As a general rule I am trying to keep my Wii LoopMachine blog and this Amazing Rolo blog from overlapping too much, but this is a topic I feel very strongly about, and so I must apologize for cross-posting! What follows is the review of Nintendo’s Wii Music that I just posted on the LoopMachine site. enjoy!
Do you kind of vaguely enjoy music? Do you want an inoffensive way to entertain your family, without the embarrassment and discomfort usually associated with video games? Do you want pretend to give yourself (or your children) a musical education? Do you have £50 to spend? Well, the newly released Wii Music is for you!
I’ll let Nintendo’s official website speak for itself:
“Musicians in your band jam by simply playing their instruments to the beat of a song or by improvising to their heart’s content. Play faster. Play slower. Skip a beat, or throw in 10 more. No matter what you do, Wii Music automatically transforms your improv stylings into great music. There are no mistakes—just playing for the pure joy of playing.”
Creating a system that allows people to easily play music is a noble aim, of course, but this rhetoric turns farcical when compared to the actual gameplay, which revolves around forcing unnatural movements on the user to create something like music, all within an educationally dubious framework. It’s a shame, really, since the Wii is a console that could potentially lend itself to exciting musical software.
There are several ways of playing Wii Music, including Jam Mode, Improv, several mini games, and a “Lessons” section. In Jam Mode you can pick an instrument and play along with a preprogrammed song, either with friends or with an automatic backing band. However, using Jam Mode for the first time is also your introduction to what turns out to be the maddeningly repetitive use of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” throughout the game. In order to unlock any other songs you must play through this song, and the same applies to the minigames. In addition, virtually any time a feature is demonstrated, the demo song is…well, you get the idea.
Putting that to one side, what about making music? Surely you can rock out and play anything you want just by moving the controller about in an intuitive way, taking advantage of the unique capabilities of the Wiimote! Well…no. Playing an instrument, for the most part, involves shaking the controllers just enough to trigger a note, the pitch of which you have no control over. To “play” a piano, for example, you are told to “move your hands up and down as if you were playing a real piano”. This translates as “hold the controller however you want and shake it”. No matter how you hold or move the controller, the notes are preprogrammed and will simply trigger based on when you shake it. So much for creativity. Playing a violin or cello involves an unintuitive series of jerky movements and button presses, all to produce a horrifying General MIDI soundbank string tone. It sounds an awful lot like browsing the internet in 1997.
Of course, many of these faults can be attributed to the inherently inaccurate motion capture data from the Wii remote. Accelerometers are tricky things, and it would be impossible to make a good emulation of a piano with a Wiimote right now. It begs the question – why did they even try? What is the point of a half-assed instrument simulator, particularly when the upcoming Wii Motion Plus promises much finer motion control?
But back to the music – performing a song is mildly entertaining for a minute or so, once you get a hang of the controls for your instrument, but the song choice and styles are so bland it defies logic. It seems outlandish that a game that has skimped on so much (graphics are standard Wii blobs, there are very few levels, sound quality is low, etc) only offers only 52 songs, ranging from “Yankee Doodle” to “Jingle Bell Rock”. Even these are not available all at once – you have to work through endless soft rock muzak renditions of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Daydream Believer” before you get to the good stuff – yes! I can finally do a jazz version of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”! What’s more, there is an odd insistence on creating “music videos” of every performance. After each Jam you are asked to create album art for your creation, and then you are forced to watch through your performance – in a fit of frustration I started mashing buttons on the controller, only then discovering a hidden way to escape that torture.
Perhaps the most redeeming mode of play is the handbells mini-game, which challenges you to swing your remotes at the correct times in order to play the melody correctly. Playing with several other people is quite fun, like Guitar Hero for church music. It’s challenging and fun, and the Wiimote/Nunchuk system works very well for ringing bells.
“Ah ha!” says Nintendo, “but look at what differentiates our product from those silly Guitar Hero games! In Wii Music you can improvise on any instrument you like!” Sure enough, you can pick from a range of instruments and play your heart away. But once again, you have little to no control over the pitch of the notes you play, so any improvisation quickly turns into random shaking and button pressing. The possible exceptions are the percussion instruments, who of course lend themselves to just that kind of movement. You can even bring a Balance Board into the mix to play a drum set, which more or less works. With a bit of practice you can play some fun beats, although having to press different buttons to trigger the cymbals, tom toms, and snare is rather confusing.
Strangest of all, though, is the choice of instruments. They range from the obvious (guitar, piano) to the “exotic” (sitar), to the absurd. This last category includes Dog and Cat Suits, allowing your character to hop around yapping and meowing, Cheerleader, where you can indulge your strange adolescent fantasties and dress up in pom poms and a miniskirt, and best of hall – hand clap. Yes, video game technology has advanced so far that we are able to clap our hands virtually, simply by swinging Wii remotes! All that is missing is a flying car, and we will have reached the Future!
All of this is harmless, of course, or at least it would be if it wasn’t all placed within a framework of supposed musical education. There is a “lessons” section, where you can develop your musical ability by learning how to play different styles, and miniature games with listening and playing tests. In these sections, of course, the supposed freedom of musical expression that is touted throughout the marketing of Wii Music goes completely out the window, in favor of a subjective and punitive approach. Conduct the orchestra however you want, but of course if you conduct incorrectly you will get a lower score, and your poor little character will sag his head. In Jam Mode you can “improvise to your heart’s content”, but there is an obnoxious ticking metronome coming out of the Wii remote speaker, making sure you don’t deviate too far from the party line. And the hearing test contains such insanely pointless questions as “Which tune fits the feeling of ‘I’ll never get my homework done?’” It’s an ethnomusicologist’s worst nightmare!
This approach truly terrifies me, since I am sure it will do more to discourage potential musicians than anything else. There is very little allowance for creativity in Wii Music, and a truly tenuous link between movement and sound creation. The emulation of the instruments is tacky and the sound quality is shocking, and any attempt to describe it as a musical educational tool is simply disingenuous – at no point in the game is any connection made to the world outside of cheap graphical representations of instruments. Never does Sebastian Von Tutte, the irritating guide that helps you through the game, suggest “you’ve done really well, have you thought about trying a real piano?” No, rather the game is designed to give you incremental rewards such as new songs to play along with, thereby keeping you from actually applying any interest you may have gained in music to an actual instrument.
To be perfectly clear – the concept of Wii Music certainly does not bother me, as it does some gamers. In fact, I think music software for gaming consoles is only going to get bigger. However, Wii Music represents a massive disappointment, and even a step backwards. The future of music games is in creativity, and the motion control of the Wii offers a particularly good way of allowing for that creativity. However, Nintendo has not only put no thought into how motion can and should be used for making music, but also created a “music game” with extremely limited and low quality music, and a hypocritical approach to education and improvisational freedom. What a shame. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back into my Cat Suit.