I fondly remember the first time I played piano. I was a little kid, I saw a piano and I started pressing keys. It was awesome; you could roll your hands over the bottom keys to make the sound of thunder or drag your hands along the keys and listen to the notes get higher and higher. I had no idea what I was doing, but it sounded really cool.
Nintendo’s Wii Music fills a similar role, allowing players without skill or musical knowledge to feel they are playing something cool. But while a piano is fun for both a rambunctious child and a musical prodigy, Wii Music has given all it has to give within two hours.
How To Play the Game: Gesticulate
In the game, the player holds the Wii remote and the nunchuk in a manner reminiscent of holding an instrument. To play piano, you hold your hands as though they were hovering over a keyboard, while playing violin involves holding one hand out in front of you while making a bowing motion with the other.
Playing a song involves nothing more than moving your hands. You don’t even need to move them in strong rhythm with the song, as the game will interpret random movements as rhythmic variations.
As an example, the first song you can play is Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star (which as it happens is the first song I learned to play on violin when I was a kid). An indicator shows you when to move your hand. If when “twink” comes along you hit three notes instead of one, it will simply give you a fancier version of the song. Depending on your rhythm, you can make the song jazzy or, by leaving out some notes, slow and dreamy.
This is undeniably clever. Without a scintilla of musical talent, you can sound like you’re playing a song, and if you have even the vaguest sense of rhythm you can sound like you’re playing variations on a theme.
But you’re not. You’re waving your hands in the air while the game does 90% of the work for you.
What You Can Do With It: Not Much
Certainly, Nintendo has done everything they can with this simple concept. You can play a song with friends, each of you miming a different instrument, or you can play one instrument on a song, then play again using a different instrument along with your previous performance, and keep doing that until you have a quintet version of Twinkle Twinkle or some other simple song with you on all the instruments.
There are also three mini-games. You can conduct an orchestra, which, like everything else, involves waving your hands around. This isn’t as much fun as playing solo, because you can’t do as much in terms of variations. There’s also a difficult but unsatisfactory game in which you must ring handbells in time with onscreen prompts.
The most interesting of the mini-games is “Pitch Perfect,” which requires the player to do various things such as indicate which notes will create a particular harmony or figure out which of a group of musicians is playing the wrong note. While I found it too easy to be a lot of fun, it at least seems like something that could teach a young child a little about music.
There is very little reason to buy Wii Music. The game would probably be fun for very young children, but a child old enough to be trusted with the Wii is old enough to be handed a toy instrument. You can buy a toy piano for less than Wii Music, and I believe learning to play a musical instrument is not only better for a child than random arm waving but also more interesting and fun.
Summary: Buy Something Else
While I have read about the critical antipathy to Wii Music, I didn’t understand the depth of that disdain until I played it myself. It’s not that it isn’t any fun at all; it is kind of enjoyable for an hour, and if you are five years old it might be entertaining for a couple of days. But it is not a game; music games like Guitar Hero 3 or Rock Band offers challenge and require actual skill; this is what gives a game longevity.
If Nintendo sees the Wii as a venue for overpriced activity software then I worry for the console’s future. The Wii needs fun games, not clever toys.
The first time I played a piano, I didn’t get to play for very long; I think the adults in the room weren’t quite as entranced with my musical stylings as I was. But later on I took piano lessons, and eventually learned to play a number of instruments. I even spent a few years playing guitar and singing in clubs.
If you want to play a fun music game, try Guitar Hero or Rock Band. If you want to raise a child to learn about music, buy a toy piano or a harmonica or even a kazoo. If you want to raise a child whose idea of playing music is to sit in front of a TV while randomly moving body parts, Wii Music hits all the right notes.