Saturday, November 21, 2009

Videogame Classics - Wii Music

Wii Music is spectacular, incredibly rich and deep, and arguably the most revolutionary videogame since Super Mario Brothers. In time, it may well be seen as Shigeru Miyamoto's "lost masterpiece."  It's difficult to describe it accurately to someone at first, and there is a learning curve until you "get it." It helps tremendously if you are a creative type. But this is perfectly normal and to be expected; this is not a "music rhythm" game at all, but the next evolutionary step in the Music Game.

I think you definitely need to sit someone down and show them what Wii Music is really about. The Wii Sports graphics and motion controls give the impression that you're dealing with a simplistic child's toy, a glorified baby rattle. The reality is about as far from that stereotype as you can imagine, but that tremendous depth is hidden below the surface. It's kind of like the original Super Mario Bros in 1985. At first glance, it just looks like another side-scrolling arcade shooter. But then some curious or lucky kid discovers hidden pipe rooms, coin boxes buried in the walls, 1UP mushrooms, minus world, and warp zones. The game then becomes a completely different experience.

It's the very same with Wii Music. This is a game about live performance, about learning music theory, about composition and song structure, about group dynamics, and most importantly, about improvisation. This is the revolutionary break, and it affects absolutely everything. The 60 instruments can be mixed and matched in any combination. Songs can be played in any number of styles. You can change the tempo of the songs. And you can play the instruments any way you wish.

Think of it as multiple skill levels. Level 1 is just shaking the Wiimote on Improv mode, banging at the cowbell for kicks. Level 2 is learning to play the songs perfectly, matching the beats and rhythms like the old rhythm music style. Level 3 is learning to improvise, learning to create solos, leads, learning to hold and bend notes, and working together as a group.

I think if you make it to Level 3, you've done very well. You will have learned a lot of music theory, especially if you take the music lessons. And it takes a lot of practice to become skilled. Just like real music. Pretty soon, you'll start wondering what will happen if you swapped instruments around, or changed the tempo. Should I use a beatbox and rapper for percussion on the Animal Crossing theme? What can I use with steel drums on the Super Mario theme?

Then you start re-arranging the parts. You add in pauses and breaks, space for the drummer to play four beats after the verse, space in the middle for that trumpet solo you've been practicing for. I think I'll play the F-Zero theme with a guitar solo, and then cut out and bring in the rapper. Or maybe three singers for the classical songs.

Finally, you dig deep enough and reach Level 4 - Wii Music Nirvana. Now you are no longer playing and improvising the existing songs. Now you will rip out the parts, reinvent the beats, and create a completely new song - a strange mutated beast. Now you're in the Wii Music Minus World, my friend. "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" has been turned into space techno with galactic trumpet. "Ode to Joy" has been turned into Sgt. Pepper. "Frere Jacques" has been turned into Radiohead trip-hop. "F-Zero" has been turned into some fusion of Miles Davis and Metallica. And everything has been turned into Public Enemy.

Wii Music is not random waggling. There is nothing random about Wii Music. There are, in fact, two competing musical scales for every song. There are the "official" notes for the melody, harmony, rhythm, and bass (two percussion spaces fill out the six tracks). Then there is a second set of notes, the "improv"scale, for all four parts. You can weave back and forth on your instrument at will, sometimes weaving between chords and notes.

And then there are the drums. The drum kits are based on the song's "official" rhythm when using standard controls. If you just want to follow the beat, you'll get a good sound. Now add the Wii Balance Board...and the drums are now opened up to you. I don't mean you get more beats or rhythms. I mean that you have a complete virtual drum set, and you have complete freedom to create whatever the hell you want.

The old rhythm music genre has just been smashed to bits. Wii Music lets you goof off, play songs, remix, mutate, and improvise. Your imagination is the only limit. Rock Band lets you press buttons. Guitar Hero lets you press buttons.  The next generation of Music Games will allow you to create.

If you're still skeptical, that's perfectly alright. Come to Youtube and I'll prove it. Watch Wassi JJ's videos. Watch Alasted's videos. Watch Tirelat's videos. Watch 3GAAC's videos. Shigeru Miyamoto is universally hailed as the world's greatest videogame designer for a reason, kids. He has revolutionized the medium countless times. It's what he does.  Yes, Wii Music is Shigeru Miyamoto's latest vanity piece.  I will not dispute that.  But don't let vanity stand in the way of greatness.

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