Saturday, January 17, 2009


Wii Music

Wii Music is a terrible game because it lets you shake the controllers around at random. To prove it, here's a video of me shaking the controllers around at random. See? See how shitty it sounds? That's because Wii Music is a terrible game. I GET PAID TO WRITE THIS SHIT CAN YOU BELIEVE IT

Ah, that was fun. No, seriously, the first problem with trying to review Wii Music is that gaming websites were inundated for months with predictions that the game was going to be crap. And then all of the websites that predicted the game would be crap turned out reviews that assured us, yep, they were right, the game really is crap. And then all the little Nintendo fanboys started piping up, "NO! NO! NO! YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND! IT'S A WORK OF GENIUS! IT'S THE BEST MUSIC GAME/THING EVER! GUITAR HERO SUCKS! ROCK BAND SUCKS!"

So, you see, I'm fighting an uphill battle trying to come up with anything that I could even call my own opinion.

What the Hell is Wii Music?

Let me know if I'm going too fast for you.

Wii Music is a program for the Nintendo Wii that lets you make music. It's not a rhythm game in the vein of Guitar Hero or Rock Band. You are not listening to a pre-recorded song and pressing buttons as little colored blocks fall down the screen. You are making music.

Here's how it works.

You select a song that you'd like to play. Then you select the part you would like to play -- Melody, Harmony, Chord, Bass, or one of two Percussion. Then you select the instrument you would like to use to play that part. Then you play it.

You hold your Wii Remote and Nunchuck as if you were holding the instrument that you're playing. The action that you use to play a note depends on the instrument you're playing. For a horn, you press a button. For a guitar, you make a strumming motion. For drums and pianos, you drum the controllers. For strings, you press a button on the nunchuck while bowing with the remote.

Now. It's not as complicated as playing a real musical instrument. On a real piano, you'd have to find the right keys to play the right notes. On a real guitar, you'd have to get your fingers on the strings correctly to play the right chords. In Wii Music, you can create certain effects by pressing buttons -- switch between arpeggio and chords on a guitar, play a glissando on a piano, that sort of thing -- but the main thing you need to worry about is creating a note, not figuring out which note you're going to create. All of the sound that gets played is predetermined, depending on the song that you started out with. This has led crybabies to whine that the game requires no skill and plays itself.

Well, yes and no.

Yes, if you punch notes exactly in time to the song you have selected, it will come out sounding exactly the way it's supposed to. But this comes with two caveats. For one thing, this probably requires more skill than you'd expect. Even discounting the fact that the Wii motion controls tend to get a bit wonky, every single note that gets played has to come from you. People who are used to playing GH/RB at the lower difficulties may be surprised by how difficult it is to play quickly and accurately even when the only thing you're doing is punching notes.

And for another thing, this sort of complaint is kind of missing the point. In Wii Music, you are not limited to playing the song you have selected.

When you've played a note, you can hold it as long as you want. You can skip notes. You can add more notes by playing beyond the normal note pattern. You can improvise to your heart's content and really make a song your own. You don't need to know anything about music or about how to play the instruments you're using. Just pick up your controller, tap away at your imaginary piano, and suddenly Twinkle Twinkle Little Star turns into a cascading rollercoaster of fast-flowing sound.

The computer fills in any parts of the song that you don't play. If you'd like, you can drop them out. Or you can play through the song a second time with a second part and accompany yourself. You can build all six parts of a song one at a time by playing yourself. Or you can have up to three friends in the same room playing with you. Or you can send a half-finished song to a friend over WFC and let him add his own part. When you're all done, you can make a music video of your completed creation.

No, you're not really writing your own music, which has led to scorn from the other side of the table. This isn't a completely customizable musical tool. You can't play anything you want with it. You must work from the base of the song you've selected. So, snarl the folks who work with sophisticated music authoring programs, what is the point?

And it's a fair enough question.

What is the Point of Wii Music?

When you first start the game, you're let loose with very little instruction or inspiration. They dump a pile of musical instruments on you and say, "Okay! Go have fun!" And if you're like me, the stuff that you play sounds like crap because you have no idea what in the hell you're doing. Sure, making your own melody is quick and easy, and harmony's not too bad either, but the rest of the parts? I didn't have any sort of intuitive grasp of what to do as a percussionist, bassist, or... chordist?

Once you've made a few music videos, you'll open up a new section about style lessons. The game has tutorials that cover fifteen different basic musical styles, including Rock, Pop, Reggae, Marching Band, Japanese, and Electronic. And it'll teach you some basic rhythm patterns that you can use to give a song a certain kind of sound. Ah! I thought. Now I see what I should do.

So I took the basic Rock patterns and started applying them to the songs that were available to me. Tried fiddling around with making my own patterns. Created some very basic sounds. I started to think the game was kind of cute.

Then I opened up the advanced style lessons.

See. All of those people who dismissed this game because they thought it was kids' stuff? Because they thought it was too simple? Because they thought the music sounded like crap? They never opened up the advanced style lessons.

When I heard the Advanced Rock arrangement for Do Re Mi, a lightbulb went off in my head. I heard exactly what was possible with this program. I wanted to know how I, too, could create this sound I was hearing, starting with nothing but a children's song. And the program led me step by step through how to create a real rock sound.

It was more difficult than the basic style lesson had been. It was a lesson in how to change the feel of a song by altering your note patterns. It was exciting, energizing information. I took what I had learned and applied it to the other songs on the disc. And I turned Eine Kleine Nachtmusik into a rock song.

I played in a school orchestra for eight years, and somehow, I never learned the tiniest thing about what music really is. But fiddling around with Wii Music for an afternoon, I started to grasp how music works. How to go beyond the exercise of playing notes on a score and figure out where a song gets its skeleton, its heart, its soul. I've started listening to music in a completely different way, picking out how the rhythm patterns make a song what it is.

I mean, I don't feel like a master or anything, but I feel like I've finally got a clue.

So I guess the point is that Wii Music takes an approach to music that's pretty different from just about anything else out there. It is its own beast. It's a game that is about making music. It gives the user the power to play without having to worry about the mechanical difficulties of learning and perfecting an instrument. It gives the user the power to compose without having to worry about music theory and figuring out which notes sound right together.

Basically, it's a beginner's guide to musical expression.

But It Has Some Problems

Guitar Hero and Rock Band are casual games. Wii Music is more of a hardcore title.

Let me explain.

You put in Guitar Hero or Rock Band, you pick up your plastic guitar, you bang away at the notes, and awesome music comes out of the TV set. You don't have to think about the music, how it fits together, anything. You just have to feel the rhythm and press the right buttons at the right time. You feel like a rock god, everyone goes home happy.

This is not a criticism of Guitar Hero or Rock Band! Oh good god no! I love Rock Band! Even though I have the Wii version! No, I see this as a benefit to Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

Because what do you have to do to get the most out of Wii Music? Well, you figure out what song you want to play, and then you have to figure out what you want to do with it. Unless you've got some friends with a serious musical inclination, you then have to record every part by yourself, one instrument at a time. If you're like me, you'll want to do multiple takes because you're a total perfectionist and the Wii remote picked up a stray guitar strum and it just totally ruined your carefully constructed baseline. It can easily take half an hour just to make a very basic-sounding song. I can't imagine what would happen if you had the creativity it would take to put together one of the masterpieces that they demonstrate on the Nintendo Channel.

In spite of all the shortcuts that the game gives you, Wii Music is about creating a song. And creating a song just isn't something you can do casually. It takes time, patience, dedication, and know-how.

And that's really the biggest problem I have with Wii Music. I can appreciate its potential, but god damn, is it ever scary staring down into that black abyss of bottomless POTENTIAL and just thinking "I'm not ready". You really need to be ready to put something into it to get something out of it, and most days I just don't have that.

The second problem with Wii Music is that the motion controls tend to be more trouble than they're worth when it comes to making very carefully-controlled musical patterns. The guitar instruments in particular are notorious for picking up strums where they're not supposed to. I can't really relax into the feeling of magical music happening while I act like I'm playing it when I hear unintended strums bouncing around.

And finally, there's progression. You begin the game with only a handful of songs and instruments, and you need to unlock the rest in stages. Well, that's fine and all, but in a game that doesn't keep score, what criteria do they use to figure when you deserve new content? They count how many videos you've recorded.

Now, see... I can appreciate the fact that they want people to start slowly. Experiment with easy songs and discover things about music on your own before being given more complicated things to try and learning actual techniques. It's a good idea in theory.

The problem is, when I started the game, I didn't know what I was doing and I had mostly Traditional songs to play. The stuff I made didn't sound very nice, so I didn't save very many music videos. It wasn't until after I'd unlocked the extra content that I started making stuff that I wanted to save.

I guess it's as good a measure as any of how ready the user is to take the next step. It's just... I guess I'm not a big fan of having content locked up to begin with, and this didn't earn them any points with me.

Oh! Also, there isn't a single compelling venue to perform in in the entire game.

Just Something I Thought Was Funny

I remember reading something from Tycho over at Penny Arcade about Guitar Hero. About how he wished that the experience allowed for some degree of improvisation on the player's part. Now we have Wii Music, the game that's about improvising, but he hasn't said a word about it. I can only assume that, as a representative of the Monolith Video Game Nerdcore, the thing never even registered on his radar because it was another one of those stupid Wii experiments that Nintendo keeps doing in lieu of making new video games.

Who Did They Make This Game For?

I honestly have no idea. This is probably the most intimidating piece of software that Nintendo has released in the Wii line; it just doesn't feel like something you can pick up and play. On the other hand, the loose controls and the monotony of playing through the same song six times make me yearn for a more powerful music authoring tool.

So... I guess this is music for beginners. It's just a little taste to get you interested and make you think about what you like about music -- whether it's aspiring to be a composer, mastering the ability to play a prewritten song perfectly, noodling around at random, or maybe a little bit of each.

It's not the piece of crap that IGN wants it to be. Nor is it the earth-shaking revolution in home entertainment that Nintendo boosters need it to be. No, it's just a modest, charming piece of software that lets you make music.

And thank goodness there's still room for it in this world.


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