One reason music games are so big is that they're fun to watch: the blaring chart tune, the hypnotic pulses of the display, the posturing antics of your friends. The fact that they make a good spectator sport for the whole room is central to the entertainment value and success of Guitar Hero, SingStar, DDR and the rest. It's fun for everybody, whether they're playing or not.
Wii Music is not quite like that. Watching somebody else play Wii Music - as the world found out when Shigeru Miyamoto demonstrated it at Nintendo's press conference on Tuesday - is a bit like going to your daughter's school band recital. It is cute, funny in an awkward way, uncomfortable, a mite embarrassing, and sometimes so excruciating it sets your teeth on edge. Wii Music makes a joyful, but awful noise.
Playing it is another matter. The Jam mode we sampled is a blast: not a game in any real sense, but a magnificently silly and hugely enjoyable toy. Exactly like Wii Sports, it makes no attempt to realistically simulate the activity it portrays, or provide any complexity or deep competitive challenge to it. Instead, it aims to capture the extrovert, physical feeling and fun of playing an instrument. And Wii Music does something else as well, something precious few music games do: it gives you plenty of room to express yourself.
Wii Music features fifty songs, a mixture of Nintendo themes, licensed songs, and timeless lullabies, folk songs and standards. The tiny selection we saw included Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Yankee Doodle Dandy and the Super Mario Bros theme. But, incredibly, the songs are outnumbered by the selection of instruments you can play them on.
There will be sixty: vibraphone, piano, guitar, saxophone, maracas, trumpet, bongos, double bass, taiko drum... Each one has its own unique control scheme too. More than any of its releases to date, more so even than Wario Ware: Smooth Moves, Wii Music is Nintendo offering up variety of control schemes as the content itself, the meat of the game.
Needs an awful lot of explaining, right? Not really. Hold your hands as if you were playing the instrument, make the motions you'd make to play - if that's pressing the keys on a wind instrument, it will be pressing buttons on the remote - and the notes come out. The A and B buttons work as modifiers, often offering sustained notes or pizzicato plucks. Your Mii appears on screen, playing along with you.
The nunchuk, when used, also offers modifications on the control stick, such as holding down to strum super-fast on the guitar. The d-pad makes your Mii pull moves on the screen, as do certain gestures with certain instruments. When playing a trumpet, holding your head down plays softly and tilting it back plays loud, in a brilliantly intuitive caricature of jazz styles.
We could detail more, but much of the point of Wii Music is experimenting with each instrument to find out what you can do with it, and then letting rip. The game works out the notes you play according to the tune you're playing and the style you're playing in. Simple, steady rhythms with no modification play a straight melody, while cutting loose with the controls and improvising around the rhythm (it's shown on the screen by pulsing notes) produce wild, extemporising solos.
It's a highly unusual and surprising system, and we reckon there's deceptively clever software under Wii Music's hood. The results aren't always pleasant to listen to - they're sometimes downright, hilariously horrible - but you can't argue that the game flawlessly captures the flair, mood and accuracy with which you're playing. There may be no sophistication to performing in Wii Music, but there is most definitely an art to it, and producing a performance that's both expressive and accurate will take practice and skill.
In Jam mode, every tune is played by six pre-selected instruments, some combination of lead melody, bass, harmony, rhythm, chords and percussion. Players take one-to-four of these parts, meaning there are always two computer-controlled parts holding the tune down and preventing it from descending into total chaos. If you want, you can call up a guide showing you when to play notes; essential for tunes you don't know, but actually something of a distraction on ones you do.
Although there will apparently be a more traditional note-matching game included, the only other section of the game we tried was the drumkit, which is an entirely a standalone mode. This uses the Wii Fit balance board for the kick drum and hi-hat, and the nunchuk and remote as your sticks. Very disappointingly, motion only controls rhythm, and not which snares, toms and cymbals you hit - the remote would barely be capable of doing it fast and accurately enough, and the nunchuk not at all. So you have to use buttons and stick to select them.
This makes it pretty fiddly and challenging even for a real drummer, which we most definitely are not. There will be a tutorial for the drums, and we imagine that getting through it will be a challenging game in itself. Amid the terrible clatter we made, the one moment when a coherent rhythm started to appear was very rewarding thanks to the excited clapping and chanting of the on-screen Mii crowd. But it's probably not enough to drag us through the painful learning process for the drums.
More than any Wii release to date, Wii Music is a toy. We don't mean that as a criticism - it's a technically amazing, totally accessible, funny and entertaining toy, and will be a proper riot for anyone in the right kind of loose company. It will probably be misunderstood by many who look for gameplay systems in it rather than suspending disbelief, letting themselves go and expressing themselves through it. Those people love it. And the people watching them from the sofa might even love it a little bit too, through the winces and the gritted teeth.