Version tested: Wii
20 years ago, age 11, I had a 'Michael Jackson experience'. Come the morning of my 12th birthday in October 1990, he was the first thing I saw as I sleepily opened my eyes and gasped.
It all started in a branch of Microbyte (remember those?) in Nottingham's Broadmarsh Centre. At weekends I'd pester my parents to take me there so I could see what new games had arrived (a thrillingly unpredictable event, since imported Japanese games would frequently arrive before the UK games press had reported on them. Imagine that).
I had so many pivotal gaming 'first experiences' in this store (the hill run in level two of Strider; cape flight in Super Mario World), it really ought to be designated an important historical site with its own commemorative kitchenware. Knives at the very least, being Nottingham.
On this particular day I was still a square-eyed Amiga nerd. Michael Jackson's Moonwalker on Mega Drive changed that within the first few bars of its mesmerising synth remix of Smooth Criminal.
It was a perfect gaming storm of new hardware, my then favourite album (Bad), and an artist whose catalogue of preposterously idiosyncratic dance moves became the game itself.
With the console hooked up to the shop's sound system it felt like the most exciting thing ever. Fast-forward to my birthday and I woke to find my dad brandishing a Japanese Mega Drive and my mum waving a copy of the game in my ecstatic mug.
With its hero squealing priapically while thrusting his groin in front of sobbing children, it's hard to imagine Moonwalker being made in the same way today. Yet despite being genres and generations apart, the essence of SEGA's title and Michael Jackson: The Experience is the same: a fascination with and celebration of the late King of Pop's moves and music.
The other way of looking at Ubisoft's title is to say that it's simply Just Dance: Jacko. The shallow content, garish neon-stained choreography, simplistic gameplay and bare-bones presentation of the series have all made the transition. And, like Just Dance and its sequel, it's also shamelessly enjoyable, euphoric fun.
The game features 26 songs (originals only – none of those bargain-bin Just Dance covers) spanning his career from 1979's Off The Wall through to 1997's Blood On The Dance Floor. Thriller, Bad and Dangerous are best represented, with all the obvious dance classics like Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, Black or White and Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough in there.
HMV is carrying an exclusive bonus track, the glorious Another Part Of Me, which comes on a separate disc and is sadly not included in my review version. Its omission from the standard release could well be a deal-breaker for fans of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola's ludicrous-but-still-amazing 3D movie Captain EO.
Ubisoft has deployed the wonderfully distinctive visual style of Just Dance, dressing up each lead dancer to look as Jacko did in the music video. This sounds like an unpleasant, tacky solution on paper, but the hyper-real visual effect disguises sufficiently for them to convince as the real thing; and the energy and authenticity of the performances make them infectious entertainment in their own right.
No music video or archive material is used at all in-game. Instead, settings for each song are themed around the music video with varying results. The morphing backing-dancers and locations of Black and White and the cheesy B-movie bookending of Thriller are highlights, while the memorable animation of Leave Me Alone is reduced to a boring succession of mocked-up tabloid front pages.
Performances are divided into three categories: Classic (just Jacko), Duets (as seen in Just Dance 2, with two inter-related performances), and Crew. The latter gives you the choice of either Michael's or the backing dancers' routine. What this means in practice is the framework for some uproarious multiplayer fun with more than two involved.
The Just Dance model is limited by tracking a single controller in one hand (in this case, neatly, Jacko's sparkly-glove-wearing one). These limitations are more evident here thanks to the dizzying complexity of some routines – though given my general aptitude for rhythmic movement I'm mostly glad it isn't tracking legs.
It's not easy to get high scores. I've yet to five-star a single song – and while that encourages more committed play, as with its predecessors you never feel the response ever quite reaches the accuracy necessary for consistent levels of achievement.
For a dancing game based on arguably the world's most recognisable performer, a few of the song choices are baffling. However you feel about divisive cheese-nuke Heal the World as a tune, I suspect you are more likely to hear it played at a funeral than a disco.
I suppose I can just about see how its relatively modest physical demands and mawkish gestures might appeal to parents with young children. Or a catastrophically drunk hen party.
The defiantly un-dancey Earth Song is – surprisingly – much more successful, with its daft, drop-to-knees moralising nutty enough to offer an amusing performance piece to accompany a fantastic pop tune.
The duets are great party pieces. The rabbit vs. Jacko jive of Speed Demon is unfailingly fun, as is the crotch-grabbing, chest-rubbing raunchiness of In The Closet – possibly one to avoid trying out with your gran over Christmas. Especially if you're Katie Waissel.
Outside of the game there's not a great deal else. Training videos can be unlocked in which a trio of dance instructors walk you through moves specific to classic Jacko vids. Useful-ish, but not interactive and stuff you could probably find on YouTube.
And, in a move that defies logic, you can't unlock videos showing you how to perform complex dance moves until you've, er, earned enough stars through performing them in-game.
Unlike Just Dance 2, there's no link to an online store, so no scope for expanding the collection of MJ tunes here. And it should be noted that the game's retail price is higher than either of the Just Dance games, with 18 fewer songs than the second.
Ubisoft might argue that the licensing costs for original Jacko records are higher overall, which I'm sure they are. But you're still paying more for fewer features and less content. Having said that – and this applies to all artist-specific music games – if you are a serious fan you'll probably love more of the songs than are featured on general compilations.
And really, if Michael Jackson: The Experience isn't for fans, then who is it for? You could spend a long, joyless day skewering the game for its technical limitations and inadequacies. And while you're doing that, I'll be flailing drunkenly in a four-man dance troupe doing zombie moves in a pretend graveyard. And loving every moment of it.
At the Children's BAFTAs on Sunday, four awards were dished out in the Kids' Vote category – the only ones voted for by the public. And what was the kids' favourite videogame, in a line-up featuring the likes of New Super Mario Bros. and LEGO Harry Potter? Just Dance.
Yes, Ubisoft could have done an awful lot more to pad out the product with archive material and so on, but what matters ultimately is whether it's fun to play.
And on that score, two decades after my first virtual encounter, he may no longer be a system-seller, but Jacko's still got all the right moves.
7 / 10