Hardcore Nintendo fans have had their faith tested to the limit and beyond over the last few years, the magnificence of Super Mario Galaxy only just helping them to overcome their distaste for Brain Training, Wii Fit and the like. Thanks in large part to its disastrous E3 showing, Wii Music looked likely to lead to open revolt.
A Guitar Hero-style game where you just waggle the Remote about randomly as if it were a real instrument? For many it seemed to be a non-game too far. And yet the final product proves once again to be far more involved, and far more entertaining, than Nintendo has previously been able to imply.
The basics are exactly as you’ve been led to believe, except this has almost nothing in common with Guitar Hero and its ilk. There’s no career mode, you aren’t judged on the quality of any piece of music you play, and even following a preset series of notes is entirely optional. There are no high scores to be beaten, or virtual audience to be pleased – the only goal is to have fun and perhaps learn something about music at the same time.
If that all sounds a bit nebulous and woolly then that probably explains why Nintendo has had such a hard time selling the idea up until now. There are two main routes to go from the main menu and most people are probably going to plump for a Quick Jam session. Here you select a song, choose a band member (usually from a choice of six, but sometimes fewer) and simply start playing.
There are over 60 different instruments, but apart from a few oddities all use one of four basic control systems: piano, guitar, violin and horns. Exactly how the game interprets your movements and button presses is not immediately clear, but from the start it’s obviously not random. Keeping a decent rhythm is just as hard as in a more prescriptive music game and yet here you’ve got full freedom to alter the speed, pitch and tone whenever and however you want.
There’s unexpected depth in that every instrument has a set of optional controls for fine-tuning your performance. These are all based on real musical concepts, as you add tremolo (like a whammy bar on a guitar), or arpeggio (playing the notes of a chord very quickly in turn) via the A button, or glissando (sliding up and down between two notes) via the Nunchuk’s analogue stick.
In a perfect an example of good old-fashioned Nintendo magic, you go from cynically wobbling the Remote about at random to the quick realisation that you’re actually beginning to understand how real music works. At this point the thought of diving into the Lessons mode turns from a genuine fear of a videogame trying to teach you something to a sudden desire to learn more.
There is a major problem, though, and it’s especially unfortunate because it could have easily been avoided if Nintendo weren’t such cheapskates. For starters the actual sound quality of the instruments is highly simplified, with the MIDI sounds apparently purposefully avoiding realism to the point where some instruments really don’t sound much like their real selves at all. How disappointing.
The more significant problem, however, is the frankly dire selection of songs. There’s a wide range of categories, from classical to pop, as well as Nintendo tunes and an unnecessarily large number of the sort of ultra-simplistic tunes you play when learning a real instrument – such as ‘Frère Jacques’ and ‘Yankee Doodle’.
There are over 50 different songs, but the average person will probably be lucky if they actually enjoy playing more than half a dozen of them. When a set list’s highlights are ‘The Loco-motion’ and ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ you know something’s amiss.
Mucking around with the instruments is great fun, but even when you’re freestyling you’re still playing the notes of one of the preset songs, as you suddenly realise that your interpretative jazz solo is actually ‘O Christmas Tree’ in disguise.
If Nintendo had either ponied up for some proper songs people would want to listen to or, preferably, found some way to allow you to make up your own tunes entirely, this could’ve been something special.