A Week with Wii Music

Since the thrilling video that introduced the future potential of a console called “Revolution,” I have been waiting for Wii Music. You might be able to tell from my profile or other posts that rhythm games is a category I follow closely, I’ve got most of them — no matter how obscure, and I’ll play them all at least once.

The hype was getting to me: as long as I had waited to play Wii Music, Nintendo’s family marketing style in the Japanese train stations with posters of pre-schoolers and geriatrics playing the same game started to bring some concern into my heart. “How is one game going to cater to such a broad audience?” 

Still, I bought Wii Music on my way home from work last Thursday, the day it was released here in Japan. My local Momotaro (a game chain in Saitama) had put up orange posters with lots of Miis playing instruments — presumably the games cover — all over the store to celebrate, but when I actually saw the box, something was different… It was wrapped in another, card stock box, with spot-embossed metallic stars and music notes dancing into the center of the logo with behind a large cut-out music note that revealed the original orange cover underneath. The me that was on my way from work at the publishing company began to add up the cost of all these printable add-ons in my head; all I came away with from that video-game store is that Nintendo has an extraordinary amount of confidence in this title, and I was anxious to find out why.

The game got off to a slow start. Already my mind was wandering back to the negative hype behind Wii Music as an italian composer-muppet yammered away at me in Japanese about how much I was about to enjoy myself. “If I were a little kid I don’t know if I’d like this…” I began to wonder, cynically. I played around with some of the instruments as I had seen Miyamoto do in a demo video (with pre-schoolers). I realized at this time that there might be turntables in the game but after searching through each instrument I found no such thing — the only instrument even slightly out of the ordinary was me dressed in a dog costume, which more disturbing than it was funny. Next I tried to arrange a song, but I didn’t save it as a clip because I thought it sounded hasty and I was not a big fan of any of the five songs I had access to.

The next night I went out to meet a friend and told him candidly at the bar “So I bought Wii Music yesterday…”

“So did I!”

But we had both come to the same consensus. The game was slow and neither of us could figure out what the point of it all was. Playing along to songs and then recording them? I expressed my concern that I thought that perhaps the game was to educate very young children about music but because it cost so much to make Nintendo was trying to market it to a broader audience to make up the cost. 

We both decided wistfully that we would keep playing and exchange friend codes later on.

That night I decided to go ahead and push through and record three songs no matter how terrible I thought they sounded, just to see if I could advance the game a little bit. It was pretty time consuming abut I started to like banging out the rhythm to make the recordings and I was definitely able to enjoy making a few album covers, and was then rewarded with a lesson. More reading? More instructions!? At that point it was quite late and I was out of it – so I decided to sleep instead of continuing on.

The next morning I decided to venture ahead and complete the first basic lesson. Even though the song was simple I enjoyed learning how to put all of the parts together to make the song sound whole. Then when it was done I was informed I had unlocked some stuff – so I decided to go over to browse through the instruments again. Just to the left of my piano there they were — two shiny silver platters, the wheels of steel! Not only that, but I had a variety of songs and genre sets to practice them with. In what felt like no time I had enthusiastically recorded a sweet and smooth down-tempo version of Sakura with myself on the turntables, Natsume Souseki (a famous Japanese author) on the shamisen and the Dude from the Big Lebowski on the marimba. I arranged the jacket with care so I could listen again soon, and Wii Music began to click into place for me: I was glowing.

But as much as I couldn’t wait to explore more of what Wii Music had to offer, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit shameful at this point. I had tried to put Wii Music into a box – comparing it to all these other games and genres and it just didn’t fit. It was something new and different and that bothered me when I had began playing. I now felt bad for having been so closed minded about it. 

Wii Music can’t really fit into any kind of genre be it game or software related. If anything, it is a fun and educational tool that teaches you about composition, musical arrangement, rhythm and conducting while you create your own arrangements of familiar tunes. It is a comprehensive musical lesson without focusing to much on any one particular instrument. You can pick up the game and fool around for a bit but it definitely takes some time and devotion to put a solid-sounding piece together. I quickly began to realize that with each lesson my compositions were sounding better and better. I noticed after a while that the more effort I put into getting to know Wii Music, the more I got out of it — and interestingly enough the very same thing could be said about playing music on an actual instrument.

After only a few total hours with the game I got so excited that I unplugged the Wii from my television and stuck the Wii’s sound cables into my DJ mixer so I could actually scratch along with the “Wii Music” theme on a real turntable. A few more hours later and I began to notice new pattern and beat variations in MP3s on my computer, even though I had heard them countless times before. There is no question in my mind that Wii Music is a great jumping off point to get you excited about music and if it works with a professional scratch DJ with 5 years of violin training, I can only imagine what it will do for someone who is new to musical instruments and composition. Even writing this article I booted up the game a few times to reference a couple of menus and I had a hard time getting myself back to the keyboard. 

Sean wrote about this earlier and am not going to ignore the fact that Nintendo spent a LOT of time putting together a very quality musical simulation environment that allows you to make an infinite number of arrangements of familiar songs, some of which can depart so far from the original tune that they become otherwise identifiable — but it is a shame that there is no full composition mode. I can imagine budget, time, complexity and a slew of other factors led to this feature not being included but the game has so much potential that the ability to create your own melodies almost feels conspicuously amiss.

Finally, I know a lot of people are upset with the amount of classical standards and public-domain tracks in Wii Music’s sound selection, and depending on your musical tastes you may really find a lot to dislike about the list. But I would like to add my opinion on this, and I’d like the assistance of my friend Guitar Hero to help explain. Now, I adored Guitar Hero despite not being a classic rock fan, but I’ll admit it- I only knew a handful of the tracks offered in the game before I played, and even being well versed in rhythm games couldn’t get me familiar with songs I had never heard before. Wii Music on the other hand contains almost no songs that I didn’t recognize, and for a game that throws you into freely playing a melody without any visual cues to back you up — the selection makes a lot of sense. 

A couple of hours ago it occurred to me that if I had to compare Wii music to any other game it would be “Freqency” for the Playstation 2. Like Wii Music it is a rhythm game where you have to hit triggers to six or so different parts to a song, but there are elements to the songs arrangement and solos that can be improvised on the fly. As a bonus the game included a remix mode that would basically allow you to take the set note patterns and set their own rhythm to which those notes would be played. Wii Music really isn’t all that different except the importance of the game modes is flipped, and Wii Music becomes all about rearranging the tracks. 

Frequency didn’t make a lot of waves or create any controversy because it was a fairly small release, developed by an up and coming developer called “Harmonix.” Yeah, you might know them as the creators of Guitar Hero.

There are going to be plenty of gamers for whom Wii Music will click, and I’m sure quite a few who just will not want to devote their time to playing around with it. But if you like music or music games and are on the fence about giving it a try — I would encourage you to do so — the worst thing that can happen is you end up improving back-up bass for Abe Lincoln while remixing a song from Animal Crossing. How could that not be fun?