, “Pardon me, but WTF?” As he keeps coming up with more outlandish, impractical creatures, you can’t help but wonder what he’s thinking. All you can do is shrug and assume he must know what he’s doing.
[image1]And so it is with Nintendo.
With each new Nintendo-developed Wii game, we long-time gamers and game reviewers keep coming back to the same question: Is this even a game? By now, we’ve all learned that it’s best not to ask questions and just roll with the punches. Nintendo’s successful at what they do, and they know their audience’s tastes perfectly. Nintendo has changed the industry for better or worse, so it’s long past time we all come to accept it.
But if Wii Music isn’t a game, then what is it? Unsurprisingly, it’s the latest in Nintendo’s growing line of "lifestyle" products designed for the so-called “casual” gaming audience—i.e. soccer moms, bowling grannies, babysitter-ogling dads, and future-GTA-hooker-shooting young folks. Unless you’ve been hiding out in Vault 101 for the past few years, you know that music games have become a dominant force in the gaming industry. Wii Music attempts to bring music games to the casual audience by giving the genre the standard Wii-treatment of waggle, mini-games, Miis, and a rudimentary training regimen.
Wii Music consists of four basic modes: Lessons, Games, Videos, and Jam. In Lessons, you practice the waggle motions for all the waggle instruments using all manner of waggling until you feel like you’ve waggled enough to go waggle in another mode full of, you guessed it, waggling. Games mode puts your listening skills to the test in a series of mini-games. In Videos, you design simple CD covers and have the chance to playback your music sessions.
[image2]But Jam is the heart of the game and is likely where people will spend the majority of their time in Wii Music. Simply put, Jam is a non-competitive music play session where you and up to three friends choose an instrument and a song and, well, jam. It’s an anything-goes approach where no one can make a mistake and no one can ever fail. Waggle away and listen to your Miis play everything from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to “Material Girl”. No matter what song or instrument you play, everyone’s always in tune and on tempo.
There are, of course, lots of problems with this approach. Most egregiously, the Jam mode is all reward without any risk. Even a child’s toy piano carries the risk of playing too loudly or of playing the wrong notes in combination.
In Wii Music, there’s nothing to learn, nothing at stake, nothing to win. You’ll never sound better or worse than you do during your first minute of play. Like your younger sibling’s music collection, this is the culture of mediocrity at its finest. At least a “game” like Wii Fit tracks personal achievements and attempts to catalogue your improvement over time. However, five minutes with Wii Music is the same as an eternity with Wii Music—and just as painful.
There is a wide array of instruments available and more become unlocked as you work your way through the various modes, but many of the instruments sound too similar. The electric guitar sounds like the saxophone. The vibes sound like an acoustic guitar. And so on. Worse still, for a game that’s all about music, the instruments sound sadly like something from the era of the Atari 2600. It’s all bleeps, bloops, blaps, and blorps.
[image3]The three playable minigames—Mii Maestro, Handbell Harmony, and Pitch Perfect—offer gameplay with slightly more payoff. Mii Maestro puts you in the shoes of an orchestra conductor tasked with setting the tempo of a full ensemble of instruments, but persistent delay of the wiimote makes this far more difficult than it should be. Handbell Harmony is a simple rhythm game, but waggling bells just doesn’t have the same faux-rockstar appeal that sliding up and down the neck of a polymer guitar does. Pitch Perfect puts you through music listening tests, but since many of the instruments sound so similar, many of these tests rely more guesswork than on actual listening skills.
Drums have their own unique training mode designed for use with the remote, nunchuk, and balance board. Unfortunately, if you don’t have perfect rhythm, the drums will drive you absolutely nuts. The amount of delay between your actions and the sounds they are meant to produce makes for one of the most awkward, ill-conceived, poorly designed feats in all of the music game genre. The technology behind the motion detection combined with the balance board’s pressure sensitivity just isn’t up to snuff.
But really, there’s no point to my taking Wii Music seriously as a game since Nintendo obviously doesn’t. If the game sells well, it probably has more to due with Nintendo’s tremendously effective marketing skills rather than anything inherent to Wii Music as a game. Even five-year-olds need some stimulation and sense of achievement. Wii Music provides neither.
While this title might appeal to parents as a “cute” and “positive” alternative to other games, I can imagine (and can only hope) that kids will quickly grow tired of its remarkably unrewarding gameplay. And for you fatally curious adults: You’ve been warned.