Version tested: DS
In a world where music games are dominant, it always catches our attention when games attempt to implement rhythm in a more creative way than aping Harmonix's scrolling notes. Maestro: Jump in Music is an oddly titled and lovable platformer that weaves music into its running and jumping, punctuating every jump you make or object you collect with a thump or a twang. It takes a simple concept and executes it in a fresh, creative and unique way.
As the music plays, Maestro the little pink birdie (I like to think of him as a penguin, because penguins are awesome) runs from left to right across the screen, suspended on a sort of tightrope. You stroke the tightrope upwards or downwards to pluck a note and make him jump or drop down. Collectable icons - fruit, stars or tiny golden angels, depending on what level you're playing - are scattered around the place, and collecting them also hits a note. The platforming augments the music: do well, collect things and jump at the right times and you embellish the track with drum beats and timely strums; do badly and all you get is tinny background music.
The tracks get harder, obviously, and throw more rhythm icons into the mix - tapping enemies as they fly towards you, holding the stylus over a wafting strand of seaweed, strumming a harp - but it's always a game about running and jumping, tapping and strumming deftly in time to the beat. It riffs on Taiko and Ouendan, guiding your eyes with contracting circles and targets and other visual cues to help you find just the right timing.
Nothing helps as much as familiarising yourself with the track and the layout of the level though. On harder difficulties, like most platformers, Maestro is about memorisation rather than instinct. Happily, every song has a Practice option that pops up a few seconds before the option to play the track for points - which gets very annoying, actually, as you often impatiently hit the Practice option by mistake.
The 24 songs themselves are a motley selection of classical and pop 'hits' - I think the youngest song on there is from the late eighties. This certainly isn't a game you'll be playing for the music; even if you were sufficiently passionate about traditional Russian song Otchi Chornye to buy a game featuring a pink penguin just to hear it, you probably wouldn't be happy with the cheerful little midi version that pumps from the DS' wee speakers. The slightly mangled songs have their charm, though. I've been unable to get Maestro's tinny, chirpy little take on Our House our of my head all week. It's lovably retro, and reminds the universally terrible versions of 'popular' hits that used to soundtrack games of the 16-bit era, and of my mum's cheesy faux-classical phone ringtone.
After every four songs you land in a boss battle, wherein you play a game of Simon Says with a giant spider whose minions play out simple beats on his enormous web and a pair of drums. This is the most tedious portion of the game by far - it's like a particularly uncomplicated child's toy, making you repeat boring patterns over and over again until the spider's health bar is depleted. It's insultingly easy - in fact, much of the game seems that way at first. You need to get 85 per cent on a level to progress, and it'll never take more than two attempts.
That is, at least, until you finish your first runthrough of the game and discover that the entire thing was essentially a tutorial, only letting you play snatches of songs rather than the full things, and patronising you a little with hand-holding example levels for quite self-evident mechanics. Once you've beaten the final spiderboss and seen the conclusion to the cute but entirely irrelevant plot, Normal and Hard modes suddenly open up. Not only do you get the full songs, you also get a decent level of challenge. Like most rhythm-action games, Maestro gets better as it gets harder and your actions translate more directly into sounds.
It's a very odd decision to hide the content of the game from the player this way - it makes sense to offer an extra-hard mode upon completion, but you should at least be able to choose between Easy and Normal from the start, and you should certainly be allowed to play the full songs. That first playthrough doesn't take very long - only about an hour and a half - but this is a handheld game, and that's more than enough time to get bored with playing simple, incomplete tunes. Given that Maestro gets so much better as it gets harder, it only damages itself by hiding its true colours for so long.
The other problem is that it's visually overcomplicated. Maestro's rhythm-action vocabulary is too wide, and it never quite masters it. This a genre built on visual simplicity - nuggets of light, geometric shapes, contracting circles - and Maestro disguises its note prompts as flying spiders, bits of seaweed, golden angels, pieces of fruit or gun-toting chickens, with little consistency across different levels. It distracts the eye, and you never develop that instinctive pattern-recognition that guides your fingers in everything from BeatMania to Rock Band. On harder difficulty levels it quickly becomes a confusion of scrolling sprites.
Even though it's never quite great, never as effortless as it would like to be, Maestro: Jump in Music nevertheless has a raw cartoon attractiveness and real creative spark. It's let down by its strange structuring and doesn't have Ouendan's stylistic visual punch or song selection, but it still makes me smile, and I still completed it twice. It's both a good rhythm-game and a good DS platformer, and we're rather short on both at the moment.
7 / 10