It's been a long and rocky road to retail for Wii Music. One of the first games announced alongside the Wii, it was briefly demonstrated by Shigeru Miyamoto at E3 in 2006, as he conducted a virtual orchestra by waving the remote controller. The performance was given a rapturous reception by the attendant journalists, and convinced many gamers of the revolutionary nature of Wii.
Just over two years later, and how times have changed. Nintendo's rather successful courting of the casual gamer demographic has led to murmurings of discontent to say the least from the company's core fanbase, many expressing dissatisfaction at the apparent lack of games catering to their particular needs. The nadir for most was this year's E3 conference, where Nintendo used its press briefing to demonstrate three major releases, all of which seemed better suited to its expanded audience rather than the self-proclaimed 'hardcore'.
While Wii Sports Resort and Animal Crossing: Let's Go To The City were greeted with mild disappointment, the real vitriol was reserved for Wii Music, with an uncharacteristically weak if enthusiastic - demonstration of this non-game leading to many internet in-jokes, animated GIFs and declarations that Nintendo had either "lost it" or "sold out". Indeed, even some critics were vociferous in their condemnation of Wii Music US site IGN memorably claiming that, based on its hands-on impressions at E3, it was looking at a score of 2/10 (the site eventually and rather grudgingly - settled on 5/10 for its review of the finished product).
The problem with Wii Music is that it's a very difficult product to effectively demonstrate 'playing is believing' might be a clichι, but it's an appropriate one in this case. Wii Music is essentially the antithesis of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. You don't follow note patterns as precisely as you're able to, you can't 'fail' a song, and you don't earn points for skilled playing. In fact, there aren't any traditional gaming rewards for a good performance.
Instead, Wii Music is its own reward the simple act of playing along to a given tune, by moving the Wii remote and/or nunchuk accordingly depending on the instrument you're holding. Piano-style instruments involve downward motions of either or both controllers, guitars see you holding the nunchuk as the neck while the remote strums; you can play a violin with the remote as a bow, while detaching the nunchuk allows you to hold the remote like a wind instrument, with the 1 and 2 buttons used to play notes. Further complexities are added with note modifiers using alternative button or stick inputs, but for the most part you can make something which sounds halfway decent by simply shaking or pressing in time with the music.
It's theoretically impossible to play a bum note in Wii Music no matter when you shake or tap, the sound you play will fit with the key of the song in question. This might suggest that Wii Music is entirely lacking in challenge; not true. You only need to witness the cacophonies created by the IGN team and the presenters on ABC news as proof that it takes skill to create something listenable. Not that that's the point of Wii Music. The joy is in the creative aspect with over sixty instruments available, Wii Music actively encourages you to record your own personal take on the fifty provided songs. Fancy giving Twinkle Twinkle Little Star a reggae tinge? You can. Think Eine Kleine Nachtmusik needs a beatbox backing? No problem.
Sony's LittleBIGPlanet promises to let gamers 'play, create, share', but that motto could equally apply to Wii Music, although here the first two are intertwined. Playing is creating, making the process swifter and a whole lot more entertaining than LBP's complex level crafting. And though you might not think the results would be as rewarding, you've obviously not nailed a perfect electronica remix of the F-Zero theme.
And if you're not up to tackling all six parts of a song, then you can rely on the assistance of the Tutes tiny musical helpers resembling Sesame Street puppets, who provide effective backing.
The knowledge that, even with little musical skill, you can simply follow the notes of a song fairly accurately and not be punished for missing your cues means that many are likely to indulge their inner artist potentially many more than with the convoluted studio setup on Guitar Hero: World Tour. The simplicity of sharing songs helps although it's a great shame you can't upload songs online, you'll be able to swap compositions with those on your Wii Friends list simply by attaching it to a message. You're alerted instantly when the game starts up if you've received a new song, and from there you can upload their jam to listen to or play over using it either as inspiration for your own creative endeavours, or simply to correct any mistakes they've made.
Wii Music isn't without its problems. The three minigames provided are a little lacking. The orchestra conducting of that early E3 demo resurfaces here as Wii Maestro, while a handbell-ringing diversion offers some short-lived multiplayer fun both suffer from only having five songs to play along to. The third offers something a little more educational, asking you to recognise the pitch of notes played by various Mii characters, but this seems almost patronisingly easy. The virtual drumkit offers balance board support for those who own Wii Fit, but in requiring simultaneous motions and button inputs, it feels counter-intuitive, particularly as you're hitting thin air rather than the drum pads of a Rock Band or a Guitar Hero.
Meanwhile, the tracklist offers some classic Nintendo tunes and a few more contemporary numbers, but it's mostly public domain stuff mixed with a handful of classical pieces. It's not as big an issue as you might think the songs are kept simple in order to maximise the potential for experimentation, and almost all are more enjoyable to play than to listen to - but downloadable songs or instruments would definitely ease that particular pain. "No plans right now," says Nintendo hopefully that will change in the near future. The controls sometimes lack consistency, too. A slightly feeble movement can result in a missed note, while vigorous motions occasionally register as two notes or beats far from ideal when you're attempting to master the percussion instruments. Yet this last issue is easily overcome by ensuring your movements are more regimented and you can always argue that mastering the controls effectively mimics the difficulties inherent in learning a real instrument.
Ostensibly all too simplistic, Wii Music is undoubtedly a product with significant hidden depths. When you consider that each and every song needs to cater for any potential controller input at any time, you begin to realise that this is no throwaway plaything, but an elegantly designed creative tool that just happens to be a lot of fun. Far from the disaster some were predicting, and clearly worthy of a more substantial time investment than some critics are willing to give, Wii Music might not achieve the sales success of Wii Sports, Play and Fit, but it deserves to be treated with respect as a superior example of a mass market-friendly play experience that offers rich rewards to those prepared to give it a chance.