Wii Music is one of those releases that a lot of people didn’t pick up back in the day, primarily due to its mediocre critical response.
At least part of this was down to the (not entirely unreasonable) assumption that it would be a traditional “game” of some description — or at the very least a collection of minigames, as with the other titles in the Wii [x] series from Nintendo. But it’s actually something rather different.
And take the time to engage with it on its own terms and you’ll find something both entertaining and educational. Let’s take a closer look.
For those of you who aren’t aware, I am a trained, qualified and experienced music teacher, both in one-to-one and classroom situations. I don’t do that as my job any more — there’s better money and job security in typing things into websites — but by golly, firing up Wii Music for the first time in 2018 really makes me wish I’d had the opportunity to make use of it as a teaching aid back in the day. Not because it does anything as grandiose as actually, properly teaching you an instrument — but because it’s built on a solid foundation of musical fundamentals, and spending a bit of time with it will do a great deal to develop your ear for music, your creativity and your confidence in improvisation.
Wii Music opens with an introduction from the software’s “host”, Sebastian Tute. The Tutes are the flappy-mouthed, Muppet-esque characters also seen in titles such as Wii Party U, and they’re rather endearing. The software also makes use of the Miis saved on your console both as player avatars and audience members in the various performance areas, but the Tutes are designed in a visually distinct manner to make it clear that they are there to help and advise.
Sebastian explains how the software works by demonstrating and inviting you to experiment with the various different ways you will use the Wii Remote and Nunchuk to produce instrument sounds. In each case, these act as a rough approximation of what you would do to play a real version of the instrument in question, though with the lack of precision in the Wii’s motion sensing hardware (particularly in the pre-MotionPlus era) I really do mean “approximation”.
That doesn’t really matter, though, because Wii Music isn’t about teaching you the correct embouchure to play a woodwind instrument, or proper fingering technique for piano, or even how to accurately hit the right drums on a rock kit. Instead, it’s about having fun with music; it’s one of the purest examples of Nintendo letting loose and making something that, rather than being a conventional “game”, is very much a toybox designed to be experimented and played with.
Once the brief initial tutorial is over, you are invited to check out the “Jam” section of the software. This has two main components: Improvise allows you to pick an instrument and then just do whatever you feel like with it, while Jam either allows you to let the game pick a song and style for you to play, or for you to fully customise the performance you would like to give.
Improvise is a good way to get a feel for the various instruments and how they respond to your movements and button presses. There’s no set melody or backing track in this component; instead, you begin performing by yourself, but the longer your improvisation goes on and the more lively it is, the more Tutes will join in to produce a backing track. It’s oddly mesmerising and addictive to just produce music with a wave of your hand or the push of a button — but it also doesn’t take long for even the most musically illiterate to realise that you can’t just waggle wildly and expect things to sound good. Once the Tutes join in, most people will start to get a natural “feel” for the rhythms that will sound good, and because the gestures required to get a noise out of the various “instruments” are no more complicated than drumming your fingers on a table, there’s no real barrier to entry; anyone can improvise something that sounds good.
Jam, meanwhile, is further subdivided into two modes. Quick Jam causes the game to randomly pick a song, style and instrument lineup, while Custom Jam allows you to take full control over the performance you’re about to give — though a number of elements and options remain “locked” until you’ve reached a certain number of milestones throughout the software as a whole.
Either way, Jam involves you taking on a specific part of a pre-composed piece of music rather than the freeform chaos of Improvise, and you have the option of either sticking to an on-screen rhythm chart to produce a conventional performance of the song, or freestyling a bit to put your own twist on things. Inserting additional notes that aren’t present in the note chart works much like Improvise does; the game automatically picks notes and harmonies that will sound good with the rest of the song, so there’s no real way to play a “wrong note”, but again, timing and rhythm remain important.
Once a performance is completed, you can watch it back as a video, or overdub the other parts while the piece you just recorded plays back. In this way, you can ultimately create your own completely custom performance of a song with all the parts played by you — or alternatively, you can play with up to three other people, with each taking on a different part simultaneously. Once you’re satisfied with how your performance sounds, you can save the resulting video and create a cover for it by posing the various participating Miis or Tutes on top of a static background and frame. Upon the game’s original release, it was even possible to share these videos with friends, but with the death of Nintendo’s Wi-Fi Connection service, this is no longer possible. It’s still something you’ll want to do, however, because the more videos you make, the more content you unlock.
Besides the Jam section, there are also a series of lessons that unlock that give you some suggestions on rhythms that sound good for the various parts in the different styles of music available, and three excellent minigames.
The first of these is designed to encourage two important musical skills: a sense of solid timing, and an understanding of expression. You take on the role of an orchestral conductor, and conduct your musicians’ performance by waving the Wii Remote like a baton, with the exact way you wave it determining certain aspects of the performance. Wave it with strong, large movements and the orchestra will perform loudly; wave it gently and they will perform softly. You can also press buttons to indicate particular “accents” in the music, but using this too frequently will exhaust the performers. At the end of the song, you are given a score based on how well you kept in time and how well you followed the suggestions the game gives for expression and dynamics.
The second game involves ringing handbells, and is probably the closest Wii Music gets to a conventional music game. Up to four simultaneous players hold two coloured bells each, with one controlled by shaking the Nunchuk and the other controlled with a flick of the Wii Remote. Once the song begins, coloured bell icons scroll across the screen, and it’s up to you to ring the appropriate bells when indicated. This game has a good amount of customisation to it — you can adjust the tempo and complexity of the song, and also switch whether the song carries on when you make a mistake, or if it waits for you.
The final game is basically an aural test. You’re presented with a series of questions and tasked with moving Miis around to answer them. These start pretty simple — “pick the Mii that is playing the same note as the speaker” — but get more complex over time, with challenges such as identifying the “mood” of a short music phrase, or arranging Miis on a piano roll-like grid to ensure they are playing the correct pitch at the correct time. This part in particular is a great way to develop some solid musical skills that are of benefit to anyone, regardless of the instrument they favour.
There’s no real end goal to Wii Music beyond unlocking everything, but it’s just a lot of fun to play with, particularly if you get some friends or family members involved, both for the Jam sessions and the minigames. It’s well-presented with that crisp, clear and distinctive Wii [x] series aesthetic throughout — though it might perhaps have been nice to hear some more authentic instrument sounds rather than the MIDI patches the software makes use of — and is extremely welcoming to anyone, regardless of skill level. And best of all, it’ll teach you musical skills without you realising.
It’s not a “real game”, no, but then it was never trying to be. And if you come into it with the right mindset — rather than approaching it with the assumption that it is “a joke” or “stupid”, as some reviewers did back in 2008 — you’ll have a great time with it. It’s a shame that critical reception was so muted back on its original release, because it makes it pretty unlikely we’ll ever see anything quite like it again.
Still, in many ways that makes Wii Music itself all the more valuable. So if you have the slightest interest in just playing music — and playing with music — it’s definitely worth a place in your collection.
More about Wii Music
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