Representation of music in games has arguably been a little static; you either flick your guitar's buttons at the right time or hit something to the beat. You miss a couple notes, your health dips. Keep missing and it's failure time. What Nintendo's done with Wii Music is a little different, where technically you can't fail, but you can still sound pretty darn awful at the same time.
Aside from the scoring aspect, the premise is similar to previous rhythm games. You've got your list of music, on-screen animation and your instruments: Wii remote, nunchuck and optionally the balance board. Using these plastic tools, you play alongside the music by mimicking one of four or five styles that try to encompass the 60 different instruments available.
First up, is your piano, and coupled with your instructor (who has possibly the most irritating voice in a game, ever), you can bash out a rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with relative ease. Those who prefer strumming to mock-hitting can pick out their guitar or bass-like instruments with singles, chords or surprisingly, muted notes. For flutes, brass and wind, you can hold the remote out and tap away a beat using the 1 and 2 buttons. Violin plays a similar role to the guitar, but with your hand mimicking a bow (go figure), and finally your drums are performed by giving it the best darn air-drumming you've ever done.
The instruments, and boy are there a long list of them, are a well thought out range. We've got our guitars, pianos, drums, harmonicas, flutes - things we'd expect to use, and some less popular treats like the sitar, xylophone and a chap in a cat suit. In general they sound like their real-live counterparts, some far better then others, but with others the midi vibe can be off-putting.
Unlike other rhythm games that rely on hitting the correct note at the exact time, what we're doing with Wii Music is trying to follow the song's rhythm, its beat, as closely as possible with room to improvise and shake things up a little between each of the core notes. For the most part, it's an interesting change at the sacrifice of a main goal to reach and it does take some time and hands-on with the game to find there's a little more depth then one might expect.
Customising and improvising are key in Wii Music, and fortunately with that in mind Nintendo have allowed for different flavours in sound together with changes in the basic band setup to create some completely unique takes on some classic public-domain tunes. There is a path to follow, but by stepping away from a song's regular sound, holding a note here, and doubling it up there, there's a sense of remixing and playing to something new each time. Where regular rhythm games award accuracy and sticking precisely to the song, Wii Music offers rewards for breaking out of the rigid box, experimenting with what can be played in the time.
In the jamming mode, where players will likely spend most of their time, there are 3 different options to take. Improvise allows any instrument to be picked and a backing band will carefully try to match whatever waggle and buttons you're pressing. It's a smart idea, with your support speeding up, slowing down and trying to compliment you as best they can. At first it's a little tricky to hold down a tune, especially given you'd be leading the pack, but it eventually becomes more fluid and accessible.
The easiest means of mixing existing songs is with quick jam, where your instrument, musical style and location are predetermined. There are neat variations that you'd never quite expect to hear: for example a Eurobeat arrangement of the irritating wedding theme, Japanese take on Frère Jacques and Flamenco Twinkle Twinkle.
If you want to have your own say, then custom mode has a few options to work through: changing the Miis, mixing up the styles of music and varying the tempo - this is the definitive highlight of Wii Music. Each song is made up of six different parts: melody and harmony providing the song's main tune, chord and bass holding the song together and two sets of percussions for those who want drums and cymbals. You can turn off tracks, put yourself in any of the positions, and assign any of your Miis to make a fully customized band of friends, family, celebrity-look-alikes, animals and penis-heads. Parts can be recorded together (if you have more than one set of Wii remotes/nunchucks) or individually. This allows for a single person or group to record a track with their own Miis, a great feature that isn't highlighted enough as it should.
Surprisingly, Nintendo has added the option of saving performances and parts; you can take this and save a replay as a "music video", complete with custom sleeve but unfortunately with a pre-determined track and uninspiring album name. Oddly enough improvised tunes can't be saved, which is one of the major negatives, you'd expect with a system in place to layer tracks there'd be one for your own creations. It would certainly be something Nintendo should dabble with in future music games.
Aside from playing through songs, there are lessons and a handful of mini-games that try to teach some basic music fundamentals. Pitch, tone, tempo are all covered. Out of the three mini-games, we've got a conducting session much like the one shown during the Wii's debut a few years ago, a pitch recognition game and a hand bell harmony where you're shaking to match on-screen markers. These are some standard ideas, but are an enjoyable bit on the side. They do feel more like past rhythm games, though end up lacking replayability with only certain songs being available to use. Lessons are also valuable nuggets, but again are really a one-off mode. Different styles, rock, jazz etc can be broken down into their key sounds and demonstrated.
Visually, it's a clean, user-friendly game. Much like Nintendo's more family-orientated efforts, we've got basic menus to navigate through and it all seems fairly straightforward. The environments are nicely detailed, with the usual brush of style in places and are varied too, from playing on a giant cake to the back of a pick-up truck drifting along a beach, yet the Miis appear somewhat odd without texture. The animation gives a fun, exciting feel - jumps, arm strums and moving about. This could have had more variety as the same sequence on loop can become predictable and stale - some moving around the stage, varying camera angles would have made performances that little bit more energetic.
We've explained how the game works, what's good and what's not, but what about the music in Wii Music? This is where we unleashed the Bowser inside us and proclaim the selection a little limited. There's a high number, over 50, to choose from but there's a feeling of too many public-domain hits and a lot less video game melodies. There doesn't necessarily need to be rock anthems and disco-floor classics, but with many of the sounds being some themes you'd rather not hear it does restrict the line-up a fair bit. Here's hoping for a load more Zelda, Mario songs and some from lesser known franchises.