Version tested: DS
Nintendo of Europe has received plenty of stick in the past over interminable delays to PAL releases and other titles never getting a release on these shores. In recent years, things have changed a bit: we got Mario Kart Wii a day after Japan and two weeks before anyone else in the world. US gamers, meanwhile, harrumph in Reggie Fils-Aime's general direction over the non-appearance of niche titles like Disaster: Day of Crisis and Another Code: R.
But even by NOE's recent standards, the sudden reappearance of rhythm-actioner Jam with the Band after five years in the gaming wilderness is a genuine surprise. Originally set for a western release during the DS' launch window way back in 2005 - and demonstrated enthusiastically by Nintendo at the time - the game, known in Japan as Daigasso! Band Brothers, wound up playing only to a home crowd.
Packaged with a set of cheap, tinny earphones, it was a minor hit in the East, and was eventually succeeded by the DX version three years later, which has since gone on to shift over half a million units. As it's this version Jam with the Band is based on, pedants may wish to note that we've technically only had to wait a little under two years, the original having seemingly disappeared into the digital ether.
Anyway, it's finally reached the European leg of its world tour, and while there's perhaps not enough new stuff here to tempt the 12 people who imported Daigasso DX, in its own quiet way Jam with the Band is as essential a purchase for music lovers as label-mate Ouendan.
Not that it shares too much DNA with iNiS' classic. Despite the presence of a voluptuous anthropomorphic bat as your host, and an audience filled with chipmunks and crowd-surfing hedgehogs, Jam with the Band is about as far away from the wacky antics of the world-saving cheerleading squad as it's possible to get. In many respects it harks back to the halcyon days of bemani, with timed button presses playing notes as a bar passes through them.
With the exception of guitars, which can be strummed with the stylus, all instruments are played in the same manner. Most songs have between six and eight instrumental parts to try out, and there are four difficulty levels which increase the number of buttons. On Beginner, you only have to worry about your timing, with every button hitting the right note. Move onto Amateur and you're using A, B, Y and – curiously enough - left on the d-pad. Try Pro and you've got all the face buttons to contend with, while Master level requires you to adjust the octave for high and low notes with L and R.
By that stage, things are getting ferociously difficult, and that's not just down to the intricacy of the arrangements. With something like Guitar Hero or Pop 'N' Music, there's immediacy to the interface: you press the buttons without thinking because your brain has become hard-wired to the colour coding. It takes a long time to reach that stage with Jam with the Band, as by Master level there are 10 colours and button symbols you have to process before each note. A vertical-scrolling display with the buttons represented along the bottom of the screen might have made the transition to the higher difficulties a little smoother. Some will get there eventually, but more through bloody-minded persistence than any sense of enjoyment.
But then you could say that of most rhythm-action games, and a bit of practice will see your performance rank gradually rise. Of the three options available from the main menu, Today's Gig is the closest you get to a career mode, and the best way to gauge your progress. Here you'll be asked to play a specific instrument in a given song, usually the melody. Each gig night has a different theme, so you might be asked to play steel drums on a tropical version of Swan Lake, or in my case, a NES rendition of The Final Countdown - which is every bit as delightfully awful as that sounds.
That's not where the bulk of the game is found, however. Behind the Shop Entrance, there are Sing, Play and Studio options. The latter holds a fairly hefty creative toolkit which allows you to craft your own tunes: in the Beginner Studio, you either tap them out on a virtual keyboard, or hum into the mic, while the Expert Studio offers more flexibility in tweaking and adjusting your musical masterpiece via a musical stave where notes can be dragged and dropped with the stylus. You'd need someone able to carry a tune better than I to tell you how well the humming really works; the game's interpretation of my hopeless mumbling of a Cribs song sounded like the same tune being played by a blind cat on a broken piano.
Karaoke seems an equally imprecise science, as the game attempts to gauge which type of song your voice is best suited to. Having screeched my way through We Are The Champions, I was told my caterwauling would serve me well as a pop singer, with Material Girl deemed my best chance of chart success. Paddy Power already has me as second favourite for this year's Christmas Number One - look out, Simon Cowell.
Once your sonic symphony is complete, you can upload it via Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection, whereupon Nintendo will evaluate its content and approve it as long as it's halfway decent and you've not included anything with naughty lyrics. While you're there you can select another 50 tunes to complement the same number on the cartridge. You're limited to a total of 100 songs, though, and once you've chosen there's no going back; if you want any more you'll have to buy another copy of the game.
If that seems unduly restrictive, it's hard to argue there's not a decent amount of content for the lone player, and there's certainly enjoyment to be had in, say, scoring over 90% on every instrument for each song. But after a while, it feels even more of a solitary pursuit than playing Guitar Hero on your own. At least there the more imaginative player can pretend they're playing a real instrument. Here it's impossible to escape the fact that you're pressing buttons to play a muzak version of a song you've heard a million times before, even if there is something curiously satisfying about watching an audience of rodents moshing to the Spanish guitar part of Fur Elise. And the only tangible reward for trying out all the different instruments is a bit of dull trivia about each, presumably gathered during a lazy afternoon browsing Wikipedia.
It's temping, then, to suggest that Jam with the Band isn't so much a title as an instruction. At risk of putting off 90 per cent of everyone reading this at a single stroke, I have to say the multiplayer component is not a million miles away from a DS version of Wii Music. You've got 60 instruments and 50 songs, a great many of which are shared between the two games, and ultimately both end up with a group of you bashing out a bad MIDI version of a familiar tune.
There are two key differences. One, if something goes wrong here you can't blame controller inaccuracy; and two, there's a greater sense of responsibility to the part you assume when you're jamming, as there's no room for freestyling. If your percussion section is out, then it can completely throw the rest of the band off. Hit a bum note in the melody and it can trigger a fit of giggles among the group.
This, believe it or not, is a very good thing. It's worth laying down 30 quid just for the chance to play the F-Zero Medley with a group of players. This time around, I didn't get the opportunity to relive one of the finest multiplayer moments I've ever had, but the original Daigasso once reduced me and three friends to tears of unstoppable laughter, as a bit of bad drumming sparked a hilariously off-key trumpet parp during the Mute City Theme.
Though it's clearly better played locally with friends and family - generously, the game supports up to eight band members from a single cartridge - there's an option to form a group online, as well as a free Wii Channel download so you can hear your best efforts through your telly rather than the DS' comparatively feeble speakers. It's worth noting, however, that this is less of an issue on the much beefier-sounding DSi XL.
Whether you're more likely to go solo or indulge in an epic multiplayer jam, you'll find Nintendo has packed enough in this oddly garish package to keep you occupied for a good while. In the continued absence of a third Ouendan game - and with Keiichi Yano and team busy with Lips DLC that's not likely to happen any time soon, more's the pity - Jam with the Band should fill the portable-rhythm-action-shaped hole in your life very nicely indeed.
8 / 10