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.
After you complete a song, the game's narrator and teacher, Maestro, asks whether you'd like to save the performance as a video; you do, but only because it's a requirement if you want to reveal more sections of the game. The process of making these videos is complicated by the fact that you have to rate your own performance. I was flummoxed by this proposition. I went to a liberal arts college wherein grading was qualitative and we had to write our own evaluations. I'm over it. Give me a grade, Nintendo! Yes, I understand that the game is implying that my feelings about my own performance are what's most important. But if I know I'm not being scored, why try? Oh, right—for the fun of it. In the gaming world, I want to be scored—or at least to be held back until I've earned the right to proceed; it gives me an incentive to try again (and again). Plus, Maestro always responds to your self-evaluation—no matter whether it's one or 100—with the same words: the ambiguous and slightly passive-aggressive "I see." All in all, this existential crisis is a lot to inflict when all you really want to do is unlock more songs.
Far more pleasant is the Lessons mode, in which you break each song into parts—percussion, rhythm, chords, melody, etc. While practicing, I discovered what I knew already: I am a horrible bass player. Each time the instrument came up in the arrangement section, I was forced to practice the sequence over and over with my bass instructor—who looks like Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age—telling me to relax and let go. I finally did, after being berated for about 10 minutes.
After my torturous practice session, I was allowed to play the whole song. As I progressed from one instrument to another, the Wii saved my performances and inserted them into the jam. I didn't realize this at first and kept wondering why my Tutes backup band was getting worse with each pass of the song. But I soon realized that all of the musicians looked like my Mii. It became nearly impossible to lay down a guitar part when my previous drummer-self kept dropping the beat and making the tempo go from emo to hard-core in a single measure. I did, however, excel at the galactic horn, mostly because it provided the song's melody and thus allowed me to improvise. When I watched my video later, I was a little jealous of the "Carrie" band member who got to play the galactic horn. And I thought everyone else in the band sucked.
(As a side note, I began to realize that my performances on each instrument were executed as if in character. My bassist, for instance, always wanted more airtime and would inevitably—and accidentally—play a few extra notes or, shall I say, a solo at the end of each jam session. My guitar player preferred jumping to hitting the right chords. My tambourine player lacked subtlety and was the loudest thing on stage.)
I found the Jam mode most rewarding, particularly the section known as Jam Mastery. (I couldn't help wishing that this had something to do with the Grateful Dead. It doesn't.) You start by choosing a genre—say, electronic—and the game breaks down the style into an arrangement, and from there into the instruments that make up the arrangement. In this case: turntable, hand claps, galactic bass, galactic piano, and galactic guitar. (In the realm of Wii Music, galactic is a more benign, kid-friendly word for trippy.) You can customize the jams by removing specific instruments—making the songs minimal or flush, depending on your taste or mood. My Tutes and I played the Police's "Every Breath You Take" on only piano, bass, tambourine, and harmonica (my instrument of choice for this tune). I removed the drums and guitar, which is what Sting would have done, too.
Once you unlock the advanced stages and get deeper into the game, there is plenty of experimentation and frivolity to be had. Picking a dog suit as my "instrument" and making my character emit a high-pitched bark while a guy played bass and another drums was the closest I've ever come to being a performance artist. Other highlights included playing "Frère Jacques" in an electronic arrangement while speeding down the highway on the back of a flatbed truck (the game allows you to play on "stages" ranging from atop a birthday cake to floating in outer space); "Do-Re-Mi" re-imagined as a rock song; Wham's "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go"—my first and last foray into jazz drumming; and Madonna's "Material Girl"—yep, that's me again on galactic horn, and I'm available for gigs. And I did discover a way to make your Mii gain the use of its hands. Select hand claps as an instrument, and two oversize, multifingered appendages appear and look like they're about to make you Hamburger Helper. Oh, "the Rapper" instrument also has hands, which are covered in gold rings.
At its best, Wii Music draws you into the conventions of music while simultaneously allowing, even daring you to break them. Putting a cheerleader, a black-belt karate master, and a cat in the "instrument" section goes a long way toward helping you find music and melody in the commonplace and where it's least expected. But the game doesn't go far enough; despite exalting creativity, you still feel more like an audience member than a band member—on the sidelines, watching yourself on-screen, where it seems like you're having more fun. The game shows you a fantastical sonic world but falls short of letting you invent your own. Instead, one's enjoyment of Wii Music must exist in the mock creation, in the augmenting of your own imagination. Wii Music elevates the scope of music video games by moving beyond commentary on what music is—as Rock Band and Guitar Hero do—to suggesting what it could be. Yet I'm still left wondering: Couldn't it be more?