I’m awesome at the hand jive.
In fact, I’m pretty darned good at a lot of the so-called “special” moves in the “Dancing with the Stars” game for the Wii. I can Locomotion, I can Mashed Potato, and yes, I can do the Twist. I’m hitting the basic steps most of the time, and nailing the little “flair” steps that make the crowd go wild.
So, even though I have nearly zero ballroom-dancing experience — except a much-rehearsed fox-trot at my wedding — I’m cruising through as an amateur in the “Dancing with the Stars” game. OK, I had to dance the waltz a few times before I got my requisite 20 points from the three-judge panel. But I’ve unlocked several “celebrity” couples (more on that in a minute) and earned a couple of trophies.
Here’s the thing, though: “Dancing with the Stars” isn’t measuring my dancing ability. This is a rhythm game that owes more to “Guitar Hero” than “Dance Dance Revolution.” To play, you flick your Wii remote and Nunchuk in the directions indicated by the icons that scroll across the bottom of the screen. There is a PlayStation 2 version that comes with a dance pad, a la “Dance Dance Revolution,” but with the Wii version, “Dancing with the Stars” is more about quick reflexes than dancing chops.
As such, you can theoretically “dance” from your sofa. I’ve decided to go legit, and play standing up. I think it helps to put a little hip into my Wii gestures and do the “Stir it Up” like my life depended on it. My scores are routinely better than my husband’s, who patently refuses to sway in time to the music. I’m owning him on this game.
I do notice, though, that even if I walk away from the game while it’s in progress, as I did once, my on-screen likeness just keeps on waltzing like I was hitting all my cues perfectly. That’s pretty sloppy game-making, in my opinion. One of the things I like about other rhythm games like “Guitar Hero” and “Elite Beat Agents” is that if I stumble, so too does my avatar onscreen.
Full disclosure: I’ve never seen the hit ABC show. So maybe the crowd does cheer you even when you miss 13 tango steps in a row. Maybe the judges, Carrie Ann Inabe, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli, really are as forgiving in real life as they are in the game.
To find out, I looped in Ree Hines, our “Dancing with the Stars” expert, to get the low-down on how the game stacks up against the hugely popular TV show.
Me: So, I’m totally doing awesome on this game. I’ve got it set to amateur, and I’m playing as Cheryl Burke and dancing with Emmitt Smith, and we’re just blowing past the judges.
Ree: Oh, I so want to be a virtual size-two, hip swinging Cheryl Burke. How do they look? Is pixilated Cheryl still the hottie fans love? Does Emmitt look like a big ol’ tower of brawn?
Me: The Emmitt in the game doesn’t look much like the real-life Emmitt. He's kind of skinny.
Ree: Hmm. How about the others? Are they at least cartoon-cute?
Me: Well…Joey Lawrence was vacant-eyed and scary and was wearing a split-to-navel shirt.
Ree: Ack! I’ll try not to picture that. So how challenging is it so far? If you’re at the amateur setting, I’d guess you’re starting out on par with the celeb soft-shoe newbies.
Me: Yeah! I’m having a pretty easy time of it.
Ree: That doesn’t sound right. Unless you were born to ballroom, this should kick your backside a bit. On the show the stars dedicate a lot of time to moaning about their sore bodies and how much weight they’ve lost.
Me: There is a professional setting…
Ree: Well, then to crank it up to pro and feel the ballroom-burn!
So, I went home, set the difficulty to professional, and prepared to get my clock cleaned. Which I sort of did. But not because the footwork got that much trickier — I noticed maybe a slight uptick in the difficulty level and the dance speed. What kept me dancing the same stupid waltz over and over was that I now needed a higher score — 24 total to advance. That means impressing Carrie Ann, who is a real stickler for perfection. Back to Ree.
Me: OK, so now it’s harder. Carrie Ann won’t give me anything higher than an eight. But then she’ll tell me that we’re “so sexy out there.” What the hell does that mean?
Ree: It means she knows squat about the waltz. Just do what the TV viewers do: talk back to the screen! Remind Carrie Ann that she’s a former Fly Girl and knows less about ballroom moves than Tom Bergeron. It won’t do any good, but it’s oddly satisfying. What’s head judge Len like?
Me: He’ll say something like “Sometimes, you seem to have lost the shape of your body” and then give me an eight out of 10. I don’t know how to parse that information.
Ree: Abstract advice followed by a decent score? Sounds about right. And, hey, if you give a performance worth about a six and he gives you an eight, it’s almost like you’re a real celebrity. Dare I ask about Bruno?
Me: He always gives me high scores. But he also says strange things, like “That dance was like a fruit cocktail. You threw everything in!”
Ree: Ah, Bruno, bless him. Just like in real life he’ll give glowing praise if for no other reason than to make himself sound snappy and cool. You go, Virtual Bruno!
I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but “Dancing with the Stars” is kind of fun. I can see putting this in at a party or mixed-age gathering and it being a real hoot. Even my husband, whose tastes run to twitchy first-person shooters and zany Nintendo games, played a few rounds with me.
To its credit, “Dancing with the Stars” has a really easy learning curve. It’s best to try a few practice rounds to get the hang of it, and definitely read the enclosed handbook. The fact that the amateur setting is so easy is pretty indicative that the target audience here is not the hardcore gamer.
And good thing, too: If I were to review this with my gamer glasses on, I’d really hate this game. The graphics are pretty bad. The characters are glassy-eyed and stiff, and afflicted with unfortunate computer-generated hair that looks like sea kelp undulating underwater. The controls are flaky — sometimes the system didn’t pick up my movements at all.
But maybe that won’t matter to the target audience for this game, which is, according to Activision, the fans of the show. Again I turned to Ree to tell me whether she thought the game I described might be a hit with the hardcore “Dancing” audience.
Me: So, the characters don’t look like the real-life people, you don’t really get to dance and the game in basic mode is just that, pretty basic. What do you think?
Ree: Honestly, I think most fans will pass on this. Sure, the show is cheesy and fun, but it’s also about shimmering glamour and “the dance.” Sounds like the game lacks those elements. I’m going to say this is more suited for the mega-fans — the folks who want everything related to “Dancing with the Stars.” They have the t-shirts, the programs from the touring show, the Emmit Smith bobblehead doll and, now, a mildly amusing, memorabilia-worthy Wii game.