One summer, when I was elementary-school age, my neighbors and I built guitars and keyboards out of scrap wood, painted them in bright colors, and formed the cover band Lil' "D" Duran Duran. We didn't make our own noise or even pretend to play our fake instruments. We merely had props to stand in for the real thing; it gave us something to do with our arms. We made no effort to look like the members of Duran Duran or to emulate their glamorous pop-star world. Instead, with mutts and thumb-sucking siblings as our audience, we jumped and pranced around to their songs as they emanated from a boombox in the backyard.
That's what I thought of the first time I played Nintendo's new game Wii Music. Unlike Rock Band and Guitar Hero, where the fun is derived from living inside of and paying tribute to a world you already know, Wii Music is about invention, deconstruction, and imagination—which is to say it is more childlike, and I don't mean that in a bad way. Wii Music barely borrows from the codified and iconic images associated with music. For one thing, your Mii (the avatar you create to represent yourself in the game) has mallets instead of hands, a pair of harmless, fingerless spheres. This roundness is your first clue at how gentle Wii Music is. Not surprisingly for a game designed by Shigeru Miyamoto—the creator of Super Mario Bros.—the figures are diminutive and huggable and about as threatening as a cotton ball.
In Rock Band and Guitar Hero, you learn to master fake versions of real instruments—a plastic, guitar-shaped controller stands in for an electric guitar. In Wii Music, the regular game controllers are re-imagined as 66 different instruments: piano, drums, guitar, trumpet, xylophone, cowbell, harp, marimba, and so on. To play the guitar, you simply hold the Wii Nunchuk as if it were the neck and strum with the Wiimote in your other hand. To play the trumpet, you hold the controller up to your mouth and press the buttons to change notes; moving it up and down increases the volume. The broader strokes, like guitar strumming, are instinctive. The flourishes—tremolo, muting, pitch bending—take a bit more memorization and coordination.
Initially, I did miss the weight of even a pretend instrument. Wii Music aims more for essence than verisimilitude, which takes some mental adjustment with a video game. There is no toy guitar to sling over your back, no four-piece drum kit replete with a kick pedal to sit behind (though the Wii does have a drum pad, sold separately). Much of Wii Music, then, involves learning—or relearning—how to play air versions of everything from the clarinet to vibes. (You'll have a leg up on the air horns if you're a fan of Kenny G. or Gerry "Baker Street" Rafferty.) Yet after a while, I stopped worrying about what my arms—flailing around, sans instrument—might look like to my neighbors or to my pets. I mean, if I'm only playing virtual cello anyhow, do I really need to be holding something that looks like one?
Another difference between Wii Music and other games of its ilk is that the most interesting stuff happens on-screen. Look down, and you don't appear to be playing the banjo—all you're doing is waving your hand back and forth a few inches from your stomach. Look at the screen, though, and you're changing notes, and they all seem to be the right ones. The tactile experience gives way to the virtual—with Wii Music, watching might even be more fun than doing.
If you're playing the game by yourself, as I was for the most part, you'll spend a lot of time with the Tutes. These guys (and gal) are your backup band, or you are theirs. They each have their musical specialty—percussion, bass, keys, etc.—and are well-versed in all the genres. (Wii Music lets you play in a multitude of different styles, from rock to pop to march to Latin to electronic to Japanese.) When the Tutes finish a song, they throw back their heads in convulsive glee no matter how expertly or poorly you played. Like watching Kristen Wiig's "Target Lady" on Saturday Night Live, you're filled with a vague dread despite being in the presence of happiness.
If you can get past the Tutes, the game's biggest limitation is the lack of song choices. You're pretty much stuck with "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" until you complete a few lessons and make a couple of videos, thus unlocking more options. (The game lets you play along with around 30 songs total, including public-domain tracks like "Yankee Doodle," Nintendo songs like the Super Mario Bros. theme, and licensed music like the Monkees' "Daydream Believer.") Then again, you haven't truly experienced "Twinkle, Twinkle …" until you hear it in the style of reggae. Some of my early Wii performances warranted an apology to an entire genre. Dear classical music, I have failed you. Dear reggae, forgive me; I don't even deserve my Augustus Pablo albums anymore.